The Surprise Release Is A Good Strategy If You're in the One Percent of the One Percent

Kendrick Lamar
Kevin Winter/WireImage

Kendrick Lamar accepts the Best Rap Album award for 'To Pimp a Butterfly' onstage during The 58th Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Feb. 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, Calif. 

Your band probably shouldn't put out an album without telling anybody in advance.

The names read like a list of Grammy performers or A-list festival headliners: Beyonce, U2, Jay Z, Radiohead, Drake, Eric Church, David Bowie, Frank Ocean, D’Angelo, Skrillex, Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar -- all artists who have embraced the surprise album release strategy.

The surprise album is turning into an effective option for the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The more popular the artist, the more the surprise album works. Social media goes crazy. Online and print media go crazy. The country, if not the world, is talking about the album as a result. Consumers often complain it’s difficult to find out about new music -- but that’s hardly the case when a surprise album dominates at least one news cycle.

Not every artist can do it. The average artist has good reason to stick with a more standard release plan. It isn’t easy to get consumers’ attention; artists routinely use email lists and fan clubs to whet fans’ appetites, their labels promote singles at radio, create marketing plans that involved download stores, streaming sites and brick-and-mortar retail. Managers and labels spend years, if not decades, cultivating these relationships and, typically, can’t ignore them.

Imagine what would happen if a developing or mid-market artist unexpectedly released an album. Some less-trafficked corners of social media might spend a few minutes talking about it. Neither USA Today or NPR would cover the news. Retailers and subscription services, more accepting of the A-list artist’s surprise release, might wonder why they were left out.

Lamar unexpectedly released Untitled Umastered today (Mar. 4), a collection of, yes, untitled and unreleased masters of songs Lamar had seemingly recorded between 2013 to the present day. The only suggestion of the upcoming album was a cryptic message posted Tuesday on Instagram by Lamar’s manager and head of his label, TDE chief executive Anthony Tiffith. “I won’t say who or what,” he teased in a post that had 4,700 likes on Friday morning.

Radiohead is the modern-day innovator of the surprise album. The band made waves when it released its 2008 album In Rainbows and allowed fans to name their price. Any payment — all the way down to zero — would get you an album download. (Contrary to many predictions, pay-what-you-want pricing didn’t become the norm.) Radiohead’s 2012 album King of Limbs was also made available without advance notice. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke took the same path with his surprise release of his 2014 album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, which he released through BitTorrent as a $6 download.

Some genres are less likely to use the strategy. Take country music, a genre where radio play is key. Radio is not only kept in the loop, it drives country music sales. A typical album release is preceded by at least one single that can take half a year to make its way up the charts. An album’s release date can be as flexible as chart success requires. Is the first single a hit? Release the album. If not, try another song.

Eric Church is an exception. His 2015 album Mr. Misunderstood was given a stealth release that wasn’t announced until Church played the title track on last year’s CMA Awards. But Church is a bit of an outside country insider. The Mr. Misunderstood album roll-out included the quiet participation of indie record stores, a type of retailer that’s generally not into country music and gets left behind when a major artist does a stealth album.

A handful of underground artists have made news by dropping surprise releases on an unassuming public. My Bloody Valentine released its long-awaited debut album in 2013, 22 years after its predecessor, Loveless. Death Grips took the same route in 2013 when it made Government Plates available as a free download with no advance warning, as it did with its debut, self-titled record. That wasn’t entirely surprising given the duo’s history of unusual, unexpected behavior (most notable was getting dropped by Epic Records in 2012 after leaking its album No Love Deep Deep Web). Mysterious dubstep artist Burial released EPs in 2011 and 2013, although fans had a week notice in both cases.

The surprise album fits underground or independent artists that have both freedom and a cult following. And as seen with Lamar, Jay Z, Beyonce and other A-list artists, the surprise album can have the impact (but not the cost) of a six-month promotional campaign while solving the problem of pesky online leaks. But for everybody else the strategy is a dangerous choice -- only a few artists can start from a dead stop. Everybody else needs momentum.