The Internet awoke last Friday to find that Beyoncé had airdropped an entire new album onto iTunes. For most fans, the "visual album" was a total surprise and an instant success (it sold some 828,773 copies in the first three days -- an iTunes record), despite a complete lack of advanced marketing, television appearances, or even a lead-up radio single. Granted, a pop artist of Beyoncé's stature is clearly able to generate massive interest just by being, well, Beyoncé.
Still, Beyoncé’s model almost seems like an outlier, especially at a time where long, drawn-out hype cycles are now commonly expected -- not just with artists of this magnitude much smaller indie bands as well.
All year, albums from pop music’s biggest names -- and many mid-level and indie artists -- were released after calculated, creative, and even mysterious marketing plans to help inspire fan interest, re-instill some fun in new music, and hopefully boost sales. Here's a rundown of some of the year's most notable.
Like it or not, 2013 was Miley’s party, and she did (said) what she wanted. But for all that's been thought and written about her transition from child star to controversial adult pop star, there’s no denying Cyrus' savvy “any press is good press” ethic to her “calculated hot mess.” But once everything about “Wrecking Ball” except the sledge hammer video fades to a foggy memory, “We Can’t Stop” will be remembered as a pop gem worthy of the hype.
Justin Timberlake was everywhere in 2013: He kicked off the year with a tweet teasing fist new album since 2006. He eventually put out two volumes -- both crowd-pleasingly retro, but perhaps underwhelming critically due to too many long R&B jams and too few radio-friendly singles. And yet, Timberlake kept popping up in front of gigantic audiences all year: The Grammys, SXSW, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and a big co-headlining arena tour with Jay Z. Now at the end of the year, Timberlake is re-reminding us he's still around, both with a roll in the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis and a second SNL appearance this coming weekend with Fallon. No matter if the hype lived up to the actual music he was promoting, Timberlake is such a universally loved star across all media that whenever he's on your screen, you cannot change the channel.
For many, Kanye West’s unfettered id and superego may have wreaked havoc on fan goodwill and drown out the actual (sometimes troublesome) content of his music found on Yeezus. But one part of the pre-Yeezus ramp-up actually began as a very cool public art installation. West debuted “New Slaves” by projecting its video onto 66 different buildings in locations all around the world. West made these video sightings a shared event, in person and online, that played up the punk graffiti street art meets clean design aesthetic of these new songs.
Beginning on Record Store Day back in April, a mysterious 12” single "------ / ------ / ------ / XXXXXX / ------ / ------" surfaced containing a cryptic audio transmission with a specific strings of six-digit numbers and a snippet of music. Soon, more popped up -- on BBC Radio 1, NPR Music, Adult Swim, fansite Twoism, and a YouTube video, all with similar strings of numbers. Rumors began to spread that it may be a new record from the elusive Scottish electronic duo Boards of Canada, who had not released an album since 2006.
Suspicions were confirmed when those six codes added up to a password to allow users of Boards Of Canada’s website to access an exclusive music video and details of its fourth album, Tomorrow’s Harvest. In all, it was an inventive bit of guerilla marketing-meets-treasure hunt that took advantage of the Internet’s potential for shared group think to parse out the mystery.
When a graffiti tag using the word "reflektor" started showing up on walls of buildings in cities around the world, many quickly correctly guessed it was a code for Arcade Fire’s new album, which had been announced via a single tweet. Soon the logo showed up in mysterious YouTube videos and on a large mural in Manhattan. Sure enough on Sept. 9, the band dropped the title track and not one but two music videos, including a fantastic interactive.
But Arcade Fire wasn’t yet done: They played Saturday Night Live followed by a bizarro celebrity-filled post-SNL special; they played shows at Capitol Studios. And keying in on the mirror image theme of the record, the band did a handful of pop-up shows -- in Montreal and Brooklyn -- billed as its alter-ego The Reflektors, often wearing giant paper mache masks. While the hype machine often felt like it dragged on a tad too long, it was an effective way to make this album feel like a real event.
David Bowie shocked everyone when he released a brand new song and music video, all announcing his first new album in ten years -- complete with album art that deconstructed the iconic Heroes cover. Oh yeah, and it was his own birthday no less. Bowie took great pains to keep the recording of the album a total secret with non-disclosure agreements and changing studios. It was a rare chance to feel the immediacy of new music without any pre-hype -- in and of itself, another form of hype.
And then, as she often does, Beyoncé went out and blew this concept out of the water when she released her album overnight. Consisting of 14 new songs and 17 new music videos, the so-called "visual album,” Beyoncé, was so secret and finished and released so fast, it was a surprise to practically everyone -- including many of the producers and musicians associated with it. All that day, the Internet was all-Beyoncé. It was a sign an artist of her stature could completely control not only the delivery of the album, but how it should be heard. It helps that the record is one of her strongest full-album statements.
For a specific subset of music fans, My Bloody Valentine's 22-years-in-the-making Loveless-followup was their Chinese Democracy, a record so delayed that it was more a pipe-dream than expectation. But, suddenly, (well, admittedly after a few weeks of rumors from Kevin Shields that the record was nearly done), the self-released album, mbv, appeared on the band’s site a late Saturday night and promptly crashed servers because of enormous instant demand. For longtime fans and new fans who have come to My Bloody Valentine's music in its absence, the record more than lived up to expectation -- both a welcome return to form, and a satisfying new direction.
At this point in his career trajectory, Jay Z’s megastar success has made him as much of an internationally recognized brand mogul as a innovative rapper. These two roles became even more closely tied with his latest, and 12th album Magna Carta Holy Grail. Jay Z announced the long-awaited new album during the 2013 NBA finals in a documentary-styled commercial by Samsung announcing a deal that would make the the record available to the first one million Galaxy users to download a new app.
Not only did this corporate deal cause many to wonder whether that counted as true album sales (Billboard said they didn’t), but also led many to question app’s data-mining privacy issues. It also didn’t help that the record was one of Jay Z’s most disappointing -- a tepid and unchallenging rehash of his now-familiar “rags to riches” story and heavy-handed boasts about his wealth and fame.
These days, romantic mystery about a band unrealistic: We know so much about bands and that constant access takes away some of the surprise and fun when a band unveils new music. Which is what makes Daft Punk's elusive nature so appealing and fascinating. The electronic duo is just as famous for the robot helmets -- few have seen the band's real faces -- as its inventive music. So as Daft Punk readied its return after an eight-year absence, the band used that to its advantage by teasing hints of a new record via posters featuring those iconic helmets popping up in various cities. Then, a 15-second commercial appeared in the middle of SNL with a short snippet of what later turned out to be the ubiquitous summer hit "Get Lucky." And by limiting its own appearances (remember that whole Colbert thing?), Daft Punk built up a huge mainstream audience demand for its new album in a way it had never before.
This year also saw many bands and artists make huge leaps from relatively unknown to widely popular both in indie and mainstream circles. Built upon the strength of some a few improbably great singles (Lorde's "Royals") and some buzz-creating, impossible-to-get-into performances at CMJ (Savages) and South By Southwest (CHVRCHES and HAIM). While backed by large labels, all four of these acts came pretty fully formed with excellent stage presence and fantastic songs -- and managed to withhold the demand of full albums until summer and fall. But the time they dropped, all had already enjoyed killer sold-out shows packed with fans dying for a chance to sing along with "Falling" and to hear brand new music. Sometimes, being a must-see act is the buzz you need.