With more and more artists abandoning all forms of marketing and deciding to drop their albums unannounced, we decided to explore the risks and the gains for all those who have taken the plunge.
Nowadays, the phrase “pulling a Beyoncé” has become synonymous with the act of releasing an album via an unexpected or unconventional strategy. As the standard model of releasing a record begins to show its age and major labels become less and less profitable, recording artists are looking for ways to bring their work to market entirely by themselves. This often means no announcements, no teasers, no trailers – no marketing campaign whatsoever.
Increasingly, artists are disassembling the old power structures that they no longer need and re-appropriating the promotional side of their work. By self-releasing their music, supporters argue that musicians like Beyoncé have been able to redefine the playing field on their own terms – something that’s becoming all the more important in an age where sales are dropping all the time. Bored by one-size-fits-all marketing campaigns, both fledgling acts and super rich stars are turning toward the DIY approach, and the world is taking notice.
While (within the mainstream media at least) Queen Bey is hailed as the brave trendsetter for such tactics, many other musicians have dabbled in this territory before. Radiohead are no stranger to experimenting with methods of music distribution; they started their career releasing on the legendary Parlophone (a subsidiary of EMI/Capitol Records), but split with them in 2007 and have since explored a range of tactics when it comes to monetising their music. Most recently, Thom Yorke made the decision to release his surprise sophomore solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes via BitTorrent – a bold peer-to-peer tactic that cut out the “bad guy” record label. It was an unconventional choice, but one certainly in keeping with the band’s trajectory: 2011’s The King of Limbs was released a day earlier than publicly announced, while In Rainbows’ pay-what-you-want strategy in 2007 landed more sales than many of their previous albums.
Though in no way musically comparable, EDM producer Skrillex similarly released his third album without prior announcement via a specially designed app. Other artists to surreptitiously drop albums with little or no notice include David Bowie (his first in ten years), My Bloody Valentine (their first in 22), Justin Timberlake, Death Grips and Four Tet; similarly, Frank Ocean is among those artists to drop their LP before the scheduled release date, and only recently did Prince release not one but two new records via Spotify.
Other unusual marketing tactics to have been used recently include Beck releasing a sheet music album in 2012, Matthew Herbert recording his latest album within a public workshop, U2 releasing an album for free just last month via iTunes (a move that was met with scathing comments and the dubious honor of “America’s most hated band“) and the debacle around Jai Paul’s was-it-or-was-it-not-leaked album at exactly the same time as Daft Punk’s hugely anticipated fourth album. Death Grips, meanwhile, became an Internet favorite after they released The Money Store a day before its official release date, while their uploading of No Love Deep Web to the TOR Network (the home of said Deep Web) resulted in one majorly pissed off record label and their subsequent dismissal from its roster.
While such stunts will almost always attract attention, more often that not it’s worth questioning the motives behind them. Record labels, despite providing much needed support to artists, are often publicly loathed, and a lot of them know this. As such, what can at first glance seem like a rebellious act of “sticking it to the man,” can itself be a carefully orchestrated marketing tactic – one that cashes in on the idea that anti-corporate retaliation can itself become profitable. After all, fans and critics love (or, at the very least, love-to-hate) the unpredictable nature of famous people.
So which side of the fence was Beyoncé’s release on? Empowered piece of self-determinism, or shrewd headline-grabbing anti-marketing tactic? At midnight on December 13, with no prior marketing, it went on to sell a record-breaking 928,000 copies in its first week. At the time it was the fastest-selling album worldwide in the iTunes store – a revelation that served only to highlight the underperformance of other, similar artists who had benefitted from major marketing campaigns. For example, Lady Gaga’s album began its marketing drive a full two years before its release, yet failed to match her earlier success, while Katy Perry’s latest album also sold severely less than her others despite a monumental promotional effort.
In this light, self-promotion would seem like a no-brainer. But is it a trick that will continue to yeild results? One major-label president, speaking anonymously, has commented, “this kind of event is territory for maybe 10 artists in the world.” While it’s unlikely Beyonce will ever get to play the same card twice, really this approach is nothing new. Smaller, upcoming artists often release music without marketing; in fact, not having a multimillion dollar PR campaign is the norm at this scale. What was noteworthy in Beyoncé’s case was that she chose not to go down that route, despite it being open to her. While the shock of that may have helped the release gain a few headlines, it’s doubtful that other artists of her size or stature will be able to emulate the move without being accused of copycat behaviour, even if Beyoncé wasn’t the first to try it herself.
Still, while it may be nothing new, the idea of artists reclaiming power from their labels is something that will no doubt be explored further in future, 0n both the mainstream and underground sides of the fence. That’s an important move for the industry, as it acknowledges the argument that it could be time for a change in the way albums are released. What remains to be seen is where people take it from here. What new structures will artists create in the search for new experimental release strategies, and to what extent will the concept become associated with developing technology?
In amongst all this, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the most important factor – the music. A press statement surrounding Beyoncé’s album noted, “stripped of gimmicks, teasers and marketing campaigns, this project is truly about art before hype.” But was it really? Having no strategy can also be a strategy – one that leads to hype of its own. When David Bowie released his surprise no-one-had-any-idea-he-was-even-recording album, The Guardian remarked that what’s being “celebrated [here is] the fact that an artist can surprise just by making an album.” Take a moment to consider what that really says about the industry: has hype has become the commodity itself, more so than the music?
Back when Radiohead launched their pay-what-you-want scheme, U2 frontman Bono praised the band for their imagination and courage, both of which he said “are in short supply right now.” These tactics, just like Beyoncé’s, were a move in the right direction, but one that was only slightly braver-than-average given both artists’ net worth, fan base and superstar status. While it’s important for acts to challenge the status quo, it’s just as important that the release strategy (or lack of it) doesn’t become more of a story than the music itself. After all, if the music doesn’t stand up on its own merit, then the hype’s not worth hearing.