Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’: A Timeline of the Global Teaser Campaign

It started with a Facebook post: Two helmets, one gold and one silver, halved and fused down the center, set against plain black. Then came the 15-second ad, aired during the March 2 episode of “Saturday Night Live”; its first appearance online was through an excited fan’s YouTube video of his TV screen.  With each viral salvo, it was clear all bets were off: reclusive electronic music icons Daft Punk were releasing a new album -- eventually revealed as Random Access Memories -- and nothing about how it came to be would prove traditional, in the process unleashing one of the most tactical and innovative marketing campaigns in music business history.

With the album finally being released this Tuesday, May 21, .Biz has painstakingly crafted the following timeline/oral history outlining how, step by step, key players -- including Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer, Columbia senior VP of marketing Scott Greer, band manager Paul Hahn, and publicist and Biz3 owner Kathryn Frazier -- worked together on this groundbreaking campaign that has transformed Daft Punk’s fourth studio LP into 2013’s most undeniable pop-culture moment thus far.

October 28, 2008
Daft Punk themselves first tantalize that a new release is on the horizon in a 2008 interview. “Right now we are making music in Paris,” de Homem-Christo told Stop Smiling magazine. “We are free of all our record contracts, so any direction is possible.” The seeds for what would become Random Access Memories’ marketing strategy seemed already planted in the duo’s minds. “The development of a subculture of uncontrolled gatherings is interesting to us,” Bangalter said. “We like to play with old memories and different ideas and influences. Combining them produces something different and surreal, where you can’t really recall where you’ve seen this combination before. We live to play with clichés and to destroy or change the parameters.”

Coca Cola - Daft Coke from magicgarden on Vimeo.

“At Columbia, we work with artists from the ground up, whether it’s MGMT, J. Cole, or Foster The People,” Greer said. “We value collaboration with the artists. There’s no template, or singular campaign formula: rolling out Bowie’s new album was very different from the Adele plan. It takes that approach and experience to develop an artist like Adele, or work with Daft Punk on a global focus.” “The analogy I told Rob Stringer at our first lunch with him in July was, ‘We have this signal, and you guys are the amplifier to broadcast it to the world,’” Hahn said. “We wanted to meet not just with top brass, but also product managers and the international digital teams. How everything was integrated globally was important; we felt there was a certain power in making sure what you saw in Denmark was the same in Israel. In order to achieve that, we worked with Columbia’s organization to harmonize all the different territories.”

In that very first meeting, the band appealed to Columbia’s sense of history immediately, laying out its vision of billboards and gradual reveals. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo even gave Stringer a copy of coffee-table book, "Rock N Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip." “The marketing campaign they’d proposed was an extension of Daft Punk’s creative process -- like how, say, a Kubrick film was marketed,” Greer says. “It was about going back to how music and blockbuster films were marketed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was fitting as nostalgia elements for those eras float through the music. This campaign was all about injecting that feeling into a modern marketing approach.”

 

Field Day Radio - with Grimes, Chilly Gonzales and Four Tet by Field Day Radio on Mixcloud

 

In an interview for an Internet radio series, Gonzales confirmed he’d not only recorded with Daft Punk for a new album, but also indicated (correctly) when it was slated to be released. “I played for hours and they’re going to grab what they are going to grab and turn it into whatever,” Gonzales said of the session with Bangalter and de Homem-Christo. “[The album is] going to come out next spring.”
 
August 2012
Daft Punk gave Stringer and Columbia president Ashley Newton their first preview of Random Access Memories in total during summer 2012, a few weeks before the album’s final mix down. “Hearing the album for the first time was a very exciting experience, and a bit nerve-wracking for us,” Columbia chairman/CEO Rob Stringer says. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, if we don’t get this I’ll be depressed for life.’”
 
