Surprise releases: Music marketing in the 21st century

By Matthew Gundrum —

The Internet has accelerated the speed at which markets operate. It’s a fact. New products are developed at rates never before seen in history. This has had major repercussions in modern culture, causing a ripple effect extending to business operation practices. Some of the most notable changes are seen today within the music industry.

On Sept. 30, 2007 Radiohead announced the release of their new album In Rainbows. Merely ten days later, a miniscule window of time considering music releases are typically announced months in advance, the album was released. The band decided to utilize a pay-what-you-want system in which the buyer could input any amount of money they wanted, including $0. The entire event was immortalized in music history as, according to Times, “the most important release in recent history of the music business.”

Fast-forward to the 2010s and this form of “guerilla marketing” has become all but uncommon. 2013 proved to be an unprecedented year for surprise releases. David Bowie, Jay Z, My Bloody Valentine and Death Grips all came out with surprise releases. Death Grips, an avant-garde hip-hop group infamous for their unpredictable live antics, put out their release Government Plates for free. So what purpose could that possibly serve?

Jacob Gavin, a 5th year Entertainment Design student here at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, had his own thoughts on the matter. “The fact that Death Grips are confident and daring enough to release music for free for everybody to listen to is not only brilliant, but is, in my opinion, a blatant act of rebellion against the music industry,” Gavin said.  “Those albums could have made somebody else money.  However, in this case, nobody makes money; not even the artists themselves… For that, these guys are true artists who are passionate about music and are not afraid to do whatever they want.”

Albeit a bold statement, the Death Grips scenario is impractical through a business lens. Much of what the music industry runs on is what sells and that particular group was freshly kicked off their former label Epic Records at the time. The act was, if anything, a blatantly anti-corporate sentiment.

But Government Plates is an extreme example. The band’s cult status in the underground hip-hop world has very little market power. However, high-profile acts are starting to adopt this same practice. David Bowie and Jay Z made headlines with their unexpected albums in 2013 and, last year, Beyonce and Skrillex did the same.

This new form of marketing has once again taken the spotlight. On Feb. 13 Drake dropped a mixtape called “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.” The release set the Internet ablaze as it was a completely unexpected 17-track release from one of the most prominent figures in rap. The tape set multiple sales and streaming records within days.

“It can be a double-edged sword. If an artist releases their album unannounced, it can either cause a lot of confusion and/or backlash,” said Graphic Design student Brendan Stave. “Or in the case of Drake, cause a lot of excitement and shoot right to the top of the record charts. I think what an artist is trying to say by dropping a surprise album is that they can still sell a lot of albums and create a lot of buzz without the traditional means of marketing.”

Don’t expect this practice to disappear either. In a recent interview with hip-hop morning show The Breakfast Club, Kanye West declared that his album will be released unannounced as well.

Surprise releases are changing the way consumers think about music. They also represent an evolving music industry. No longer do high-profile artists need hype and traditional means of promotion to make sales. Will this type of behavior become commonplace in 10 years? Five years? Perhaps less? Time will tell how this highly dynamic art form will fare in an ever-changing business landscape.

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