Music's new promotional ploy: The element of surpriseJune 19, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
New albums by Kanye West and Jay-Z have been sprung on the public with little notice. Will the tactic make these potential blockbusters even bigger?
By Miles Raymer
FORTUNE -- On Tuesday, Kanye West released his sixth solo album, Yeezus, a record whose punny name does little to indicate how searingly, brutally brilliant its contents are. Hints that West had been working on a new album have been making their way out of his inner circle of collaborators for the past year, but it was only at the beginning of May that the rapper posted a cryptic tweet consisting only of the words "June Eighteen," which many people correctly guessed would be the album's release date. It was only a month ago that he made the official announcement.
A month is a ridiculously short period of time with which to promote a blockbuster release on a major label -- West's signed to Def Jam, a subsidiary of the Universal Music Group -- according to the way the recording industry's long gone about it. Most promotional campaigns for albums still follow a formula that's been used for generations: grooming a single for radio and video play while getting the performer as much face time with fans and media as possible, and all of that activity is backed up by an extensive advertising campaign. All of these things take time to work up the momentum the record should have before it hits shelves.
Yeezus, on the other hand, has so far been promoted in a way that seems haphazard compared to the established methods. There's no official single, and aside from the artsy visuals accompanying the track "New Slaves" and a viral clip starring fellow Kardashian associates Scott Disick and Jonathan Cheban, there isn't an official video either. Advertising's been limited largely to street posters. So far he's done exactly one interview during this album cycle, and instead of advance copies being sent out to reviewers he had one listening session that a only a few members of the media were invited to.
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West's anti-marketing campaign, the complete inversion of the traditional promotional spectacle, is a fitting aesthetic complement to his new album, which is packed with fiery revolutionary rhetoric, but it serves a couple of more pragmatic purposes as well. West is known for his hatred of album leaks, which have become a standard pitfall -- or, as some might see it, a boon -- in the recording industry. To that end the lack of access to pre-release music and incredibly short manufacturing window serve the same purpose as the biometrically encrypted hard drives West stores his works in progress on.
On a more crucial level, the abbreviated production/promotion cycle keeps his audience from getting bored. There is a wealth of free music available online, including niche platforms like SoundCloud (popular with electronic dance music producers) and DatPiff (which caters to rappers) as well as broad-spectrum services like Spotify and Pandora (P), and this hoard grows daily. Compared to this constant digital churn, a traditional months-long promotional campaign is a sluggish, inefficient drag.
West's notion of a lean, speedy cycle seems to be spreading. Jay-Z, who partnered with West on the 2011 album Watch the Throne (another work sprung on the world with little advance notice), stole some of Yeezus's thunder on Sunday when he announced the impending release of his 12th album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, via a commercial that aired during game five of the NBA finals.
Jay-Z's take on the "surprise release" strategy is considerably less anti-corporate than West's. Magna Carta Holy Grail is being released through his own Universal imprint, Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation, in conjunction with Samsung. On June 24, Samsung will make an app available for download to its Galaxy S III, Galaxy S 4, and Galaxy Note II smartphones which will allow one million users to download the complete album for free just after midnight on July 4, a full 72 hours before it's officially released.
It's a synergistic partnership for both sides. Samsung should benefit greatly for its association with one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and giving its customers the new Jay-Z album three days before the rest of the world, for free, is a sure way to build brand loyalty. Samsung is paying for the million copies it's giving away, at $5 apiece, giving Jay-Z, Roc-a-Fella/Roc Nation, and UMG a guaranteed platinum album a month before it goes on sale, an industry award that's become shockingly rare in recent years.
The recording industry's strongest asset used to be its ability to create a massive media spectacle big enough to dominate its audience's attention, but shrinking budgets and the millions of micro-distractions the Internet age provides have put that strategy on the path toward extinction.
One thing that audiences crave above all else now is being surprised. "Gangnam Style" and "Harlem Shake" leapt from fringe obscurity to legitimate pop successes in large part because they were such unexpected listening experiences to the people who came across them through memes, and Kanye and Jay-Z's recent attention-dominating turns prove that the effect scales up. If you want to capture an audience these days, it's best to come at them from out of nowhere.