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.”
February 10, 2008
In full robot regalia, Daft Punk joined Kanye West onstage at the 50th Grammy Awards for a live version of his Daft Punk-sampling hit “Stronger.” It marked the first time Daft Punk had performed live on television. “Daft Punk’s live show had gotten the attention of the Grammy producers,” current Daft Punk manager/Daft Arts partner Paul Hahn says. “It was a rare event -- we thought, ‘Okay, maybe we can do something unique and elevated with a great artist like Kanye.’”
May 29, 2008
A spring 2008 interview with former Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter provided the first notification that Daft Punk had begun working on a new studio album. “The boys are in a studio in Paris at the moment,” Winter told Australian website In The Mix. “The good thing is that they are making music at the moment... [But] they are slow, you know... They are taking their time, and they have a right.” By that time, Daft Punk had in fact been working on the recordings that would become Random Access Memories off and on for nearly five months; in addition to the Paris sessions, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo would work in some of the world’s most legendary recording studios, like Electric Ladyland in New York and Los Angeles’ Henson Recording Studios (formerly the famed recording home for A&M Records); going back even farther, an embryonic version of “Contact” was played by Bangalter during 2002 DJ set. “In early 2008, just after the last show of the [Alive 2007] tour,” Daft Punk started recording parts of [Random Access Memories],” Hahn confirms today. “That got put on the backburner for Tron, and they weren’t able to get back into the studio until 2009. The last two and a half years have been a full-time recording odyssey.”
June 4, 2010
Daft Punk appear in a viral Adidas ad that reimagines the famous Star Wars “cantina scene.” “Daft Punk sitting with Han Solo? That was unbelievable,” Columbia VP Scott Greer says.
August 4, 2010
Former French prime minister Francois Mitterand officially inducted Bangalter and de Homem-Christo into the esteemed Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, bestowing upon each the rank of chevalier (the French word for “knight”).
July 14, 2010
The next update about Random Access Memories came from Paul Williams, songwriter of classic hits for Three Dog Night, The Carpenters, and The Muppets. In the video above, around 1:28, Williams says he’s currently “writing an album with a group called Daft Punk... A stadium act from France.”
Pharrell and Daft Punk had long been associated professionally, but the collaboration that would lead to their smash on “Get Lucky” and other Random Access Memories standouts like “Lose Yourself to Dance” began in earnest at this moment. Around this time, Daft Punk would produce “Hypnotize U,” a hit single for Pharrell’s group project N.E.R.D., which opened the door for additional contributions. “It’s a true story: Pharrell was at a party and said, ‘Anything you want me to do, I’ll do -- I’ll play tambourine on your next album,’” Hahn says. “He was in Paris and laid down one song; in the next couple days, Pharrell, Thomas, and Guy-Man did another track. The guys were so exuberant and energized by the experience, all three of them planned to do another track in 2011.”
October 21, 2010
Capping off the encore of Phoenix’s date at Madison Square Garden, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo made a surprise appearance onstage as Daft Punk. Rocking full robot outfits, Daft Punk played a medley of its beloved classics like “Around The World,” “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” “Rock ‘n Roll,” and “Human After All.” (The association wasn’t coincidental: Phoenix guitarist Lauren Brancowitz had played drums with Bangalter and de Homem-Christo in a pre-Daft Punk outfit called Darlin’.)
July 25, 2011
Another collaborator from Random Access Memories, Canadian indie musician Chilly Gonzales, casually reveals his participation in new Daft Punk music. “I worked with Daft Punk for their next project,” he told French website Sortir à Paris.
September 29, 2011
After photos circulated online earlier in the year, official Coca-Cola bottles designed by Daft Punk began to be distributed in the French market. Quickly becoming collectibles, the limited-edition series was known as “Daft Coke.”