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.
Who were the masterminds of all this planning?
Myself and Justin and [PR/marketing firm M2M Construction]. And then, of course, we sat down with [RCA Records chiefs] Tom Corson and Peter Edge and said this is our vision, this is our idea, a lot of it you guys can help us execute. We had already pre-talked to some of the partners and they were already in, so when the conversation happened with Tom and Peter, they were like “let’s do it.” And Justin is creative, he’s not that artist that just sits back and lets people dictate what he’s gonna do. He’s very involved in all the creative stuff, from creating the music to the ideas to the album cover — and also the marketing of everything. And that’s a beautiful thing, because we all know when we’re marching, we’re marching based on a belief and an understanding of what Justin has and what he’s going to support. There’s no friction because he’s excited about the plan he crafted together with us.
When was album finished?
The album was finished … I wanna say the middle of July. It was a fast record. Justin had a short window because he had to actually fly to Puerto Rico and shoot a movie with Ben Affleck [“Runner, Runner,” out in September 2013]; he had like four weeks, him and Timbaland. I mean, he’d been thinking about it for years, but by the time they got the studio he had it inside of him — a direction he wanted to go. And his and Timbaland’s relationship is like a brotherhood: They’re just so comfortable with each other — not only as musical friends but as personal friends — that you can get things done in a short period of time. And Timbaland had been eager for the opportunity to get back in the studio with Justin because when those two come together there’s a lot of magic that happens.
Had [the Affleck movie] not happened, we might have actually set up and put the album out sooner. But because of that, the timeframe with that wouldn’t end till late September/early October, and then he had this little other thing that he got sidetracked on doing, which is called marriage. [Laughs – Timberlake married longtime girlfriend Jessica Biel in October 19.] And we weren’t in a rush: It’s been six-and-a-half years. So we said let’s just wait for the top of the year: we’ve got a plan, we’ve got partners that are willing to help us out with this, so let’s execute based on that, and that’s what he’s done.
So how did you keep the album secret for six months?
I mean, the people that Justin worked with were people that are his friends and have been a part of his life forever, and they all share in the common goal of, we don’t want this leaking out. We know what a surprise to the world this is going to be, and it’s also a part of our hard work that we sat in the studio night after night, day after day to work on. So no one’s going to try to ruin it. And we made everyone that was working on the album aware of what our plans were and how we actually wanted to market it, and everybody was super excited about it. So for someone to want to jump the gun and do that — there was no malice like that, because everybody stands to win. We just did it the way we all talked about doing it, and that’s the way it was.
But to be honest with you, outside of that group of people — you know, the people that manufactured the record and shipped it to stores and everything like that — I’m just as dumbfounded at the fact that the record hasn’t leaked sooner. Right now, because of the stream, people are figuring out a couple of ways to [bootleg it] and as that happens we’re taking them down, using every effort that we can, because we want to make this special for Tuesday. And I think that was one of the reasons we decided it would be okay to let it stream because we wanted people to hear it and not feel that they have to just download it. So go ahead: Listen to it as many times as you want. If you love it now, on Tuesday buy it or preorder it and have a copy. And the other thing to is that the way Justin’s created the booklet for it and everything, the photos that are inside, it’s beautiful. You wanna get the whole package.
Were there secret codenames for the project and things like that?
It was tough! I mean obviously, we had a couple of code names for things — I’m not gonna say what they are because we might wanna use the names again. It wasn’t called “Justin Timberlake.”
The hard part — and I give a lot of credit to Peter Edge and Tom Corson for this — was to get a whole international record company engaged and sending marketing plans and talking to them about what platforms might be available, and they couldn’t tell them who the artist was. So it was kind of one of those, “Hey, we’re thinking of having one of our artist do something in January or February, and they’re thinking about doing ‘Wetten, dass..?,’ can you tell us what their schedules are?” And it was all based on the fact that we wanted the single to be a surprise to people. It hit when the countdown clock hit [on January 10], and we pulled it off. So soon as the single was out, then all bets were off and now we can start having all the conversations that we wanted to have about the album itself, because now everybody realizes that Justin’s back in music.
Justin Timberlake performing at the Grammys
When did you start having conversations about the marketing?
We had conversations with the Target team in the early part of November — obviously we were having conversations with our label. Right around December, right before Christmas break, we had conversations with Ken Ehrlich and Neil Portnow at the Grammys — we wanted to put them on radar that something was coming and there was an opportunity for us to possibly to be involved with the Grammys. The marketing plan and conversations started to actually roll out, through some of the partners that we needed to have involved, I would say a week or so before Thanksgiving.
