It’s beginning to feel like it’s impossible to escape from online music marketing. From ads squeezing into every visible corner of your screen, to invitations to listen to new music on every page and every news feed that you visit. Granted, many of these are just artists wanting to be heard, but nowadays this is hugely challenging – even for internationally renowned artists. So how do you get people to pay attention to your album in 2016? By mixing it up a bit.
Lately there has been a trend of completely turning away from the never-ending hype machine and doing something completely different. We gathered a series of recent case studies and compared the ways in which artists have successfully dropped new material in unique ways that piqued interest and created buzz in their own unique ways.
Kendrick Lamar – Untitled, Unmastered
Raw and real
In March of this year, Kendrick Lamar, one of the biggest rappers in the world dropped an eight track album of unmastered music with less than two days notice and no advance promotion whatsoever. In a music economy where albums are carefully produced, crafted then released after every effort has been made to build hype in all the right places, this is remarkable in a number of ways. While Lamar played a couple of these tracks live in advance, nobody knew it until a couple of social media posts immediately preceded untitled unmastered‘s release – and even then, nobody really knew we’d be getting a whole new Kendrick Lamar album one year after TDE – most of us thought it was going to be another release from his label TDE. It felt like a joke. nevertheless, the songs soon appeared on Spotify, and Kendrick then confirmed it: “In raw form. Unfinished. Untitled. Unmastered.” He didn’t use a media blitz, he released them in the hopes it would be a success based on his artistic merit alone.
Why It Worked
He was correct. People listened. A year after To Pimp A Butterfly, people were still raving about it (and still are today). untitled unmastered was the perfect follow up for an already established, loving fan base who were itching to hear more of what Kendrick can do. Now, Lamar was in a unique position. He released one of the most important albums ever; he has never had a particularly strong presence on social media; he’s by and large hailed as one of, if not the most important rapper alive. He didn’t need to name his songs. Hell, he didn’t even need to finish them. They show off Kendrick’s raw talent for funky jazz beats and smooth, soulful rhymes. The release of untitled unmastered was pretty much the antithesis of our next pick.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Alive and kicking
In February, Kanye West released the self-proclaimed “best album ever,” The Life of Pablo. Love him or hate him you cannot possibly escape knowing all about this album’s confusing, immense release, which began by announcing – and subsequently selling thousands of tickets to – the live debut alongside the release of his Yeezy season 3 fashion show at NYC’s Madison Square Garden. Cinemas around the world aired were filled with hip-hop heads, waiting with baited breath. Then he released it on Tidal, and said it would only ever be available there, until it wasn’t. Now it’s available everywhere.
But more than the grandiose, over the top launch, the most important aspect about The Life of Pablo is what has happened to it since its release. Kanye has continued to tweak and update with the album, despite it already being completed. He has uploaded different versions of songs, added lyrics or verses and messed around with the production. He appears to be changing things whenever he sees fit, updating it like an app fixes bugs, or like a game adds new features. Kanye West’s album is fluid, it is not a finished body of work.
Fixing Wolves 2day… Worked on it for 3 weeks. Life Of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression. #contemporaryart
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 15, 2016
Why It Worked
Many have criticised Kanye’s process here (and, well, everything about him). Once an album is released, shouldn’t that be the end of it? Traditionally, yes. This is one of, if not the first extraordinarily notable instance in history of this not being the case. Kanye’s showing us a completely new, revolutionary way that we can utilise technology and re-conceptualise the very notion of what an album, or any piece of music is, for that matter.
But how far does this go? While the idea of being able to continue to make it the best it can possibly be is exciting, is it right? What if every time an artist was critiqued on a specific lyric or a boring part of a song, or a stolen sample, they simply reopened and edited it? How far could this go – would artists begin to tweak songs based on reviews? Would it go beyond music and into film and television? Or will everyone just continue on their normal path, with Ye as exception.
It’s an incredibly grey area, but exciting nonetheless. Most importantly, it’s one of the many aspects that have kept people talking about Kanye and Kanye’s album infinitely.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Music for eyes and ears
In April, Beyoncé released her sixth album Lemonade, a visual album that was premiered in its entirety on HBO before being released exclusively on Tidal. Not even like a film, it simply is one – or perhaps more than one. It was the second visual album of her career, following her 2013 self-titled album, which dropped on iTunes with absolutely no warning. She worked on that album in secret for two years, only telling a small group of people, because she felt that the hype created around singles meant that albums were being split up and losing their meaning as a whole. Even iTunes only found out shortly in advance. Lemonade, was essentially the same – only those who had to know, knew. The visual album has forced people to look at the album as an interconnected piece of audiovisual art instead of any simple compilation of songs.
All we’d heard before the album was Formation and the promise of a “project” a short time in advance. Of course, many people suspected an album – no doubt a visual album – was on its way, but there were no huge marketing campaigns, no media rollouts, no forced publicity. Instead, she gave fans a time and a place, and let her reputation work the magic.
With Bey it is never just about the music; her fans are captivated by her personality, her strength and the way she uses her platform to empower women, especially women of colour. Each song, and in particular each video, are layered with meaning, powerful imagery, stunning fashion and badass dance moves that many of us only dream of being able to recreate.
