Surprise releases have been all the rage of late, with artists like Beyonce, Drake, and Radiohead dropping full length albums completely out of the blue, and while these spontaneous marketing techniques can be great for major artists, they can hurt indie musicians, and are something of a mixed bag for fans, suggesting this new trend may be short lived .
A few weeks ago, everyone stayed home on a Saturday night to watch the surprise Beyonce album/movie premiere, then spent the rest of the weekend sharpening their hot takes. A week later, Drake dropped a new album on Apple Music with almost no warning; two weeks later, James Blake and Radiohead followed suit. The trend towards surprise releases, a side effect of the transition towards digital music consumption, only seems to be accelerating -- but is it good for artists and fans?
For big artists, dropping a surprise album can be a great way to gin up a lot of quick press, and to actually avoid the months-long album release cycle slog that precedes the traditional release cycle. Why spend months doing interviews about your new album when you can just have the press respond -- after all, in this new world, the artist can control the narrative. Surprise releases also remove leaks from the equation -- an important factor for more famous artists who could see real financial losses if an album goes live before street date. More forward-thinking artists like Kanye West can use a surprise release to put out a first draft of a project and then refine and add as necessary, and fans won’t feel put out by this.
But for smaller artists, the surprise release trend make things more difficult. For one, it makes planning impossible -- generally, you don’t want to come out the same weekend as a major release, and when calendars were set months in advance, it was easy to schedule around the blockbusters. Traditionally, the fourth quarter was the time when all the stars dropped new records -- now, any superstar can just decide on a random Wednesday to put out an album without telling anyone, and command the music news cycle for the next week. The months of planning can be blown away in an instant. The conversation shifts immediately and is consumed by a hype cycle for the next new thing, and by the time the dust has settled, your work might be forgotten.
For fans, the upsides and downsides are more mixed. Obviously, great new music from an artist you love is always a plus, and fans don’t really need to know when an album is coming to be excited to hear it. The bigger issue is the way the album is released -- is it available everywhere, as James Blake’s new record was? Is it available a handful of places, like Radiohead’s? Or is it an exclusive, like Beyonce or Drake, which requires you to sign up for yet another streaming music service? If the album is available widely, or at least in enough places where fans can access it fairly easily, then that’s a win for listeners; otherwise, it might just drive them to piracy.
The surprise album trend does have a ceiling -- there are only a limited number of artists who can pull off releases of this nature. Sure, any artist of any level can drop an album with no promotion, but if you’re not a star, it’ll likely recall the old adage about a tree falling in the woods. For stars, this is a fun fad -- but it’s likely to fade away in time.
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Bryce Clemmer is the CEO and co-founder of Vadio, the leading music video distribution platform for media companies and brands