After hearing the album, Stringer was on board with Daft Punk’s innovative, strategic plan for marketing and promotion. “We wanted it to be a campaign of weight, like when record companies had the confidence that they had a big, big record,” he says, pointing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as an example. “In a way, nothing changes in that dynamic. We believe this is a big, big record in many ways.” “Daft Punk have reach in dance culture, but it was clear with Random Access Memories they were now making a mainstream pop event,” Greer says. “It’s a complex, intricate record, produced with a lot of craft, but that still has mass appeal. When we listened to it, we realized the kind of global scope it would have.”

Around this time, Columbia and Daft Punk finalized their unique deal to partner on the release of Random Access Memories -- not a 360 arrangement as some had speculated, and encompassing one album only. “We just want to have our autonomy and be able to find the right partners for each endeavor, but that’s not to say our relationship with Columbia won’t expand,” Hahn says. “We hope it’s a long-term relationship.”

January 15, 2013
“We decided to do really limited press worldwide,” said Daft Punk’s longtime publicist, Kathryn Frazier. “We wanted to do only iconic things, like the cover of Rolling Stone.” Frazier began a series of hush-hush listening events for Random Access Memories in early 2013. “Paul Hahn and I were the only people who had the music, which we kept in the famous titanium suitcases,” Frazier says. “I wanted the listening sessions to be like a sensory deprivation tank, where all you could focus on was the music. It’s a big record with so much to take in -- you can’t just drop it at the door. It’s not a collection of electronic club bangers Daft Punk fans might expect, so creating context for it is everything.” “We’d searched a long time for the sound of the future. This time we stopped searching,” Bangalter says.

January 26, 2013
A rumor reported in a French newspaper suggested, at a release party for fellow Parisian electronic-music colleage Kavinsky, that de Homem-Christo had let slip Daft Punk had signed to Sony Music/Columbia, with a release date sometime in the spring. “Kavinsky and Guy-Man denied having that conversation,” Hahn says. “But by not answering the question, it makes the question more interesting. I think it was William Blake who said the point of all art is to deepen the mystery: for us, mystique is what’s exciting.”

February 28, 2013
The first official release of Random Access Memories’ iconic split-helmet cover image is posted on Facebook and Daft Punk’s site -- the prominently-displayed Columbia logo confirming rumors as to which label would be putting out the band’s next album. It was the first of very, very few direct engagements with the digital world.

“It worked like the old-school Batman TV series, with the bat signal searchlight,” Hahn says. “We wanted to announce the album with some theater; doing it that way signified a ripple in the force. You could feel the mythology of the creative cycle starting, but the myth wasn’t the artwork: it was how fans were documenting and creating the narrative -- the connective tissue was the audience themselves. My favorite tweet was, ‘Daft Punk posts jpeg, crashes Internet.’”

The teaser’s first appearance, meanwhile, would not appear online via Daft Punk or Columbia’s machinations, but appeared first via an excited fan’s YouTube video of his TV screen -- right in line with the ongoing analog-to-digital strategy. “The first time the SNL teaser appeared on the Internet was when someone videotaped it off their TV set,” Greer says. “Then Pitchfork picked it up.”

SNL was only one salvo in a simultaneous global campaign, where the teaser was rolled out in different markets, in different ways. Led by the United States, the teaser’s reveal happened harmoniously across all Columbia markets worldwide: Stringer and team had traveled to London and took meetings with the marketing teams from every country, explaining the rollout. “Everyone [was given] their mission statements and facing the same direction on this,” Greer says. “We told them, ‘This is the date the spot’s going to premiere on SNL. You can then place your spot on [your market’s] relevant pop culture show after that date.’” “In the U.K., we did a ‘roadblock,’ where every commercial TV station ran the ‘Get Lucky’ teaser at the same time,” Hahn says. “You’d flip channels, and all you’d see is ‘Get Lucky.’”

March 8, 2013
Random Access Memories’ global rollout continued when a series of billboards of the cover image appeared at the beginning of South By Southwest. “We had them up even before the music part of SXSW,” Greer says. “We wanted them to be there for [SXSW’s] film and tech [conferences], too, because we knew this project appealed across of all of that media. People thought Daft Punk might actually be playing at SXSW, or that the album -- fans even independently created flyers saying ‘Disco Alive 3.5.13.’ It really got imaginations running wild.”

