Last week, one of the most enduring names in the music industry, Eminem, released a surprise album. This follows the lead of several musicians who in recent years have tried to avoid the stagnation of their brand by using surprise releases.
But what lies behind this trend? Can an album release with no preceding hype really maximise buzz and sales?
Music vs Online – creating harmony in the digital sphere
The music industry has transformed since the turn of the millennium. As albums lose importance and staggered single releases become the norm, it’s now difficult for even the biggest artists to maintain relevance.
So some of them are using surprise album releases to regain clout within the industry.
With the dawn of online streaming and social media, many musicians and labels are struggling to keep up in the constantly evolving digital world. This decade has seen the rapid decline of physical sales with streaming revenues finally overtaking physical revenues earlier this year.
Some artists have decried this trend as harmful and destructive for the music industry. From Adele to Taylor Swift, a number of stars in the industry have withheld their music from streaming services (at least for the first few months after release) in protest of the “disposable” and allegedly unprofitable nature of the platforms. Even the late great Prince disapproved of the online streaming of music, noting that he wanted to “reclaim his art” on the internet.
Despite this, the IFPI reports that streaming now occupies 38% of music consumption and digital music revenues increased by almost $10bn in 2017.
The surprise album: power to the artist
Arguably the most notable surprise release of recent times was Beyonce’s self-titled visual album of 2013. The album was greeted with critical acclaim and captured the attention of fans across the world. Her previous album, 4, hadn’t matched the commercial success of her other outputs, and only her diehard fanbase the ‘Beyhive’ created buzz around the LP.
However, Beyonce’s self-titled surprise album put her firmly back in centre stage as it became the best-selling album by a female artist in 2013 within ten days of its release.
In the years following, many other music industry giants including Drake and Rihanna opted for surprise album releases. And now 5 years later, the market seems saturated with these surprise comebacks and releases. Yet that hasn’t ebbed the flow of enthusiasm that they produce.
Eminem’s latest endeavour Kamikaze is set to reach number 1 on the Billboard 200 charts and has provoked a huge number of conversations online. This is in part due to the number of disses on the album and some of its offensive content.
Nevertheless, it demonstrates the fact that the surprise album can still do a lot for established artists.
Navigating online branding – what the music industry can teach us
But what is behind the resurgence of this trend in the digital space?
Surprise album releases have helped artists to stand out from the crowd of eye-catching (and ear-catching) online content. And this is just one way of grabbing consumers’ attention among the online whirlwind of controversial tweets and viral memes. Brands are now using innovative strategies including social media influencers and viral challenges to increase engagement. However, some of these campaigns have been criticised with accusations of ‘slacktivism’ and a lack of authenticity. And even the surprise album is now becoming a predictable trope.
So as audiences get accustomed to seeing more surprising content online, brands and artists alike need to create distinct new content to remain relevant and appealing. No longer can they rely on traditional marketing methods. In 2018, brands need to scale up their online campaigns in order to capture consumers’ attention and, ultimately, create buzz in the Beyhive.