Over the last few years, the music industry’s long-untouched approach to releasing albums has been steadily chopped to pieces by alternate distribution methods, and artists finding ingenious ways to subvert the traditional album rollout.
Whether it’s the surprise album, the exclusive release, the brand partnership, the windowed rollout, or any combination of the three — or even surprises via snail mail — here are 20 innovative album releases from the past three years.
The Justin Timberlake
Album: The 20/20 Experience Pts. I and II
Release Date: March 15, 2013; Sept. 27, 2013
Strategy: It had been more than six years since Timberlake put out an album when he released lead single “Suit & Tie” featuring Jay Z in January of 2013, and after an extended and successful foray into acting, fans were ready for his return. Accordingly, the first of the two albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 968,000 copies in its first week, the highest sales week of 2013. Shortly afterward he announced the companion second side, released almost exactly six weeks later, with the double-packaged The 20/20 Experience – The Complete Experience arriving on the same day. Timberlake wasn’t the first to split albums in half, but his was a remarkably successful effort.
The Jay Z
Album: Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Release Date: July 4, 2013
Strategy: No stranger to changing the game, Jay Z partnered with Samsung in a deal worth a reported $20 million to release his 12th solo studio album on the 4th of July, delivering digital downloads to the first one million Samsung Galaxy phone owners who downloaded a custom app upon release. Jay claimed that made MCHG a platinum album overnight, saying that Samsung purchased each copy for $5, and the RIAA agreed — but Billboard‘s charts department did not, arguing that sales count when people buy the albums, not corporations. Regardless, when it became available for sale on July 7, fans still bought it in droves, and MCHG became Hov’s 13th No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 (including collaborative projects with R. Kelly, Linkin Park and Kanye West), selling 528,000 copies in its first week.
The Beyonce, Part I
Release Date: Dec. 13, 2013
Strategy: When people talk about the “surprise album” release strategy these days, Beyonce’s self-titled fifth solo album is generally held up as the prototype. Conceived, recorded and filmed (individual videos for all 14 songs, as well as three additional videos, were made available upon release) in secret, Beyonce caught fans and the industry by surprise when she released the album — right in the middle of her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, no less — exclusively via the iTunes Store without even any indication she had been working on one at all. Beyonce debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 617,000 copies sold, despite the fact it had only been available for three days of the tracking week, and set in motion a trend that permeated release strategies ever since.
Album: Songs of Innocence
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2014
Strategy: Long associated with Apple’s iconic iPod ads in the mid-2000s, U2 partnered with the company to release Songs of Innocence directly to iPhone users’ iTunes libraries, with their single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” the soundtrack to a media campaign reportedly valued at $100 million. The unorthodox release made the album available to 500 million people worldwide for free, with Apple announcing that 81 million people “experienced” the album in its first month of availability. The release was certainly effective in terms of scale and revenue, but retailers — left in the dark as Apple flexed a five-week exclusive window — and fans were less than pleased. A month later, Bono apologized, saying, “I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves.”
The Global Listening Event
Album: What a Time to Be Alive
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2015
Strategy: Drake and Future‘s What a Time to Be Alive album/mixtape had so much buzz that fans were creating unaffiliated web sites with countdowns that led to nothing, all designed to capitalize on the feverish hype of the two hottest rappers in the game at the moment putting out a full-length joint project. But what Drake did was use his OVO Sound radio to debut the record in its entirety — the first time he would utilize that particular platform to create what he called a “global listening event” (DJ Khaled and others would use the same formula). The album became available immediately after the show ended as an Apple exclusive, and shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — the second No. 1 album of 2015 for each artist.
The Eric Church
Album: Mr. Misunderstood
Release Date: Nov. 3, 2015
Strategy: Technology, digital, streaming, downloads, exclusives — there have been a lot of buzz words flying around the music industry in recent years as everybody races to embrace the next new trend. But then came Nov. 3, when members of Eric Church’s fan club opened their collective mailboxes to find a brand new album — a physical CD, no less! — delivered directly to them with no prior warning. A bit of retail subterfuge that occurred ahead of time left some stores in the dark and others confused, while the album was marketed as an iTunes digital download exclusive for its first seven days before making its way to streaming services.
