First came Beyonce, then Kid Cudi, Skrillex and Wolfmother. "I think the surprise release is a one-trick pony," a major-label distribution exec says. "I am not sure it will work again"
Since midnight December 13, 2013, "pulling a Beyonce" has become shorthand for the music industry's favorite new marketing tactic — issuing a "surprise" album with little or no prior fanfare. But has the strategy paid off for those who've tried their own spin on the stealth approach?
The results thus far have varied, but the trend is likely here to stay. "This is going to happen, you know it and I know it," a senior major-label distribution executive tells Billboard. "By June, at least two more big artist will release an album without fanfare, just like Beyonce. I don't know who that will be, but it will happen."
Kid Cudi's "Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon," released surreptitiously at midnight on iTunes February 25, was the first major test of the Beyonce approach, with a well-known artist releasing new music without the aid of an advance single or promo campaign. Though the album moved an impressive 87,000 copies in its first week (enough to secure a No. 4 debut on the Billboard 200), it was nevertheless the rapper's smallest debut sales week for a solo project – trailing 2013's "Indicud" (136,000), 2010's "Man On The Moon II" (169,000) and 2009's "Man On The Moon" (104,000), according to Nielsen SoundScan.
And just last week, Skrillex became the latest entrant with "Recess," his first proper full-length album, which hit digital retailers one week after a surprise streaming preview on March 11. In Skrillex's case, the approach paid off in terms of sheer numbers – "Recess" was handily his best debut week, following 2012's "Bangarang" EP (24,000 copies) and his pair of "Monsters and Sprites" EPs.
Whether "Recess" can eventually top the 595,000 copies "Bangarang" has sold to date, or "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites"' 638,000 collective haul, remains to be seen. After all, the sheer jolt of surprised press and fans helped "Beyonce" outsell the singer's previous album "4" in just four weeks - a feat that other artists will struggle to top based on the lack of novelty.
"I think the surprise release is a one-trick pony," says the distribution executive. "I am not sure it will work again." Adds another sales executive, "I wonder when this is done frequently, does the surprise factor wane? If there are a lot of releases promoted this way, it will become less impactful. If mid-level and lower-level artists pile in, will the surprise get applied to the point where the public doesn't care anymore?"
One could argue that fatigue could already be working against Australian rockers Wolfmother, who quietly released an album, "New Crown," on Tuesday to a fraction of the press Beyonce, Skrillex and even Cudi received. Granted, Wolfmother has been off the scene since 2009's "Cosmic Egg, which sold 28,000 copies in its first week (126,000 to date) and hasn't had a hit album since 2006's self-titled set (597,000 copies to date). But the album's out-of-the-blue launch is likely just as due to frontman Andrew Stockdale's desire to part ways with the Wolfmother name, having told Billboard in April 2013, "For the last three years I've performed as Wolfmother, and I don't feel comfortable about it…Chris Ross, who played bass and keys in the first line-up when we started, he came up with that band name. That name was for me, Chris and (drummer) Myles Heskett. It became Wolfmother. Because of the success of the name, there was pressure then to call yourself Wolfmother. But it felt weird."
With the summer-release season around the corner, rumors are already swirling that everyone from Lana Del Rey to Lil Wayne to an un-named superstar with a "Beyonce"-like visual album could all be next in line.
Senior executives suggest that one-week surprise exclusives via streaming, a la Skrillex, could be a more viable model for other artists to try out, and require less make-goods to important accounts at retail, streaming services like Spotify, Beats and Vevo and influential radio programming directors in the long run. Irish folk-soul singer Hozier seems to be testing out this approach this week, having quietly released his second EP "From Eden" exclusively on Spotify this Tuesday. It's seemingly no coincidence, however, that Hozier is distributed by Columbia – home to Beyonce as well as David Bowie and Daft Punk, each of whom experimented with furtive release strategies through the label in 2013.
After all, by releasing "Beyonce" exclusively via iTunes in its first week of release, Beyonce made important frenemies out of Target and Amazon, and shoe-horned a visit to a Walmart in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, into her touring schedule on December 20 (an appearance where the singer handed out $37,500 in "free" gift cards, paid for by Sony.) Radio was also less than pleased by the Beyonce blitzkrieg, pushing back at Columbia's plans to release album track "Blow" to Top 40 for its racy lyrics, proposing Ryan Tedder ballad "XO" in its place over the album's release weekend.
So who's really the next Beyonce? A major-label president, who has not yet been involved in a surprise release, says, "This kind of event is the territory for maybe 10 artists in the world," the executive says, suggesting Rihanna, Eminem, Adele, Jay Z, P!nk and Justin Timberlake as a few examples of the artists in that elite camp. "It was a bold move that in many ways was a necessity. It's a credit to her being CEO of her brand, and having years of sold-out touring and a huge amount of anticipation built in for this album."