The Drop Zone
The Art of the Surprise Album Release
IN this day and age, there is a split occurring right down the middle…
of music. Over the last few years, there has been a trend among mainstream artists: releasing albums with little or no warning. It is a way of shaking up convention and keeping fans on their toes; the question that remains is this: is it a sign of things to come? Of course, there are plenty of conventional released but the surprise release is proving to be hugely effective and popular. Frank Ocean’s hotly-anticipated album, Blond, has been dropped and took people by surprise. There has been long talk about when/what/how the album would come out; what it was going to be called (Boys Don’t Cry was the expected title) and whether it would be a natural progression to his debut, Channel Orange. Although Blond has been talked-about for a long time, nobody really knew when it was going to come – Ocean has been delaying it and creating a wave of hype and expectation. To preface the album: Ocean released the ‘visual album’ Endless: a solid and compelling work that left some amazed and others a little perplexed. Now Blond is out, it does make you wonder: is this going to be the norm for all forthcoming albums?
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, in itself, was a surprise drop and sort of blind-sided everyone. It is debatable whether the album would have created such an impact were it released through pre-planned, conventional methods. Beyoncé is another artist who has shunned tradition lately and embraced a more hush-hush method of marketing. In 2013, her self-titled fifth album was dropped with no build-up or knowledge – her own record company did not even know it was going to come out when it did. Not only was Beyoncé a return to form and bold declaration: it has inspired other artists to take the same sort of tact when it comes to bringing out their new albums. This year saw Lemonade released and led some to believe it was her pre-divorce, break-up album. Like Frank Ocean and Endless: Beyoncé released Lemonade as a visual album to start: there was no huge fanfare and its exact release date was subject to mystery and speculation. By ‘surprise’ release I mean one with no real announcement or E.T.A. date. I was taken aback when Lemonade came out and there was not the traditional P.R. assault and pre-release singles. Lemonade not only shows huge confidence, anger and authority from Beyoncé: the way it was brought about and promoted is almost as memorable and notable as the material within. You have to wonder whether mainstream artists will prefer this stratagem with regards their records. You cannot say Ocean’s enigmatic and cryptic what-if way of promotion has done him any harm. By tantilsing the public and unleashing an album without given due notice: you are going to get the sales figures high and people rushing out of sheer intrigue and shock factor. Is it a cynical marketing ploy or a way of shaking the industry up?
It is fair to say the surprise album release is not a fad of 2016. It has been happening for quite a few years but has become more prevalent and widespread the last year or so. Radiohead are no strangers to this way of working and started that ball rolling in 2007. One of the first bands to employ this tactic: In Rainbows arrived into the world with scant expectation and announcements. Their pay-as-you-like decision was applauded by many and was seen as groundbreaking and revolutionary. The King of Limbs, their 2011 L.P., was brought out without an official release date and the Oxford band showed, once more, they are the masters of catching you by surprise. Perhaps their most relieved and wonderful sneak-round-the-back album drops was this year’s masterpiece, A Moon Shaped Pool. There was Twitter talk and rumours the band was working on a new release. Between interviews, Instagram posts and oblique online messages: it was never certain whether something would come and if so, when that would occur. What Radiohead did this year, as opposed to their last two albums, was take the lights down and blank-out their online portfolio. Wiping everything clean, like the spotlights going out before a play starts, the band built tensions and got people scratching their heads. When first single Burn the Witch was introduced; we knew an album was coming: once more, they had created an inspirational and unexpected way of launching their album. It gets you speculating whether the band will ever release a new album in a traditional way again. It has certainly got people talking and the band seems bored at conventionality and a humdrum, P.R.-driven way of working. By getting people guessing and keeping them on their toes; it means mainstream music is never going to stagnate and be boring.
U2’s Songs of Innocence, Kaiser Chief’s The Future Is Medieval and David Bowie’s The Next Day were all shock and unpublished releases. The former was perhaps an unwelcomed thing (U2 putting their album onto iTunes users’ account against their will; forcing them to delete it or listen to the album) whereas Bowie’s The Next Day was his first record in a decade. In February 2015, Drake released If Youre Reading This Its Too Late, and ensured fans and music lovers clambered to the Internet to hear his music. Nobody knew it was due and the sheer surprise value saw the album accrue huge sales and recognition. It brings me back to the idea of cynicism and financial ploys. By bringing an album to public attention with little warning is a risky move but one that leads to huge aftershocks and attention. If Beyoncé or Radiohead went down the normal routes – release dates and single releases – we’d know when the album was out and it would seem rather normal and anticipated. Even if the music is fantastic, one wonders whether there would be such a media circus and spotlight put on them. Lemonade and A Moon Shaped Pool were introduced with a sense of theatre, showmanship and misdirection. Psychologically, people were hooked and waited with baited breath. When the albums came out, it can be argued that this mix of instant release and eye-catching pre-release added to the downloads and reviews – thus affording the artists more kudos and sales. There is the debate whether it is a way to attract bigger sales or whether it is musicians showing innovation and pushing the boundaries of modern music.