Release Date: Nov. 20, 2015
Strategy: With streaming consumption growing more dominant by the week, most artists would find it risky to cut out the platform when releasing an album. But Adele is not most artists. Withholding a new album from streaming services is not exactly a novel tactic — Adele did it for her last album, 21, as did Taylor Swift, Coldplay and others — but it certainly helped the British singer shatter the 15-year-old record for most sales in a single week with 3.38 million copies in the first seven days after its release. This June, seven months after 25 his shelves, Adele finally released the album to streaming services, which promptly propelled it back into the top 10 of the Billboard 200.
The David Bowie
Release Date: Jan. 8, 2016
Strategy: In life, there’s only one really final hurrah, and it can be difficult to get right. But not for David Bowie. Having hidden his cancer from all but a few close acquaintances, he revealed the creepy, prophetic video for lead single “Lazarus” on Jan. 7, in which he sings of being in heaven while strapped to a hospital bed. Three days later, the legendary artist was dead, leaving behind a final goodbye for fans that loved him worldwide. It may not have been an innovative release strategy, per se, but you won’t find many imitators — that’s for sure.
Release Date: Jan. 29, 2016
Strategy: Taking a leaf from Jay Z’s book, Rihanna partnered with Samsung for the release of her long-awaited Anti album in a deal that, all assets included, was rumored to be worth $25 million. That included a sponsorship for her world tour as well as an eight-part interactive “diary,” essentially an app that allowed fans to explore different virtual rooms that were unlocked over November and December of 2015. Album delays left fans hanging after the last room opened, however, until the end of January when her single “Work” featuring Drake finally emerged on radio. Anti was released the night of Jan. 27 as a Tidal streaming and download exclusive — the most high-profile exclusive for the service to that point — and as a free download for one million Samsung users bundled with a free 60-day trial of Tidal, although an early leak marred the rollout. It was released widely to digital distributors on Jan. 29, but the awkward timing of the release meant Anti initially debuted at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 based on just its first day of availability, before it soared to the summit the following week.
The Kanye West
Album: The Life of Pablo
Release Date: Feb. 14, 2016
Strategy: “Unprecedented” might be a bit of an understatement for the strangest album rollout in recent history. But Kanye is known for pushing the envelope, and this time he kept pushing it even after Pablo had been released. West initially premiered the album at his Yeezy 3 fashion show on Feb. 11, live-streamed both on Tidal and at movie theaters across the world (fans received a voucher for a digital download of the album when purchasing tickets), even though the album still wasn’t done. Then, following his Feb. 14th appearance on Saturday Night Live, he finally released the album, initially as an exclusive stream on Tidal and as a $20 download on his own site, only to remove the download option a short time later because he was unhappy with the masters. But Pablo remained streaming on Tidal for six weeks, even as West continued to tinker with the final mixes — tweaking production, adding lyrics and verses — and declared the album would never be for sale. But on April 1, Pablo was released to all streaming services and digital retailers, and Pablo eventually became the first-ever album to debut atop the Billboard 200 albums chart with the majority of its equivalent album units coming from streams. (Tidal declined to report its streams to Nielsen Music in the six weeks prior.)
Album: I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
Release Date: Feb. 26, 2016
Strategy: Playing favorites without committing fully to one service, The 1975 debuted their latest album — their first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — on paid subscription streaming services, rolling the dice by excluding Spotify for the first two weeks of its release. That’s a strategy that Coldplay and others have employed in the past, but The 1975 added a wrinkle by padding their pockets with Apple money; in the week leading up to the album’s release, they performed the first-ever live event put on by Apple’s Beats 1 Radio, an exclusive stream that debuted the night before the album’s release.
The Beyonce, Part II
Release Date: April 23, 2016
Strategy: “Formation” appeared on YouTube with no advance warning on Feb. 6, the day before Beyonce performed the song during her explosive Super Bowl Halftime Show set. The album itself got a cryptic seven-day teaser trailer, promising a “world premiere event” on HBO the night of April 23. What arrived that night was a 60-minute “visual album” with each of the project’s 12 tracks soundtracking a film about betrayal, hurt, acceptance and forgiveness that HBO allowed viewers to watch for free, regardless of whether they owned a subscription. The album arrived that evening after the premiere event ended as a download and streaming exclusive on Tidal, before being released for sale to digital retailers 24 hours later, debuting atop the Billboard 200. Lemonade remains a Tidal exclusive for streaming, with the service saying the window will last “in perpetuity.”
