Here in the future, we now know Andy Warhol was right about everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame, but it comes with some unexpected consequences. Benjamin Franklin taught us that time is money — therefore, time is Benjamins? — and with billions of social media profiles vying for the public’s attention, the people who are actually in the business of being famous have to resort to some ridiculous bullshit to keep us tuned into their exploits. That’s how we wound up with Shia LaBeouf’s #AllMyMovies, a multi-day marathon in which the professional exhibitionist and sometimes actor livestreamed footage of his face for several days straight while watching all 29 of his films in reverse chronological order. The stunt inspired this memorable Wesley Morris line in The New York Times: “Stardom is so cheap now that he won’t even charge you to watch him watch himself.”
For a musician hawking an LP, the dwindling value of celebrity is compounded by the fact that album sales have been dropping for more than a decade. Attention isn’t just the currency of the Kardashians; it might be the factor that inspires you to stream Artist A’s project rather than Artist B’s project. This presents a special challenge to the people in charge of promoting albums: How do you keep people talking about your client in the age of the microscopic attention span? How do you whip up excitement for one particular album in a world of infinite listening options?
In recent years we’ve seen all kinds of answers to these questions. Extreme maximalism ruled 2013; as if racing to find the cutesiest and/or most ostentatious promo methods imaginable, artists deployed campaigns involving everything from guerrilla street projections to primetime TV commercials. In 2014 that gave way to extreme minimalism, with musicians attempting to seize the zeitgeist by unveiling a completed collection by surprise. And in 2015 we ended up with a weird combination of those approaches. Although surprise releases popped up with increasing frequency, many acts promised “surprise” albums and then indulged in open-ended promotional campaigns that felt endless. Considering many of those albums still haven’t actually come out yet, some of those campaigns might actually be endless.
How did we get here? After a second straight year dotted by surprise drops by everyone from Drake to Death Grips to Miley Cyrus and the Flaming Lips, a year when Eric Church and Church’s beloved Wilco and Wilco’s pal Chance The Rapper bestowed free full-lengths upon their fans out of nowhere, it’s getting harder to remember a time when sudden unveilings were not standard practice. But that time was not so long ago, even if its gaudy excess feels paleolithic by today’s standards.
In 2013, album release campaigns ballooned to such absurdly gimmicky proportions that we devoted a year-end feature to the music world’s promotional hijinks. You had Kanye West projecting his face on walls across America, Vampire Weekend announcing Modern Vampires Of The City in the New York Times classifieds, 30 Seconds To Mars launching a single into space, and Lady Gaga throwing an “artRave” starring “VOLANTIS, the world’s first flying dress.” Arcade Fire planted “mysterious” street art and aired a hallucinatory late-night TV special with their celebrity friends. Semi trucks doubling as billboards announced Katy Perry and John Mayer albums. And then there were the commercials — so many commercials — from Daft Punk and Eminem and Jay Z (touting an album released via Samsung mobile app) and Boards Of Canada, the latter accompanied by a scavenger hunt involving a numeric code twice the size of a credit card number. The thought seemed to be that you should drum up as much commotion as possible in advance because by the time an album drops, it’s already on its way to being forgotten.
As the arms race for a generation’s dwindling attention span ramped up, the bloat became so severe that someone was bound to come along and burst the bubble. As we all know and can recite by heart along with the Pledge Of Allegiance, that someone was Beyoncé, who ended 2013 by surprise-releasing a masterpiece album with music videos for every song. No notice, no promotion, not even a tweet — the album just showed up on iTunes late one Thursday night and set the world on fire. The exorbitant rollout trend died on the spot; suddenly, everyone was pushing radically in the opposite direction hoping to “pull a Beyoncé.”
So it went throughout 2014. Thom Yorke sold a spindly surprise solo album via BitTorrent and U2 forced a batch of wannabe anthems into everyone’s iPhones. Skrillex, Kid Cudi, Wolfmother, Del The Funky Homosapien, the Raveonettes, Default Genders, and even Michael Cera dumped completed projects online. Miguel offered up a surprise teaser EP, Drake regularly uploaded future smash hits to SoundCloud with zero fanfare (not an album, but they certainly hung together well on a CD-R), and D’Angelo closed out the year by rushing Black Messiah to market after more than a decade of endless tinkering. That continued all the way until midnight on New Year’s Eve, when Kanye West shared “Only One,” a tender ballad portending an album that still hasn’t arrived.
