the music industry

Does the Surprise Album Release Still Work?

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Ever since Beyoncé’s self-titled visual album appeared like a Christmas miracle on the iTunes store at midnight on a Thursday in December of 2013, the rules for how to release a record were rewritten literally overnight. Since then, she and Jay-Z have become masters of the form: 2016’s Lemonade arrived in beautiful concert with Beyoncé’s HBO special, while Jay’s 4:44 from last year landed after a not-so-subtle billboard campaign. Both efforts were commercially successful despite being initially available only for subscribers of the streaming service Tidal. This year, the Carters almost broke Twitter with their unexpected joint LP, Everything Is Love; and yet they lost a No. 1 Billboard chart debut to Australian boy band 5 Seconds of Summer’s Youngblood, which had a fairly run-of-the-mill promotional campaign and widespread release.

In a year that saw more unconventional album rollouts than ever before — and, it seemed, more albums rolled out, period — did this mean the Carters’ signature surprise method had stopped working effectively? Did they play themselves on the charts while trying to boost subscriber numbers to Tidal (which Jay-Z bought for $56 million in 2015 and is now valued at $600 million)? “I don’t think it really mattered if they were number one or not,” says Billboard charts manager Keith Caulfield. “I think it was about how they wanted to get the music out and they had a very specific way of releasing it. And that’s their prerogative.”

One could say the same for a number of top-tier artists who reinvented the promotional wheel in 2018 — some more successfully than others — as they tried to reach as many listeners as possible in an increasingly crowded market. Nicki Minaj’s meltdown about landing Queen at No. 1 vaguely recalled her delaying 2014’s The Pinkprint to allegedly achieve a similar effect. Rainbow-haired rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine was almost robbed a No. 1 debut due to a “processing discrepancy” after Dummy Boy was initially postponed due to his incarceration. As always, there’s Drake, who continues to break records set by, and seemingly for, himself with opus-cum-slog Scorpion; and Kanye West, whose chaotic delivery of YE topped the promotional antics of 2016’s The Life of Pablo.

This isn’t the first year that high-stakes rollouts have been botched, mangled, or otherwise left for dead, but it is the first in which there were so many, and each one such a spectacle, that they cut through the increasingly escalating music-industry news cycle to coalesce into a trend. According to a study released earlier this year by, a Wikipedia-like, user-maintained database of physical recordings, the amount of music released globally last year is seven times what was released in 1960. The week that Lil Wayne dropped his highly anticipated Tha Carter V, for example, also saw releases from Cher, Logic, Kevin Gates, Loretta Lynn, Rod Stewart, Cypress Hill, and Tom Petty. You’d be forgiven for forgetting anything that happened three days ago, let alone three months.

So what helped listeners sift through the tyranny of choice on Spotify’s new-releases tab this year: tried-and-true release strategies or calculated headline grabs? “With streaming sort of throwing a wrench into everything, there isn’t really one specific rule book to follow anymore about how to release and promote an album,” says Caulfield. Weezy made the most of both to his advantage, giving music-news outlets enough updates to sustain headlines for years before dropping Tha Carter V without much fanfare on September 28. Still, all but 1 of its 23 tracks charted on the Billboard Hot 100, tying Drake for the number of debuts in a single week. Eminem’s surprise album, Kamikaze, as befitting its title, torpedoed the sales of his last LP, Revival, which came with a long lead-in a mere seven months prior and bombed across the board. Though the sneak-attack method has proved effective for artists of Em’s caliber, it wasn’t necessarily a sure shot in his case. It worked this time, Caulfield says, because of “the content of the album, and how that was resonating through social media, a lot of people felt compelled to go listen to it to hear what he was saying about people.”

John Fleckenstein, co-president of RCA Records, oversaw a diverse suite of albums this year from breakthrough upstarts Brockhampton, indie-leaning talents the Voidz with Julian Casablancas, and Lykke Li, and proven hit-makers Christina Aguilera (who had the misfortune of dropping Liberation the day before the Carters’ Everything Is Love), A$AP Rocky, and Justin Timberlake. When thinking about RCA’s lineup in 2018, he focused on an oft-ignored corner of the listening market: As ways of listening to music have been proliferating since the late ’90s — from iPods and mp3 players to streaming services and voice-activated players — each one occupies a separate share of the shrinking attention economy.