Why It Worked
Her album, like the others on this list, are musically remarkable, and any visual bells and whistles, would ultimately fall flat. Not only is this an incredible album which has helped to redefine what we consider pop music today, but a visual album offers fans an entirely separate way to absorb this release.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
How To Disappear Completely
Much like the other artists on this list, Radiohead don’t really need a marketing or publicity strategy. Their fanbase is the kind where the slightest hint of anything will be sourced and analysed in a thousand ways. They have never really stuck to any typical mould when it comes to their releases and this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool is their most remarkable yet. The first hints came last year when they registered a company, Dawn Chorus. Then, they sent out cryptic fliers to fans in the UK. But the biggest hint was yet to come. Then, they disappeared completely from the whole internet.
It was the complete opposite of what most artists do just before a release.
Shortly after, they began to reappear. A short clip was posted to social media. Hours later, they dropped Burn The Witch. The exact same order of events repeated themselves a day later, with Daydreaming. Mercifully, they then announced that the album would be a couple days later. And thus, came the stunning, critically acclaimed A Moon Shaped Pool.
Why It Worked
The release of A Moon Shaped Pool was weird and wonderful in a way that not many could have pulled off. Radiohead drip fed cryptic snippets of information, a virtual scavenger hunt for fans to decipher and piece together. The anticipation for their album increased the more mysterious and ambiguous their messages were. The clues and mysterious puzzle pieces were irresistibly enticing, and beyond the album being really beautiful in itself, simply receiving those rare tidbits of information felt immensely satisfying at every step. It’s obviously much easier to do this when you already have a well-established fan base but their uniqueness is part of what has retained that adoration for so long.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Young, independent and free
In terms of release and promotion, Chance the Rapper‘s Coloring Book was by far the most conventional on this list. It had advance singles and promotion, a release date that he actually stuck to, interviews, accessibility. But where it stands out is that it was completely for free, and completely independently. Not just any free and independent release, but an incredibly good one – one that featured literally the biggest artists in the world, from Kanye West to Justin Bieber, Young Thug to Lil Wayne and more.
The free mixtape has become increasingly common, and Chance’s are among the best. Not only are they a great way to connect with young fans, but free releases are clever, seeing as these days far more money comes in through ticket sales and merchandise (which Chance is an absolute king at). Chance has become one of the biggest artists in the world, yet he’s never signed to a label and he’s never charged for a mixtapes. Despite the very obvious fact that a lot of people would have paid for one.
Why It Worked
The free release makes Chance look like a guy who doesn’t care about money; he’s dropping tunes to drop tunes, for the fans, for the love. Simultaneously, there’s no money in album sales, so why bother?
In an industry flooded with generic vapidity created solely for the purpose of releasing album after album, filling seats at shows, Chance has established the value of his product in other ways, while finding more inventive, and more successful ways to earn top dollar at the same time.
Fans were so hyped that they stuck posters up themselves. Instead of having to create more unique promotional content, Chance was able to retweet fan-shot images of his posters in their bedrooms, on buildings and in bathroom stalls. His willingness to embrace innovative ways to create good music, make it accessible and still make money is so important for his audience – a generation who grew up downloading music free.
Rihanna – ANTI
Concept and Change
In January Rihanna released her eighth album ANTI. After countless moments of false hope and endless delays, few details were shared about the album in the lead up, but fans were directed to a mobile website, ANTIdiaRY.com. The site contained a mysterious message, “you’ll know when it’s time.” The website was a sort of virtual reality game, featuring a series of different interactive rooms in which fans could unlock clues about the album and hints at the themes of its content, including musical snippets.
— Rihanna (@rihanna) November 28, 2015
The album was available for a free download for one week, and received a week-long Tidal exclusive before being made available for all. To drop her music for free was like a gift to fans who had been following the creation of this record for years, patiently, desperately waiting.
Why It Worked
The website was a creative way to get fans excited about what was to come, and to build immense, boiling hype without actually plastering the album or any music online. The concept of ANTI goes beyond the music, it stretches into everything about this latest release. Rihanna is championing self expression and artistic freedom on this album widely considered her best yet. She’s singing, rapping, recording and releasing something fresh and invigorating. Much like Lemonade, ANTI has challenged the way we think about pop.
Marketing is an every-growing, ever-changing and increasingly creative aspect of the music industry. Gone are the days of a straightforward cycle, from singles to videos to release dates and the like. It’s becoming more and more interactive, and more and more necessarily unique. Artists and their teams want to surprise their audience, they want to stand out, they want us to talk about it – and sometimes the best way to gt us talking is by saying nothing at all.
Obviously it needs to be mentioned that these concepts won’t work for everyone. The above artists are the biggest in the world; none of them have any need for traditional publicity and marketing campaigns. They’re lucky in that they get to do what they like – an upcoming artist certainly doesn’t have the pull to simply drop an album out of the blue and expect it to blow up.
We’re no longer passive receivers, and artists no longer follow a typical format. It’s exciting, if exhausting. 2016 has already been such a massive year for new releases and long-awaited comebacks – it’s only a matter of time before the next big drop (we’re very specifically looking at you, Frank.)
Co-Written with Lauren Ziegler