By my count even more noteworthy musicians opted for surprise drops this year. It happened so often that it ceased to be properly surprising. Besides the aforementioned releases, 2015 saw unannounced albums/EPs/mixtapes by Jack Ü, Freddie Gibbs, Ratking, Father, Christopher Owens, Thundercat, Tyga, Wavves x Cloud Nothings, Tenement, Krallice, FKA twigs, Talib Kweli, Toro Y Moi, T.I., Modern Baseball, Rustie, Puff Daddy, Panda Bear, Prince, Willow Smith, Chief Keef, Jeremih, and JoJo. Among those who gave a one-week heads-up were Future, Meek Mill, Rick Ross, and (most ceremoniously) Dr. Dre. Conversely, A$AP Rocky announced a release date for At.Long.Last.A$AP only to unveil it a week in advance. A few weeks after traditionally rolling out Depression Cherry, Beach House confirmed a second full-length, Thank Your Lucky Stars, would be out shortly, although they insisted it was not a surprise. The Game followed his overstuffed The Documentary 2 one week later with the also-overstuffed The Documentary 2.5.
Then there were the accidental surprises: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly went online a week early due to some behind-the-scenes mixup. Earl Sweatshirt’s label spilled the beans on intended stealth release I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside several days ahead of time. Björk bumped up Vulnicura by two months due to a leak, and Jay Rock’s label held his 90059 hostage until it accrued enough pre-orders. Even the release dates we knew about seemed to be in a constant state of flux.
But seemingly most pervasive this year were quote-unquote “surprise” releases. They might not have actually outnumbered the actual honest-to-God out-of-nowhere shockers, but so-called surprises by Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Grimes, Rihanna, Chromatics, and Drake (again) dominated the news cycle. All of them were relentlessly teased — or at least teased once and then relentlessly anticipated — and most of them still haven’t materialized. The one that actually did come out, Grimes’ masterful Art Angels, ended up getting an advance release date after all.
The logic behind the “surprise” approach is sound enough. You get all the anticipation-building of a standard pre-release campaign plus all the hysteria of a stealth drop. You get to have it both ways, a hype cycle unfolding on both sides of the release date. And to a certain extent, it worked in practice as well as it works in theory. The artists who tipped us off about their forthcoming “surprise” releases succeeded at monopolizing the focus of the music world. They kept themselves in the headlines all year long, so in the economy of attention, they won 2015 whether their albums came out or not.
On the other hand, this process was exasperating — even when the reward was as fantastic as Art Angels, especially when there was no reward in sight. The longer these musicians strung along their fan bases, the more rapidly goodwill turned to bad faith. What artist really wants to incur the kind of wrath Ocean endured when July went by with nary a Boys Don’t Cry?
On the other other hand, even BEYONCÉ didn’t really appear out of nowhere. Reports of Bey’s fifth album had been circulating for months, and just three days before the album’s release, Rolling Stone was wondering when the “long-awaited” project might finally emerge. By then, after interminable delays and a series of non-starter singles, many fans were questioning whether she had fallen off for good and moved on to a legacy phase like the one her husband has long been experiencing. It sounds not unlike the unease and impatience much of Kanye’s fan base has been feeling about SWISH — which is to say that even the world’s most famous surprise album had elements of “surprise,” and for those paying attention, the wait for it was just as tortured as the wait for Dear Tommy or Anti.
Everyone remembers how well the presumed debacle BEYONCÉ turned out. Similarly, once Grimes finally got around to unveiling Art Angels, all my annoyance about her endless teaser interviews became an afterthought. In the end, when our greatest artists deliver something special, all the interminable delays and obnoxious promotional baggage is forgiven. Until one of these releases ends up bricking, I suspect we’ll be seeing even more “surprise” release campaigns going forward as artists attempt to saturate the headlines ad infinitum. And as long as we end up with transcendent music eventually, it’s hard to get too perturbed about waiting indefinitely through the circus that release campaigns have become. Only when the promotional tactics become the end rather than the means — when Kanye decides to scrap SWISH and give us an #AllMyAlbums webcast instead (a prospect that feels a little too chillingly realistic right now) — will the bullshit have truly won out. Until then, patiently or impatiently, we await our next “surprise.”