“Most of the profit attention has been around how it’s monetized, and how people earn from it or make a living; or as a record company, have a business,” he says. “A lot of that has been challenging for the industry in the last couple of decades, to figure out a model that works. As streaming has taken hold over the last few years, in particular, it’s really shown and brought to light the business around this consumption that has exploded over the years.”

Another alternative but controversial method of monetizing and charting consumption was more rampant in years past but may have gotten the most air time in 2018. Earlier this year, Billboard announced an exhaustive methodology for determining how “album-equivalent units” (which includes digital and physical sales, along with tiered streams on Spotify and other streaming platforms) are counted going forward. As these rules have become simultaneously more rigorously defined and more opaque, some artists have been gaming the system by bundling merchandise and ticket sales with albums, both of which historically sell more reliably than recorded music. In August of this year, Minaj argued that she lost her No. 1 debut to Travis Scott’s Astroworld because the Houston rapper boosted album purchases by bundling his debut LP with tickets and T-shirts … even though she did the exact the same thing.

For independent artists and record labels, which never participated in pre–file sharing and pre-streaming major-label excesses to begin with, this year reaffirmed the importance of playing the long game. “Streaming means that we’re not getting the sales that we used to get the week of release or the first three or six months of release, but that those sales or streams or equivalent units are stretched over the first two, three, four, five years,” says Matt Harmon, U.S. president of Beggars Group, which includes Radiohead’s current label XL. He cites Philadelphia slack-rock torchbearer Kurt Vile as a case study in strategy: Matador rented a house in upstate New York for Vile and some friends to play music, and record video and acoustic and electric sessions for content that will be rolled out beyond the campaign for his 2018 album, Bottle It In. Think of it as a cache for the endless cold winter of the music industry.

Earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America released a 2017 year-end report that showed physical sales (which, broken down, see CD sales falling 6 percent and vinyl climbing 10 percent) coming out ahead of digital downloads, taking up 17 percent of a market that is nonetheless dominated by streaming at 65 percent. Tethering vinyl to digital releases is essential to maximizing sales on or near release day, especially for independent labels, says Neil Blanket, head of marketing for Mute Records (Depeche Mode, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Moby) in the U.K. “Obviously, Beyoncé doesn’t need her vinyl out on the same day as her digital,” he adds. “We have to allow for how our fans listen. You can’t surprise-release an album on vinyl because it takes four months to set it up. If we surprise-released a New Order album on digital, it would be a disaster.”

There are no complaints — or almost any comments at all — from some of the parties responsible for preventing this year’s high-stakes releases from becoming unmitigated disasters. It’s unclear how much Def Jam gave financially to the YE listening party, which is estimated to have cost tens of millions of dollars, but it contributed almost all of the heavy lifting and logistical planning. “Everyone’s attitude was just, ‘Here we go,’” one attendee told me about their experience. “The people at Def Jam were running so much on adrenaline, I don’t think their opinion was uppermost in their minds.” (Representatives from the label declined to comment for this article; representatives from Minaj’s label, Republic Records, did not reply to a request for comment.)

Tidal’s senior vice-president of artist relations, Jason Kpana, cites Meek Mill’s triumphant comeback record, Championships, as an example of their adaptability and commitment to realizing artistic intent. “We work very closely with artists, labels and distributors to ensure projects are realized as intended,” he wrote in an email. “Our global team is available 24/7 to accommodate our partners and we’re simply just ready when they are.” This approach can likely be applied to all music-streaming services — also known as digital service providers, more commonly abbreviated to DSPs — since, as an employee of the company tells me, all DSPs operate essentially the same way. At least there’s a tightly knit safety net for 2019’s crop of releases, strategies be damned.

Does the Surprise Album Release Still Work?