Beyoncé. Wolfmother. Death Grips. The Raveonettes. Kid Cudi. Skrillex.
A seemingly arbitrary list of artists, differing in both genre and status, are among a growing population of musicians who have chosen to release an entire album with absolutely no warning or promotion. This trend received its unofficial title of “pulling a Beyoncé,” after BB releasing her unannounced self-titled album on December 13, 2013. The Internet was driven towards hysteria. In its first three days, having no prior release date or singles, Beyoncé sold almost 800,000 copies. Although Beyoncé was not the first to try this unorthodox release, her great success using it has inspired others to do so. But, is it really all “About the Money,” or do artists have their own reasons behind the “surprise” album? Why is “surprise” in quotation marks? Enjoy.
One thing that is for sure, fans, myself included, go absolutely nuts when one of their favorite artists pulls a card out of Mrs. Carter’s playbook. Even the press seems to be intoxicated by these mass influxes of new material. While doing research for this article I ran across posts about: who should release a surprise album; who shouldn’t release surprise album; who is most likely to release a surprise album; and whether or not this approach even works. Sorry Wolfmother, for you, it does not.
So, we know that in most cases fans flip over surprise albums. And perhaps artists see the unexpected release as a gift to their supporters. Everyone knows waiting for an album to drop can be torture. Maybe musicians reward fans by attempting to break up the monotony that is the typical year long cycle of an album’s campaign. It’s a tried and true method that never ends: tease first single, release single, announce album release date, tease single’s music video, release video, debut more new tracks, appears on Fallon promoting the single, video, and album, so on and so forth. Instead of months spent digesting how much they need to hear the album, the listener can actually hear the album. Different. Weird. Exciting.
This brings me to my next point: releasing a surprise album has proven to make a musician or band more reputable. It’s simple. By abstracting the norm, the action appears defiant. When experimental hip hop outfit Death Grips was dropped from Epic Records for leaking their second album No Love Deep Web, they came off looking like fucking renegades. So much so, that they did so with both their third and fourth albums. This group was about music! Their label was standing in the way of them delivering music to the fans, so they said “Fuck it. We can do it ourselves.” Now, doesn’t releasing an album without any release date or promotional campaign seem like rebellious thing to do?
But, I will give it to Death Grips. They were an authentic act. But this is where the surprise ends. Lets take Beyoncé for example. Beyoncé is on Columbia Records. Columbia is the largest flagship label owned by Sony Music, a company worth almost $5 billion. With Beyoncé being one of their highest-grossing artists, do you really think Sony would be happy if just one day she said, “I think I’ll release my album today.”? An album that cost millions of dollars to record? Try looking at Kid Cudi and Skrillex. Both are on huge record labels. Do you think their bosses – and yes, they have bosses – would be okay if they decided to release an album with zero promotion, and not consult them?
There is no surprise. The release of a “surprise” album is just as calculated as the typical promotion cycle. The story is that there was none. The resulting media frenzy is promotion enough, and the artist appears more genuine for doing something “different.” The record label executives ride the independent wave right to the bank. The action appears nice, but the thought behind it is corrupt. They capitalize on the actions taken by artists like Death Grips, artists who actually want fans to experience their art. This greed could eventually lead to diminished feelings towards these pure artists. One day their actions may appear more calculated and less authentic.
But what do you think? Why are artists releasing “surprise” albums? These are just my opinions. I’d enjoy hearing yours.