Are Surprise Albums Dead? Examining Album Campaigns In The Streaming Era.

We all remember it, the album that changed the trajectory of the music industry forever: Beyoncé‘s eponymous 2013 album. The Grammy-winning record broke sales records at the time and housed hits like “Drunk In Love,” “Partition,” and “XO,” and its companion remix EP boasted hits like “7/11” and a remix of “Flawless” featuring Nicki Minaj. The release was also credited for changing music’s Global Release Day from Tuesday to Friday, effectively ending delayed/staggered releases for different regions. These accolades and achievements are outstanding seven years later but commemorating the success of the BEYONCÉ album often forgets to leave room to evaluate the risk of the album’s release.

Famously, BEYONCÉ was released with no prior announcement on December 13, 2013. 14 songs and 17 music videos were unceremoniously uploaded to iTunes, completely eschewing the traditional album rollout and campaign strategy that long-dominated the mainstream music industry. Of course, Beyoncé wasn’t the first major artist to edit the typical album rollout, nor was this her first time. Back in 2008, ahead of the release of I Am… Sasha Fierce, her third album, Beyoncé elected to release two lead singles instead of one, “Single Ladies” (for urban radio) and “If I Were A Boy” (for Top 40/HAC radio). The year before I Am… Sasha Fierce, Radiohead self-released their In Rainbows album as a pay-what-you-want download. Following the release of BEYONCÉ, however, surprise albums and “sneak attack” releases exploded in popularity. Artists tried their best to replicate or further reinvent the age-old wheel of traditional album releases.

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In 2014, U2 infamously teamed up with Apple to instantly upload their Songs of Innocence album to every iPhone in the world — without the user’s consent. The following year, Drake pseudo-surprise released If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (which also helped lift retail mixtapes to new heights) by fooling different media outlets with semi-truths about upcoming music. Even Adele opted for a sneak attack approach for her record-breaking 25 album; just one month separated the album’s lead single, “Hello,” from the set’s full release. And then there was 2016. Rihanna’s career landmark album, ANTI, was notoriously botched by an accidental TIDAL leak which led to a “surprise” release a few hours later (bolstered by one million free Samsung-sponsored downloads) and a surprise deluxe edition featuring three new tracks. Solange experimented with a sneak attack release for her A Seat at the Table album by unleashing the album just three days after announcing it. Frank Ocean bent his album campaign to fulfill his contract and get the upper hand over his former record label. He uploaded his Endless visual album to Apple Music after initially posting a mysterious black-and-white clip two weeks prior. Blonde, the official follow-up to Channel ORANGE materialized the day after Endless. Of course, there was Beyoncé’s Lemonade which officially premiered on HBO as a visual album, although no release of new music was explicitly mentioned by Beyoncé or her camp before the film’s premiere. Later in 2016, Quavo and Travis Scott released their Huncho Jack collaborative album with just a few hours’ notice. Similarly, Young Thug released his Beautiful Thugger Girls mixtape just two days after announcing it.

All of the aforementioned releases were success for the respective artists. The surprise album has obvious perks. The advent of streaming has exploded the already immense amount of music that is released every week. Surprise releases help artists instantly dominate the conversation without the effort and expenses that the traditional pre-album campaign requires. Moreover, the surprise release model gives artists and labels a leg up over leaks that often mar, if not outright destroy, intricately planned album campaigns. Think of Beyoncé’s own 4; that album, which preceded BEYONCÉ, was leaked in its entirety three weeks before its intended release. In addition, surprise releases allow artists more flexibility and autonomy over the frequency of their releases. In fact, the surprise release model is part of the reason why the lines between albums, projects, and mixtapes are so blurred nowadays. For Beyoncé and Solange, the surprise release helped emphasize their albums as distinct cohesive units to be taken as a whole and not in parts. After the release of the pair’s last two solo albums, they both are now more widely viewed as “album artists.” For Young Thug, Quavo, and Travis Scott, the sneak attack model was a way to exercise their spontaneity. Finally, for Drake and Frank Ocean the sneak attack/surprise release hybrid were employed to fulfill contractual obligations and keep control of their narratives.

In 2018, the surprise album saw a marked decline. Most notably, and surprisingly, Beyoncé’s name is attached to the model’s fall as much as it is attached to its innovation and rise in popularity. During their On the Run II tour, Beyoncé and Jay-Z surprise released EVERYTHING IS LOVE as The Carters. The album was launched alongside the immediate radio release and music video debut of the set’s lead single, “APESHIT.” In comparison to the grand successes of BEYONCÉ, Lemonade, and even 4:44, EVERYTHING IS LOVE performed poorly. Released in the middle of the tracking week (like Beyoncé’s last two solo albums), the album infamously debuted at #2 behind 5 Seconds of Summer‘s Youngblood. The set is currently certified Gold by the RIAA for reaching 500,000 album equivalent units in the U.S. This pales in comparison to the triple-platinum (3,000,000) certification for Lemonade, the double-platinum certification for BEYONCÉ (eligible for a higher certification), and the platinum certification for 4:44.

