The Year In Unconventional Album Launches, From artRave to Indiegogo To SNL
The literary giant Alexis Krauss said it best: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. From big-budget campaigns to no-budget crowdfunding, the haves and have-nots alike made selling albums an art unto itself this year, staving off the format’s impending extinction for now and turning music fandom into an exceptionally meta pastime. The wild frontier was fraught with “mysterious” street art, personalized songs, secret codes, and surprise uploads. And when all was said and done, the bold new medium for marketing your record in 2013 was… television?
TV is supposedly a dying medium, and the TV industry is in the midst of a lumbering migration to Netflix, so it was shocking to see so many major album release campaigns tied to that especially old-fashioned form of mass media, network television. All these conglomerates promoting superstar records with TV commercials felt a little like a handful of billionaires suddenly deciding to invest their fortune in baseball cards. Yet there it was, slipped casually into an SNL commercial break on the night of March 2: our earliest snippet of “Get Lucky” accompanied by that iconic helmet logo. Another 15-second ad followed three weeks later, revealing a few more precious seconds of Daft Punk’s first official single since 2006. It might not have happened on the internet, but it threw the internet into a tizzy — nevermind that Daft Punk had actually released new music for the Tron: Legacy soundtrack in 2012 or that the duo’s last proper full-length, Human After All, was a commercial and critical brick. Suddenly, by virtue of big-budget peekaboo, we were swept up in Daft Punk hysteria that involved pirating advertisements from Coachella video screens. By the time Random Access Memories actually dropped, music fans were in such a frenzy that a strong debut was all but guaranteed — of course, having an inescapable radio hit sure does help.
Daft Punk’s electronic brethren Boards Of Canada are not quite so famous nor so radio friendly, so they used a more geek-oriented pipeline — Cartoon Network’s weed-and-munchies-powered Adult Swim block — to launch their own album promo. This being a geek-targeted launch, the commercial involved an elaborate numeric code scavenger hunt. But surprise TV ads weren’t just the medium of choice for legendary European electronic duos looking to get back in the game; they were also the preferred promo method for past-their-prime rap superstars pushing gimmick LPs. Jay Z interrupted the NBA Finals to bloviate about Magna Carta… Holy Grail, an album that would be sold (and remembered) first and foremost as a mobile phone app. Then came Eminem’s commercial announcing the tenuously connected sequel The Marshall Mathers LP 2 during the VMAs. Elsewhere, Kurt Vile ran an infomercial on the CW, but only in Philadelphia.
Arcade Fire didn’t bother with commercials, but they definitely bothered with TV, using their SNL performance as a jumpoff for a half-hour late-night concert special/ephemeral quirk showcase/celebrity pal party. Before that came the graffiti campaign, the secret Montreal salsa club concert, the (leak-thwarted) 9/9/9 unveiling, the interactive video, and the steady trickle of details; after it came a flurry of lyric videos, interviews, and special appearances capped off a release day concert atop the Capitol Records building. It was a big-budget operation funded by Universal Music Group despite the band’s ongoing affiliation with indie mainstay Merge Records. Whereas fellow ostensibly “indie” powerhouse Vampire Weekend had to settle for a classified ad in the Times, Arcade Fire was “punching above their weight” with the help of corporate dollars and famous friends.
“The Reflektors” weren’t the only act that took to the streets with a low-tech approach. Lovebirds Katy Perry and John Mayer had their semi trucks; Kanye West had his guerilla “New Slaves” projections. The latter in particular succeeded in drumming up delirium and fostering mystique — a less-is-more approach to match the much-hyped minimalism of Yeezus. No such restraint from 30 Seconds To Mars, who launched their single into space, or Lady Gaga, who hosted over-the-top Monster party called artRave to herald the arrival of ARTPOP, replete with the launch of Volantis, “the world’s first flying dress.” (You can watch the multi-million dollar affair on Vevo, who stepped in as a sponsor after American Express dropped out.) Amidst all this hoopla, it’s kind of amazing that Nine Inch Nails, whose 2007 Year Zero campaign presaged this year’s multimedia sweep, went with a conventional rollout for Hesitation Marks.
All those elaborate campaigns weren’t identical, but they had one thing in common: They all used Scrooge McDuck money to put superstar musicians where you didn’t expect them. In the increasingly deafening hype wars of 2013, dollars bought spectacle. It’s no longer enough to announce the details of your latest LP and unveil a couple videos before the album drops — you have to flex your promotional muscle, keep people guessing, make them feel like something special is going on behind the scenes. Mystery was a big part of it; it’s no coincidence that 2013’s most indulgent campaigns were promoting the year’s most closely guarded albums. (None of the records I’ve mentioned so far leaked until less than a week before their release dates, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if even the leaks were part of the strategy.) There’s so much music out there and so many people trying to push it into the public eye. Without the Wizard Of Oz pageantry to make people wonder what they’re missing, your album’s bound to get lost in the promotional swirl. And without the deep pockets to sell the drama, you’re shit out of luck.