“Why don’t more bands put ads on billboards, when fat-reduction pills and local car-insurance companies do?” Hahn asked. “We wanted to do something bold and audacious, creating a moment bigger than life, like a big film or product launch. With the billboards, we wanted to impart a physical, visceral quality, and create something of permanence.”

The billboards soon started appearing in a number of global locations -- from the Bowery in New York City to Old Street in London. “The idea was how you’d see a Stevie Wonder or Pink Floyd billboard on Sunset Boulevard back in the day, and it would tell a story without a ton of copy,” Greer said. “The billboards appearing was a slow reveal, as if to say, ‘This shit is coming, and it’s for real.’ According to Greer, staggering the billboards was “a tactical decision. It was not about volume, but where you placed them. We didn’t place billboards in Times Square, where there are thousands of billboards, but where they’d be relevant and impactful.”

Those who spied them shared them immediately and began posting pictures to Twitter and Instagram by the thousands; on Reddit, one fan even created a map of billboard sightings. “When that guy on Reddit created that map, he was helping create the mythology, because everything hadn’t been spelled out,” Greer says. “It hearkened back to stuff like Led Zeppelin’s [fourth album, with four symbols for a title], where the presentation suggested there was something deeper to be uncovered, and the fan has to find it for themselves.”

“Mystery is very important to us,” de Homem-Christo told Stop Smiling in 2008. “Like what Led Zeppelin did on their fourth album, it’s important to me and Thomas that, when you listen to our music or watch our movies, there’s a big space for your own interpretation. We spent a lot of time and energy at the beginning trying to smash all the preconceived ideas that people had about electronic or house music, and now people see it differently. It’s really good to break all the rules and barriers.”

Over the following few weeks, Random Access Memories was played for journalists in select offices -- with a CD of the album carried around by key staff in a locked briefcase. The journalists had to sign non-disclosure agreements before they were allowed to hear the album.

March 15, 2013
Two Daft Punk billboards appeared around Miami as the Ultra Music Festival kicked off; the Random Access Memories teaser was projected on a wall across from Ultra’s venue entrance during the duration of the event.

“Having a presence at Ultra dipped into the core audience of the band,” Greer says. “The dance community felt a part of it. Rumors began flying that Daft Punk was playing.” Masks of the cover-art helmet were also distributed to concertgoers. “When I suggested the idea of masks, Paul Hahn said 'I want them to be a collectible,’” Greer says. “So I told the street team, ‘I’m giving you 5,000 masks -- give out 1,500 a day. I want them to be scarce.”

As with the first "SNL" teaser, massive social-media spikes and additional fan responses followed -- a reaction was foreseen by Daft Punk even at the dawn of Random Access Memories’ creation, as a 2008 interview with the duo makes clear.

“It’s really flattering to see that people bounce different stuff off what we do,’ de Homem-Christo told Stop Smiling magazine. “It’s really cool because everyone can give their own interpretation. With small video cameras and computers, it’s gotten so much more creative than before; with the right tools, you can create whatever you want. It’s just funny to see so many different ideas and different stuff. It’s cool... What people [do] on YouTube is far more exciting -- much more lively than what we could do ourselves.”

March 25, 2013
Additional snipes and billboards went up in the same spaces in the same markets they’d appeared in before -- but this time featuring the Random Access Memories title and copy confirming this was indeed a new album from Daft Punk. “We kept the same real estate, but to reveal something new the following week,” Greer says.

“Normally we do everything through Daft Arts, but we did The Collaborators series with Vice and The Creators Project,” Hahn says. “We thought, why not create a context where the collaborators [on Random Access Memories] can have a more elevated conversation around the album? It was an interesting way to deal with the quandary of marketing with the absence of music: you didn’t hear the actual music, but instead the collaborators talking about it and what their experience was. Again, that only deepened the mystery.” The Collaborators spots would even create their own replicable meme. “I loved the Funny or Die spoofs of The Collaborators -- that made me amazingly happy,” Hahn says.