Beyoncé’s two solo albums preceding EVERYTHING IS LOVE each housed multiple platinum and multi-platinum hit singles. “APESHIT” peaked at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is currently certified platinum, the only track from the album to achieve any certification in the U.S. In terms of critical reception, EVERYTHING IS LOVE scored a cumulative 80 on Metacritic, lower than BEYONCÉ (85), Lemonade (92), and 4:44 (81). The collaborative album also scored just three Grammy nominations in comparison to BEYONCÉ‘s five, Lemonade’s nine, and 4:44‘s eight. Of course, this album was marred by its Tidal exclusivity and subsequent Spotify Premium exclusivity, but EVERYTHING IS LOVE eventually got a wide release quicker than these other three albums and still performed worse. Once could attribute the less enthusiastic receptions of the record to lack of promotion or confusing artist credit/album artwork, but no matter how you cut it, EVERYTHING IS LOVE underperformed for a Beyoncé and Jay-Z collab album. It’s also worth noting that last year, Solange released her When I Get Home album the same night it was announced, albeit to a much more tepid commercial reception than A Seat at the Table. As quickly as surprise albums rose in frequency, they fell in terms of impact. So, where does the release model fit in 2020? Are we seeing a return to traditional campaigns? If so, are they being reimagined in any way for the streaming era?

In 2020, we’ve seen an interesting mixture of artists that adhered to traditional album campaigns and artists that elected for more unconventional release models. Drake offered up his Dark Lane Demo Tapes mixtape with little more than an Instagram post just a few hours before the set’s appearance on all digital platforms. The mixtape (which contained both new material and previously leaked cuts) debuted with the worst reviews of Drake’s career and became his first project in a decade to miss a #1 debut on the Billboard 200. However, the record did contain Drake’s seventh Hot 100 #1 single, “Toosie Slide,” although no word of a full-length project was afoot at the time of the song’s debut. Compared to his previous mixtapes and side projects, Dark Lane Demo Tapes was a notable deep in what was commonly seen as an unbreakable Midas Touch. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and What A Time To Be Alive, which both employed sneak attack models, debuted at #1 and scored multiple hit singles each. More Life, a playlist, more or less followed a more traditional rollout which resulted in a #1 album and multiple Top 10 singles. Of course, Dark Lane Demo Tapes can’t even compare to the success of Drake’s two most recent official studio albums, the record-obliterating Views and Scorpion. The success of Dark Lane Demo Tapes could be chalked up to Drake over-saturating the market, but maybe it’s really surprise release fatigue.

Childish Gambino’s long-teased final album finally materialized in March as one long audio track uploaded to a website called Donald Glover Presents. In the following weeks, the album eventually materialized on digital platforms in a more formal LP format, track titles were edited, and featured artists were officially credited. The record, which shares its title with its release date (3.15.20), was the follow-up to “Awaken, My Love!” That album lifted Gambino to music superstar status resulting in the biggest single of his career, “Redbone,” and his first Grammy win (Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Redbone”). Interestingly, the 4x Grammy-winning #1 single, “This Is America,” did not appear on the album. 3.15.20 is now Childish Gambino’s lowest-peaking album on the Billboard 200 (#13) and none of the album’s three singles have entered the Billboard Hot 100 or received any certifications from the RIAA. Bad Bunny, on the other hand, surprise released his second album of 2020, LAS QUE NO IBAN A SALIR, his follow-up to his record-breaking YHLQMDLG. The album was a compilation of previously unreleased tracks that were cut from his last two studio albums. Released in the middle of the week, the album of rejects understandably debuted at #7, in comparison to YHLQMDLG‘s #2 debut, and has yet to launch a hit single. Future also released his High Off Life album with just three days’ notice. The record became his seventh to hit #1. Notably, his biggest single of the year, the #2-peaking “Life Is Good (feat. Drake),” had been charting for 18 weeks before High Off Life was announced.

Eminem helped usher in the new decade with Music to Be Murdered By. The surprise release debuted at #1 and spawned a Top 10-peaking single that lacked longevity, “Godzilla (feat. Juice WRLD).” Music to Be Murdered By follows Kamikaze (2018) as Eminem’s second consecutive surprise release. The album debuted with 155,000 less album equivalent units than Kamikaze and failed to surpass the career best 225 million first week streams total of Kamikaze. Kamikaze also scored two Top 10 singles, “Killshot” and “Lucky You (feat. Joyner Lucas).” By all accounts, Music to be Murdered By performed worse than Kamikaze despite them both being surprise releases, but why? The same reason why EVERYTHING IS LOVE did not reach the standards of BEYONCÉ and Lemonade.

