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The psychology behind surprise albums and why artists do it

What was life like before 2013?

Growing up, I remember seeing posters, billboards, interviews on “106 and Park” and a host of other promotional legwork artists had to do before dropping a project. The physical product would be delivered to national retail chains, accompanied by either by radio hits, local ads, and late-night TV appearances.

There was a date to circle on the calendar, time to save up money, and even a synopsis on what to expect from Source or Vibe magazine. (I wasn’t copping unless it was three mics or better.)

Then Beyoncé happened.

Midnight on December 13, 2013, with no prior fanfare whatsoever, the self-titled visual album, quite literally just appeared on the iTunes store, sending the music world into a state of unprecedented panic.

I laugh now, but I remember my twitter timeline experiencing a wide range of emotions. Shock and disbelief, joy, elation. Frankly, the music world was never the same since.

The surprise album received rave reviews and gave Beyoncé her fifth consecutive number one album, selling 991,000 copies in the U.S. within the first ten days of its debut.

Apple confirmed that Beyoncé was the fastest-selling album in the history of the iTunes Store, both in the U.S. and worldwide. The release not only marked her highest debut sales week of her solo career, it also became the largest debut sales week for a female artist in 2013.

Thus a new culture was born.

Artists ranging from Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, and Drake to Skrillex, even ‘N Sync, followed suit after the success, releasing projects with zero to little promotion hoping to emulate in some fashion the algorithm Queen Bey had conjured.

Kendrick’s Untitled Unmastered only real “promo” was his heralded 58th GRAMMY performance. Then, without a word, was gifted to digital retailers on March 4. Like Rihanna, Lamar only used twitter to announce the project and despite the limited announcement, Untitled went on to debut at No. 1 in its first week.

Future, the “Dirty Sprite” legend, has found the limited pre-promo useful. Again, only using social media to tell #FutureHive about his album Future and only doing one interview (with Zane Lowe) to hype the one-week follow-up, Hendrxx, Future managed to score back-to-back number one’s albums a week apart.

These artists and their suddenly-released projects show that you no longer need major labels and their whole PR teams behind for your album to do numbers.

In the past, labels would pick a single, put all their money and promotion behind that single, and cross their fingers for it to do well. The goal was for this single to be radio-friendly and for that single to act as a driving force behind the push of the album. But the unannounced method has proved that there are other ways to go about releasing an album.

When an album is dropped out of thin air, it lets the people — the market — pick the “single”. But simply releasing the music, as opposed to trying to predict what people would love prior, makes it a lot easier and safer to put the funds behind what listeners are responding the most to.

Remember J.Cole’s “Let Nas Down”? He addressed this very issue.

The record off his Sophomore album touches on succumbing to the pressure of releasing a “hit” single and stumbling into compromising his sound in the process.

“Hov asking where’s the record that the radio can play

and I was striking out for months, 9th inning feeling fear.

Jeter under pressure, made the biggest hit of my career.

But at first, that wasn’t clear, n*** had no idea

Dion call me when it drop sound it’s sad but sincere

Told me Nas hear your single and he hate that shit

Said you the one, why you make that shit?”

And what did Cole learn? Well, since Born Sinner his last two projects not only didn’t have a single to push the project, had no features (as we all know) and no promotion, yet both still went on to go double platinum.

Figure that.

See, not only do you save money by eliminating the pre-promotion budget — the billboards, the press runs etc — but it alleviates pressure, for both the artist and the label. The more you invest the more you expect, and with no expectation behind any particular single, the label is at ease to sit back and observe what the music will do for its fanbase.

Instead of weeks or months of rollouts, a simple tease of a title, or even a vague social media post is enough to stir attention. No promotion is also a win-win for fans. They aren’t expecting anything, so when all the sudden new music drops out of nowhere the excitement amasses the promotion any label would dream to produce.

No one can be truly sure of Beyoncé’s intent. My hunch is that the surprise element was a strategy to cut down on leaks. But she clearly has tapped into an entirely new way to look at music marketing, especially in the peak of both social media and the streaming age of music.

No longer are artists tied to release dates, the performance of a single, or even interviews. The only reliance is artists’ connection to their fans (a surprise drop only works if you have a fanbase thirsting for more music). More importantly, it proves the importance of labels is waning.

While you still have artists like Adele who’s still a big believer in the physical product and who still succeeds in that realm — her 2015 album 25 tallied a gaudy $3.48 million equivalent album units in its first week of sales, $3.38 million of which were pure album sales marking the single largest sales week since 1991 — it’s been proven quite handily that evolution in the industry has shifted significantly.

Personally, I hope artists keep releasing albums out of nowhere, or on short notice. It allows the most authentic creative process and it means they trust us to ‘get’ their art. As the music industry continues to change, the ways in which artists release and promote their music is sure to evolve.

Here’s to hoping artists continue to take ownership of their creative process.

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