The album stream appeared on iTunes at an odd time, 5:20 p.m. ET or so. Was there any reason for that?
No. The only timeline plan was that when the single was launched, because Justin owns a brand called 901 — that’s the area code for [his hometown of] Memphis — so we wanted 9:01 [p.m. PT] to be the start time of when he launched the single. But the album, no, that’s just a coincidence.
Myspace streamed the single — why wasn’t it more involved with the album?
Justin’s been doing a lot of interviews and he’s done a couple of town halls where he’s previewed what the site is going to look like when it’s completely finished and open. The only problem with that was, unfortunately, at the time we were ready to release music, the site wasn’t ready to fully go live. So we did it in ways to continue to give you a sneak peek, but we couldn’t really exercise all of the platforms and the programs that are going to be on it when it goes live. But once it goes live — and I’m not really officially sure of the date, but it’s coming up — we have a lot of things that we are going to incorporate Myspace in, and I can give you one right now: One of the big things that Myspace had in the past that we are bringing back is secret shows. And Justin is actually flying to Austin Saturday as part of South by Southwest to reignite the secret shows, and he’s going to do one Saturday night in Austin.
Will Myspace stream the show?
We’re not doing a stream right now. They’re going to film it and hold it — we want to make sure that when we do that, the platform is open and fully functioning for everybody so as they get the best benefit out of Justin we get the best benefit out of them.
So the SXSW appearance is more of a Myspace play than a Timberlake promotion? Some people were a little confused that Justin was playing there: “The Super Bowl! The Grammys! And now … South by Southwest!”
[Laughs] That is strictly a Myspace play to let everyone know that Justin’s fully integrated, involved, and that secret shows were always a powerful thing for them. And this is one of the things that he’s going to be the first guy to stand up and say, “I believe in this and we’re going to continue to do this moving forward and I’m going to be one of the first ones to do it.” You’ll see a lot of that happening with the different platforms and opportunities that Myspace will give to other artists and emerging artists. Justin will take a big role in introducing a lot of those things as the site goes live and it becomes official.
And he’s going to tour on his own after the Jay-Z stadium tour this summer?
Yeah. Probably he’ll go out sometime in the fall. We haven’t routed that yet or figured out what cities we’re going to play. I know we’ll start in North America first. But again, our focus is getting the album out and getting the Jay/Justin piece done. And I would say sometime in April/May we’ll announce when Justin is going to put his own solo tour out.
How are the ticket sales so far?
Better than anybody could hope! There’s a bunch of them up that are already sold out, and the shows don’t even start playing until the 7th of July.
What will the sets be like? Will they do solo sets and then do one together?
I can’t really give that away right now. But that’s something for those two to talk about, which they will in the not too distant future. All I can say is it’s two of the biggest superstars in the world, and they’re gonna bring something that is going to be very special to the stage.
Are you expecting a big U2-sized production, or will it be more streamlined like the TV appearances?
Again, that is still something we’re working out. It’s Justin and Jay-Z so it’s gonna be spectacular, but I can’t tell what the dimensions will be — are people gonna be flying out the sky? I don’t know. We are in a mode right now to get this album released and those creative conversations will have to start next week when things kind of die down and Justin has more time to focus on them. But for the most part, no one will be disappointed.
Considering everything you’re doing in such a short period of time, are you concerned about overexposure?
You know what? It’s funny, because I don’t think so and I can only say that by this: We’re not doing half the stuff that I’ve seen other artists doing. I just think we were very strategic [in] the type of programs we’re doing. The Grammys are the biggest music program of the year, so we do that. We happened to do a private party [during Super Bowl week] — which wasn’t even something that we were doing to promote the music, it was for his charity — but it got a lot of coverage. That wasn’t a part of our marketing plan, it was just something that we did. The radio partnerships, too: Our record’s still on the move-up. We’re still trying to match the thing with Bruno Mars or Rihanna. So I don’t think that we’re overexposed in that situation. I just think, again, because we had a short window, it seems like a lot of things coming on top of each other.
And don’t forget: when you haven’t been in the music mix for that many years, you have to go on multiple platforms to make sure people are out there. The worst thing that I can hear is, “Oh, I didn’t know Justin had a record coming out.” That’s the kiss of death. So for me I would rather people say, “Hey, I see this everywhere and know that it’s coming” than say “I didn’t know anything about it.”