One major exception to that rule was the tiny subset of bands with enough cultural clout to simply dump their albums online without fanfare and watch the internet catch fire, a class that included reclusive legends My Bloody Valentine and also-reclusive cult-heroes-in-the-making Death Grips. Those acts were cashing big checks too, but with a different kind of currency: the feverish devotion of an audience that will follow them to the ends of the internet (and to nightclubs with only a drum set on stage). And really, what was Death Grips’ procession of impish stunts if not a yearlong rollout for Government Plates? You can’t buy the kind of publicity they got by just not showing up, but then again you also can’t buy Government Plates; a free download is the logical culmination of Death Grips’ hype-based economy, where albums are just further fodder for a self-perpetuating feedback loop. (Call Drake the musical mascot of the social media era, but no band embodies the jarring hostility and desperate attention-seeking of today’s internet more than Death Grips.) As for My Bloody Valentine, they turned 22 years of anticipation into bags of money, riding the In Rainbows approach all the way to the bank with MBV. Amplifying this approach to blockbuster proportions was Beyoncé, whose surprise “visual album” also appeared out of nowhere, and it instantly achieved iconic status thanks in part to an operating budget that dwarfed what Shields and Death Grips were working with; 17 lavish videos don’t happen without pockets full grown.
Kevin Shields is still the musical 1 percent, though. He had the cultural cachet to capture people’s attention on demand, but he also the cash reserves to fund the production and distribution of his album up front. In stark contrast, the common man turned to crowdfunding like never before in 2013. This was the latest twist on the traditional divide between the majors and the indies: The haves converted investments into PR spectacles while the have-nots turned fans into investors. Services like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and PledgeMusic became the dominant approach among creatives without means. Work up a promising description of your upcoming project, make an infomercial-style video, guarantee some elaborate rewards for major donors, and voila: You’ve got yourself a budget for your venture. The tactic was particularly popular among veterans who fall below the mass media radar but boast a following large enough to fund their albums or tours — the Daniel Johnstons, Valerine Junes, and Nicole Atkins of the world. (As Kickstarter beneficiary Reggie & The Full Effect put it, today’s music industry is No Country For Old Musicians.)
In turn, coming up with zany privileges for generous donors became an outlandish creative exercise in its own right, the DIY corollary to the celebrity musicians trumping each other’s fantastical displays. Executive producer credits, private concerts, bonus tracks, and handmade items were Kickstarter child’s play compared to some of the more entertaining carrots dangled in front of the faithful: The Hold Steady offered haircuts, three-mile jogs, tours of Memphis, bartending services, and “stay positive” pep talks from band members. Bowerbirds served up everything from a weekend party at the band’s cabin studio to dish cloths hand-knitted by the lead singer’s mom. Michael Gira promised to film himself performing a personalized song for each Swans fan with $500 to spare. Call it the artisanal approach to fundraising.
Not everyone found crowdfunding as fun as Gira did. (Think about that for a second.) Just as mainstream titans from Arcade Fire and Jay Z caught flack for their indulgent promo strategies, asking for preemptive investments from fans remained a contentious subject a year after the outrage over Amanda Palmer, Deakin, and the lot of them. Debating this method became as popular as deploying it. At The A.V. Club, for instance, Jonah Bayer raised concerns about artists shirking responsibility for an easy payday:
These musicians seem to rationalize their campaigns under the guise of the “Do It Yourself” ethos, but they’ve twisted it, effectively shifting the responsibility of making new albums and/or touring onto their fans. It’s one thing to ask fans for help pressing a new album by paying up front for it, but it’s far different to ask them for tour support or to fund a studio, then make them pay again later for new music or tickets to shows — music and shows that would exist without this symbiotic relationship. The D.I.Y. ethic hinges on artists’ responsibility — they work hard to create art on their own terms, not sell demos at inflated rates to make up for a lack of revenue in other areas.
Whether it was ethical or not — and whether it’s any lazier than reissuing a deluxe edition of your album a year or less after the original release, as has become the standard for popular indie-rockers including Kurt Vile, Yo La Tengo, and Grizzly Bear — crowdfunding became the default for those hanging from the abandoned rungs of the music industry ladder because it offered a puncher’s chance to projects that might not have happened otherwise. The system didn’t always work (it was a giant drag for Giant Drag), but sometimes it worked beyond artists’ wildest dreams. Long-forgotten ’90s alt-rock favorites Toad The Wet Sprocket and Luscious Jackson returned from obscurity with their first albums in well over a decade thanks to crowdfunding campaigns that surpassed their goals many times over. It was a different kind of excess than that of golden semi trucks and late-night TV specials — an excess of generosity from loyal supporters — but both sorts of over-the-top outpourings moved records in 2013. In the age of paltry Spotify payouts and all-time low album sales, that’s got to be worth something, right?