Release Date: April 29, 2016
Strategy: For an album with such a long, drawn out build up, Views arrived in the shadow of Beyonce’s Lemonade, released just six days earlier. But led as it was by the monster smash “One Dance,” its arrival as an Apple exclusive shattered records immediately — eventually, he would own four of the top five one-week streaming records ever, despite being sectioned off into Apple Music for its first two weeks (though its singles were available on Spotify and others.) Drake is believed to have the closest relationship with Apple among all the artists it has done deals with, and the marketing push behind the album’s release — a tour sponsorship, iTunes takeovers, sponsored videos, OVO Sound Radio etc. — helped it become the highest-selling album released in 2016, and helped Drake rule all summer ’16.
Album: A Moon Shaped Pool
Release Date: May 8, 2016
Strategy: It began, in typical Radiohead fashion, with a mystery: on April 30, some fans received a leaflet in the mail with the phrase, “Burn the Witch,” and the following day the band’s website and social networks all went dark. Slowly, teaser videos and clues leaked out until May 3, when the stop motion animation video for the song “Burn the Witch” officially declared a new album to be imminent, followed by a mid-day, 2 p.m. release on Mother’s Day, no less. Pool was released right away to digital retailers and paid subscription streaming services — aka, not Spotify — for the first six weeks, until the band eventually released it to Spotify June 17. The latest in a decade’s worth of creative release strategies for the group.
The Chance the Rapper
Album: Coloring Book
Release Date: May 12, 2016
Strategy: Not tied to a label and determined to keep his music free, Chance the Rapper cut a deal with Apple Music to release his third solo project, Coloring Book, as an exclusive stream for two weeks with no download option — a reprise of sorts to the deal Apple gave his 2015 Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment project Surf, which remains the only album “sold” for free via the iTunes Store. As a result, Coloring Book became the first-ever album to appear on the Billboard 200 chart based on streams alone, debuting at No. 8 with 38,000 equivalent album units based on 57.3 million first-week streams.
The Ariana Grande
Album: Dangerous Woman
Release Date: May 20, 2016
Strategy: Grande was active in the promotion strategy in the buildup to this album, utilizing Instagram, Snapchat, TV performances and multiple web sites to help generate buzz. And while the album was released widely on May 20 to all retailers and distributors, she used Apple Music to exclusively debut a new song from the LP every day in the seven days leading up to Dangerous Woman‘s release. In that way, she was able to leverage Apple’s exclusive offerings, while not really committing to an exclusive.
The Epic AF
Album: Epic AF
Release Date: July 17, 2016
Strategy: Label compilations are nothing new, while playlists will probably never go away. But in a streaming world, Epic Records figured they could be one and the same, and packaged a collection of singles unattached to other projects together into a playlist, slapped a label on it, called it an album and landed a top 10 debut based on streaming equivalent and track equivalent albums only. Expect to see more labels go this route to fill otherwise-barren release schedule periods.
The Frank Ocean
Release Date: Aug. 20, 2016
Strategy: Disenchanted with his label, Def Jam, and seeking freedom from his recording contract, Ocean pulled a coup by delivering the visual album Endless to his label in order to fulfill his deal, paying back as much as $5 million, according to one source, to Universal Music for a fresh slate. But the bigger, more surprising maneuver came the following day, when Ocean delivered the “real” album — a 17-track release titled Blond — to Apple as a download and streaming exclusive via his own label, Boys Don’t Cry, without Def Jam or Universal’s involvement. It was a rare, bold move — and it could conceivably lead to a lawsuit. But more than that, it proved that for a certain type of top-tier artist with a devoted fan base, just about anything is on the table.
The De La Soul
Album: And The Anonymous Nobody
Release Date: Aug. 26, 2016
Strategy: Hamstrung by digital copyright laws and unable to make money off their wildly influential back catalog due to sample clearance issues, De La found themselves in a bit of what The New York Times called a “digital limbo,” and turned to their fans — via a successful Kickstarter campaign — for help. The result is the group’s first album in over a decade, and a welcome return for one of the innovators of the genre.
The Jason Aldean
Album: They Don’t Know
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2016
Strategy: Long a proponent of fair compensation for the team of writers and producers that help him craft his albums, Aldean has waffled in the past on his view of streaming services, removing his last album from Spotify in November 2014 only to return it to the service a year later due to fan demand. But for his next one, out in September, he’s trying to compromise by withholding it from all streaming services for one month, encouraging his fans to buy his album before he makes it available as a stream. “If you want something that’s brand new, you’re willing to pay the price for it,” he told Billboard about the decision. “And then, after it’s been out for a while, you may get it at a discount. That’s just business 101.”