Music: The art of the surprise album drop

Video by beyonceVEVO

At midnight on Dec. 13, 2013, something unusual happened. A brand new, full-length album from pop superstar Beyoncé appeared for purchase on the iTunes Store. There were no warnings or pre-release marketing efforts. The only fact the public knew beforehand was that Beyoncé was working on a new album.

Flash forward to present day, and the surprise album drop has become something of a common tactic. There had been some very unique rollouts and release windows in the years leading up to Beyoncé’s 2014 effort, but that was the album that made anything possible.

Last Friday, highly-acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar quietly slipped a new project onto iTunes and various streaming services, and its sudden appearance was barely even part of the following news cycle. Such is life in the age of social media.

The trailblazer for unconventional album releases was alternative rock band Radiohead, which announced in September 2007 that their seventh studio album “In Rainbows” was not only finished, but would be available on their website just 10 days after the announcement.

The goal of the release was to avoid leaks, and ensure that the album would be heard by all listeners at the same time. Time called the move “easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business.”

On Dec. 9, 2013, the chairman of Columbia Records told media that Beyoncé’s fifth studio album would be released in 2014, and that the release would be “monumental,” but half of that statement was a lie. Four days later, it popped up as a one-week iTunes exclusive, and the Internet lost its collective mind.

Like many of the chances Beyoncé takes, the gambit worked. Peter Robinson of the Guardian called the release a “major triumph” and “a master class in both exerting and relinquishing control.”

The album sold 80,000 digital copies in three hours and reached 430,000 sales after one day, according to the Billboard charts. Apple announced on Dec. 16 that it was the fastest selling album in the history of the iTunes Store

In a time where anticipated albums commonly leak on the Internet early, Beyoncé’s plan ensured a completely secure release. Additionally, the album’s sudden appearance sent social media services like Twitter and Facebook into frenzies, turning fans’ shock and awe into a viral marketing campaign.

Imitators soon followed. Irish rock band U2’s thirteenth studio album “Songs of Innocence” was not only released as a surprise during an Apple product launch in Sep. 2013, but was given for free to all iTunes customers. Hip-hop superstar Drake tweeted an iTunes link to his 2015 mixtape “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” without any promotion or warning.

Video by Drake - Topic

This newly-minted release method has helped artists to boost their sales numbers with the deadly duel threats of piracy and streaming services lurking. Shortening the traditional album rollout has also become a go-to plan for artists; Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt are two artists who released albums in 2015 within a week of their initial announcements.

The surprise drop isn’t going away any time soon. Many onlookers believed rapper Kanye West would drop his 2016 effort with no warning before he eventually fumbled his way through a Tidal-exclusive release. With Drake’s next album looming in April, it’s entirely possible he goes with the same strategy he used for “If You’re Reading This.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to maximize their numbers as the music industry continues to wade through the high tides of the Internet age, but Beyoncé helped chart one possible path to success. Now, you can never quite be sure when a big release will be let out into the wild.


Tyler Keating is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu.