Justin Timberlake has a rare ability to seem to be everywhere without actually being in that many places. In a way, the marketing around his new album, The 20/20 Experience – out on RCA today – has taken a note from the way he managed to keep his solo musical career in the spotlight by not releasing any music of his own for six years: It might seem like he’s ubiquitous, but he’s not. He’s just chosen what he’s doing to promote the album very strategically for maximum impact: Some strategic online marketing; a couple of high-profile branding and radio campaigns; appearances on the Grammy and Brit Awards, “Saturday Night Live” and a week on “Jimmy Fallon”; a few buzz-building concerts; announcing a summer stadium tour with Jay-Z -- sure, it’s all big, and it all came within two months. But compared with a lot of other album-release campaigns, it’s much more quality over quantity -- and very, very few artists could be so selective and still go so big.
As RCA Records president/COO Tom Corson told Billboard.biz, "While it feels like he is everywhere, he has been going with less-is-more. The looks he has been getting have either been large events or strategic. He hasn't been doing every TV or print opportunity."
But perhaps most impressively of all, Timberlake, his management and label kept the entire project -- and the marketing campaign around it, exhaustively detailed in this timeline -- secret from the public for months. A couple of gossip sites reported that an album was underway, but the reports were denied and word didn’t get out. The fact that David Bowie – who had been largely off the radar for nearly a decade --announced that he’d completed a secret new album a couple of weeks before Timberlake announced his only adds to the skill of the stealth campaign around The 20/20 Experience.
Here, in a phone conversation last week from the set of the Fallon show, Timberlake’s longtime manager Johnny Wright talks at length about how the album came together, how they and RCA planned an international marketing campaign so quietly, the partnerships around the album, Justin’s role with Myspace, touring plans and much more.
Billboard.Biz: When did the planning for The 20/20 Experience really begin?
Johnny Wright: I guess the conversation really started off three years ago, when I thought maybe Justin would be interested in going back into music. We had a general discussion about how, [because] a lot of the physical record sellers were gone, by the time we’ve got music again we need to think about different ways to deliver it. So we started a general conversation about maybe putting an app together, and maybe doing a situation where we [released a song] every month. There were multiple things we actually talked about, but there wasn’t any movement for him to go back into music [at the time].
[Last year], probably around the late part of May/first week in June, he asked me to dinner and he said, “Guess where I’ve been the past couple of nights?” I said I don’t know, where? He said, “I’ve been in the studio with Timbaland.” I said what are you guys working on? And he said, “I’m working on my stuff.” I was kind of shocked because, you know, I wasn’t prepared for that!
Immediately that started the conversation of, “Okay, how are we gonna put it out?” I like to do this thing where we do a countdown clock and then deliver music from it -- so what are we gonna deliver? At one point we even talked about having the countdown clock go into streaming the whole album, but then obviously we had to have conversations with the label and partners who wanted to be involved with the release of his music. So we ended up compromising and putting a single out and shortening the window to the album [release], because [usually artists] put the single out then wait three or four months for the album. But we said we really want to do this in a shorter period of time, so let’s put the single out and [release the album] seven or eight weeks after that -- make it a short window, and because we have such a short window, we have to make a big impact.
Justin Timberlake and manager Johnny Wright (second from right)
We were lucky that there were some [big] platforms coming up in that window of eight weeks: One of them was the Grammys, so let’s go have a conversation to see if we can perform a song there. Another one was the Brit Awards in the UK, then “Wetten, dass..?” a huge television show in Germany, and then Justin’s relationship with “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” As the plan between us started to come together, it was like, instead of doing the single on every one of these performances, why don’t we perform a different song? We figured at some point the album would in some way get out, but we kind of wanted to deliver it to them first in visual way. So when we performed on the Grammys, that was the first live television performance of “Suit & Tie” with Jay-Z, and then we segued into a new record from the album called “Pusher Love Girl.” For the Brit Awards [and Wetten, dass…?”] we performed “Mirrors,” another song off the album. And then when we came back to do “SNL,” we decided to do “Suit & Tie” and because visually no one in America had seen “Mirrors,” so we did that. And knowing that we had five nights on “Fallon,” it was like, let’s deliver a bunch of new records. The theory was that by the time we got to the release of the album, at least half of it would have been performed on major TV platforms.
And then we have relationship with iTunes where we agreed to allow them to stream the album a week before it was released, because again we weren’t afraid of letting people hear the music. We want people to be engaged; this whole album is an experience. And then from a radio perspective we had Clear Channel Radio, CBS, and all of our radio friends that embraced us -- Clear Channel is doing what we call a “road block” [within] 24 hours, playing the new single every hour. And now on Monday night, we’re gonna take over 175 radio stations and have a live performance from El Rey in L.A., where Justin is gonna perform a half hour and Ryan Seacrest is gonna do an interview with him.
We have Target and Budweiser, who became a big partner with us, and we created two big TV commercials promoting the album. That gave us a great visibility and they’re the underwriters of the event that we are going to do in L.A. So in a short period of time we were able to have a great relationship with radio, we were able to stream the album, we were able to have a great relationship with iTunes, we were able to have able to have a relationship with a lot of great TV partners being a part of Justin’s career. Everybody basically came to the table and presented an opportunity for us to get a lot done in a short period of time. And it’s been a fun experience. We were very lucky that we had all these opportunities and these partners that wanted to give us these platforms.