My final points look at the other side of the debate: what of the unsigned/new artists that have no choice but to go down the familiar, traditional route? Guerilla releases can be the start of things for artists. As Beyoncé (and many others have shown) it is just the start of a multi-part offensive. The digital/visual album comes out; it is then available to stream on iTunes and Google and paid subscription platforms. It is not a case of just dropping an album and letting people take it all in and make their own minds up. There is so much follow-up and compartmentalisation that gets that finished product out in the rather across all sites, sources and services. David Bowie, once more, released a surprise album very recently: his final creation, Blackstar, was unexpected as his untimely death. If he has announced the album release date and subjects it might have tipped people off about his death – something he wanted to keep a secret. I digress, but there is a rich and fascinating sub-culture happening that is deserving of discussion and debate. It gets me thinking about non-mainstream musicians who do not have these options. Imagine if a new Rock band from Liverpool released their debut E.P. with no announcements or singles? Just put it there and let people do all the legwork. The sort of backfire they would experience would probably ruin their careers. The modern-day musician is entrenched in a daily routine of interviews, promotion and touring. There is not the option to spend thousand on visual albums – most do not have the sort of money Frank Ocean does.
No modern, unsigned act could try anything as audacious, costly and brash. I review and follow bands as part of my journalism and know the tireless work they have to put in. So many have to call time because the rigours and lack of focus is killing their careers. There are so many acts out there and it seems space is a premium – reserved for the luckiest and hardest-working. In a digital age it brings a new problem to mind: how much revenue can a new musician realistically expect to mate? Gigs are the only effective and dependable way to earn a crust in the current scene. Sites like BandCamp, YouTube and SoundCloud make music accessible but, to the detriment of many, free of charge. If an artist does put their record on iTunes (for a small fee) they run the risk of being overlooked and criticised – why would people pay for something when they can get it for free elsewhere? Competitiveness and marketing is such a risky venture. If you make your album/songs available on free platforms so anyone can hear it: will you ever make money from it and last in the long-term? If you do the opposite and risk the paid option: will people go for it and is it liable to explode in your face?
These considerations alone are enough to make the head explode so it must be galling, for new artists looking to the charts, seeing bands and acts surprise the world with a new album – and getting paid handsomely. It is not the duty of the well-established artists to consider their successors and how their actions affect them. It may sound callous but everyone has to look out for themselves and we cannot expect the wealthier, popular artists to take lesser musicians into consideration. To be fair, surprise album releases like Blond, Beyoncé and A Moon Shaped Pool are not hurting new musician directly – it is just a bit deflating seeing those artists breeze through confidently and gets enveloped and drowned by the drools of music critics. Does this circus of celebration propel them to succeed and follow suit or is it putting them off releasing music at all? Could there be a way for a new band/artist to do a surprise release and it actually work? It is hard to say but this debate is getting hotter and more relevant. Who knows which artists will release albums without warning the next few months? One thing is for sure: the surprise album leak/release is very exciting and does give music a kick and breath of fresh air. The reaction to Frank Ocean’s visual/traditional release Endless/Blond has been met with a lot of coverage but few explosive reviews – many, including myself, thinking it a muted, toned-down version of his best work. I guess the material shouts loudest and the release date/promotion is just a tool: if your songs are not good then it does not make a difference how you release it. I feel the surprise album release is keeping music unpredictable, surprising and genuinely evolving. If you consider this a good or bad thing it is something that is not going to slow down. Musicians like Beyoncé and Radiohead are getting into a roll; Frank Ocean has shown the sort of publicity that can be acquired – other artists find freedom bringing out an album in a new and exciting way. Now Blond is in the ether and gaining (somewhat mixed) feedback, it makes you wonder this…
WHO will be the next artist to tantilise us with the surprise release?