The issue with surprise releases is that, a few years removed from the triumph and glory of BEYONCÉ, they don’t feel as exciting or as innovative. Part of the reason Queen Bey’s 2013 risk paid off is that it was the first time an artist of her magnitude and caliber had done anything like this. And the material was good. Really good. At the end of the day, if the music isn’t as alluring as it would be on a normal release, a surprise release will not save it from eventually underperforming or being forgotten. The album still has to stand on its own once the glow of the surprise has worn off. In the case of Kamikaze, that surprise released worked because Eminem had to prove to his audience that he could still craft a good album after 2017’s disastrous Revival. In terms of more unconventional releases, like Gambino’s 3.15.20, the less work the consumer has to do to find the music, the better. Most people expect an album to be readily available for streaming on their platform of choice; releases hindered by exclusivity to certain platforms/tiers or releases that exist in non-traditional LP formats just don’t cut it anymore. Consumers have battled the exclusivity wars for a few years now, and if they have to go out of their way to stream an album, they’ll either move on and forget about it, wait until it’s widely available, or pirate it. The right artist, namely Rihanna, could pull off a massively successful surprise album release, but you would be hard-pressed to name another artist that even has half of that hype for their next album. In this vein, the surprise release strategy is inherently reliant on the star power of the artist. You have to be a superstar with a strong dedicated fanbase and a recognizable brand to effectively and successfully pull off a surprise release. For example, Jason Derulo or Meghan Trainor could surprise release an album tomorrow, but they wouldn’t see a sixth of the success that a Rihanna surprise release would generate. Finally, surprise albums are still a viable option if an artist is experiment with a different genre from their primary one.

So, what gives? How do you keep consumers engaged in album campaigns in this increasingly fast-paced world? In 2020, so far, two major trends have emerged/been solidified. The first is an evolution of the sneak attack model. More and more, you’ll see an artist release a single (or two or three) and let them ride out the entirety of its commercial run before officially announcing an album or project a few days before its release. For example, Drake announced his Scorpion album several months after “God’s Plan” was replaced at #1 by his latest single, “Nice for What.” Future employed this strategy with “Life Is Good” and High Off Life. Post Malone arguably perfected the strategy with his Hollywood’s Bleeding album. Post announced Hollywood’s Bleeding in August 2019, months after the release of the record’s several pre-singles: “Sunflower” (October 2018), “Wow” (December 2018), “Goodbyes” (July 2019). This release strategy simultaneously allows artists to inflate their SPS totals (this is how you see album’s going Gold or Platinum before or on the day of release) and maximize the amount of hit singles from the album. It’s gotten more difficult to push singles post-album release because everything is already readily accessible in a way that that they weren’t pre-streaming. Now, labels and artists have essentially reversed the traditional singles campaign. It should be noticed that we’ve also seen the opposite with Ariana Grande and her team dramatically shortening and combining the campaigns of her Sweetener and thank u, next albums which were released just six moths apart from from each other.

The second major trend is a soft return to the idea of traditional eras. One of the major fumbles that plague so many surprise drops is that artists and their teams rely on the element of surprise as the primary promotional tool. Consumers still need to be engaged and given content so interest in the album lasts beyond the initial week of the surprise. Beyoncé had the right idea by pushing new singles and a remix EP for 2013 self-titled album a year after the album’s release. Some of this year’s biggest albums are the products of lengthy traditional album rollouts. Future Nostalgia became Dua Lipa’s fastest-selling and highest-peaking album not through a surprise or sneak attack release, but by way of a traditional “era.” She rolled out her lead single, “Don’t Start Now,” months before the album and let it grow naturally as she released more pre-album tracks (“Physical”; “Future Nostalgia”) before debuting the second official single (“Break My Heart”) the week before the album’s release. The Future Nostalgia album campaign was incredibly cohesive from the style of music to the music video aesthetics and photoshoots. Similarly, The Weeknd collected two consecutive #1 singles (“Heartless” and “Blinding Lights”) from After Hours, the biggest-debuting album of the year, thanks to a traditional campaign with a similar focus on cohesive aesthetics. Harry StylesFine Line has also done an impressive job at keeping consumers interested. Notably, he recently released the “Watermelon Sugar” music video six months after the track initially debuted as a promotional single.

For the streaming era, strategies like the ones used for Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding and Future’s High Off Life seem to work best for rappers and rap-adjacent artists. On the other hand, more traditional rollouts appear to be the best call for pop stars as evidenced by the latest albums from The Weeknd, Harry Styles, and Dua Lipa. And for some artists like Taylor Swift, for example, the strict traditional campaign has always worked fine. A strong fanbase, consistent content, and a solidified brand have helped her dominate sales tallies for the past decade, regardless of the performance of the album’s singles. All this is to say that the surprise album isn’t dead, but the way we’ve come to understand the concept is effectively dead. As always, artists have to think forward and reflect on the past to find new ways to grab consumers’ interest and hold on to that interest. The best thing about all of this is continued innovation in music marketing and an evergreen emphasis on the quality of the music. At the end of the day, if the music connects with the people, they will gravitate towards it regardless of how it was released or presented.

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