April 9, 2013
The official unveiling of Random Access Memories was announced to occur not in an expected metropolis like Los Angeles, New York, or Paris, but in rural Australia, at the 79th Annual Wee Waa Show -- a local agricultural fair that annually celebrates the year’s cotton harvest, located in a town with a population of 2,100: "This year’s event will be highly anticipated with the announcement of Daft Punk, a French band with millions of fans worldwide, having chosen the Wee Waa Show to become the official global site for the launch of their new album on Friday 17 May 2013."

The incongruity of this announcement quickly became another phenomenon across the Web. “We wanted to do different launch events around the world, and the Aussie wing of Sony helped come up with this idea, with distinctly Australian wit,” Hahn says. “That event isn’t a joke, but is playful and celebratory. The alchemy of pop culture is so funny: it’s interesting and awesome that event got picked up and traveled around the globe so broadly.”

“The GM of Australia was quoted in the daily paper!” Greer adds. “In a vacuum, anything can be news: that went out into the ether and became a big story.”

According to Hahn, “Rumors that Daft Punk were going to play a secret set were so powerful, especially because the band is so close to Phoenix,” with whom Daft Punk had last performed onstage, and who were appearing at Coachella 2013 as a headliner.

“When Daft Punk played Coachella in 2006, it was inspiring to us,” Hahn continued. “Rolling out the teaser there was our way of tipping our hat to that audience. We’d planned to air the spot on "SNL" the following Saturday, so we thought, ‘How cool would it be to share it first with the audience that supported us and set this in motion?’ Guy-Man, Thomas, and I were all there, watching from the audience -- we didn’t want to miss feeling that energy.” “

In addition to sales, “Get Lucky” set a Spotify record for first-day streams upon its release. “What’s most exciting about the Spotify thing is that people are listening,” Hahn explains. “We decided early on, we’re not here to tell people how to listen, or whether they buy the music. It’s staggering that within 24 hours of releasing the song, there were millions of streams -- just so many people hearing the music. What’s so remarkable about Spotify is the actual numbers are incredible: radio remains just as powerful, but you can’t quantify it in that way.”

At the same time, Hahn is excited that “Get Lucky” “has been embraced by multiple radio formats. It’s a song that crosses cultural divides: it’s #1 in Russia, Singapore, and Denmark, and gets play on KCRW, Power 106, and KROQ.” “When was the last time you heard a record cross over like that, hitting urban, alt-radio, and tastemaker stations?” Greer says. “’Maybe Adele? I guess you could draw a parallel with Gnarls Barkley. ‘Get Lucky’ charted on Rhythmic, Top 40, Alternative, and Dance charts: That took shape on its own from the pent-up enthusiasm. It’s a thrilling byproduct.”April 28, 2013
Continuing to assert its worldwide appeal, “Get Lucky” becomes Daft Punk’s first single to top the U.K. pop charts.

May 21, 2013
Daft Punk will officially release Random Access Memories on Columbia Records across all formats. Without naming specific estimates, the label expects a staggering first-week sales number based on existing information. “Pre-orders hit ridiculous numbers -- especially vinyl,” Greer says. “The vinyl pre-order alone charted at #3 on Amazon!”

“We spent five years working on this record and focusing on that,” Bangalter told Triple J. “The first step is by releasing it -- we just like to have people experience the record being this focal point. We’ll see next what we want to do.”

The Future
“I think it’s the soundtrack of the year,” says Stringer, who feels Random Access Memories will have an exceptionally long shelf life. He points to “at least four radio records” on the album, including “Lose Yourself to Dance” (another jam featuring Pharrell) and “Instant Crush” (an infectious pop-rock track with Julian Casablancas on vocals), amidst other opportunities. “Licensing and synchs will be dramatic,” Stringer adds.

“To be continued,” Hahn says of Daft Punk’s all-encompassing assault on pop culture via Random Access Memories. “It’s not just about the launch, but the band’s entire creative cycle. There’s more to come -- all kinds of surprises, not just from us, but the audience, too.”