Do you remember the last time you were excited about a piece of mail? I have vague memories of being a kid and having the expectation that something cool could show up, but email and social media became commonplace by the time I was a teenager. I never really did the whole letters thing, but I guess I’ve known some retro-fetishists who have gotten into it. In recent years, I’d look forward to freelance checks showing up, even though the fact that they inevitably showed up super late meant I was really looking forward to getting myself back out of debt. Mail mostly amounts to bills and jury summonses these days, right?
Maybe not! There’s been a recent trend of artists incorporating good old snail mail into their album rollouts, and there’s something quirky and quaint and sorta fun about the throwback element of it all, the idea that news or music could trickle out via the old-fashioned, slow mechanism of physical travel and then go viral when everyone starts posting photos online of the surprises they found in their (actual) mailbox that day.
Of course, bands used to do cool stuff via mail all the time. Pearl Jam sends their fanclub members exclusive singles for Christmas. A more recent example came when Chromatics were supposedly releasing Dear Tommy; you could email them and they’d send you a random selection of fake movie posters that were Chromatics- or Dear Tommy-themed. Taylor Swift has been known to surprise fans via the mail, too, like the flowers and letter she sent one fan earlier this year when she couldn’t make it to the fan’s graduation party.
That latter example is really what we’re talking about now, and there’s another angle to it that’s different from Taylor’s, explicitly but enjoyably promotional (even though everything Taylor does is also promotional, but still). Using mail during album rollouts has recently taken on a few forms, with artists hinting that something’s afoot, previewing or announcing new music, or straight-up releasing an album by mailing it to their fans.
Last November, the xx mailed fans invitations to European shows that had yet to be announced and then did the same Stateside in January, ahead of their new album I See You.
In May, Animal Collective’s Avey Tare announced his new album in an unconventional way: A fan received a package from Tare’s label Domino with a jigsaw puzzle inside, and once solved it seemed to announce Eucalyptus, which was then officially announced two weeks later.
Then Toro Y Moi pulled a similar stunt, previewing Boo Boo via a letter sent to fans, ahead of its actual announcement or any lead singles.
Last week, King Krule fans received unmarked mail that happened to hold King Krule posters; today, he put out new music.
Also last week, Brand New announced a pre-order for their “very limited” fifth album that was otherwise scarce on info; two days later, select fans who had placed pre-orders received CDs of the new album in the mail.
A closer look at the CD and insert. pic.twitter.com/yCtGxSx8Iy
— Brand New Archive (@BrandNewArchive) August 17, 2017
Though the physical vinyl wouldn’t ship until October still, Brand New essentially finished their album announcement and released their album in one fell, buzzy swoop. It was an echo of something Eric Church pulled back in late 2015, when he surprised fanclub members by mailing them CDs of an unannounced album Mr. Misunderstood.
That brings us to this week, when U2 — who haven’t been a band that simply releases music in some time — sent fanclub members a cryptic letter hinting at something called “Blackout,” which is presumably a song from their forthcoming Songs Of Experience, the long-awaited sister album to 2014’s Songs Of Innocence. The letter ends with a promise that U2 will announce something, at some point, though the something and some point are…blacked out. Given the way Songs Of Innocence appeared on everyone’s phones, there’s something of-the-moment (because of the mail stunt) and also scaled back by U2 standards—a playful teaser for fans, promising an actual announcement and, one could assume, a semi-normal album rollout.
— Amiee Stubbs (@AmieeStubbsPix) August 21, 2017
Last year was a complete mess of surprise or short-notice releases. What was once a unique method that only the biggest artists could entertain became a somewhat wearyingly (and frighteningly, if your job is to cover this nonsense) commonplace strategy that, still, mostly only the biggest artists could entertain. It was one after another for a while there, some arriving with a clever angle or multimedia accompaniment, like Blonde and Lemonade, and some just dropping out of the sky while they were still being finished. (Ahem, The Life Of Pablo.) And, hey, most of this music was great and it was kind of crazy that we were getting hit with these surprises or sudden and weird releases left and right, getting to experience them for the first time all together. But there’s already a barrage of news to live through day-to-day, and this stuff could become extra noise at a certain point.
In comparison, this year has seen some excruciatingly long and straightforward rollouts, with beloved indie acts like the National and War On Drugs operating with, for whatever reason, months and months between first teaser and actual album release, sometimes releasing so many “singles” that half the album is out there already. Or, who could forget the numbing over-saturation of Everything Now’s promotion cycle, which — aside from Arcade Fire trolling us here at Stereogum, that was amusing! — seemed to become a blemish on the album for fans and critics alike.
So, the surprise mailer approach feels like a kind of antidote to those status quos. It can be just enigmatic enough without being aggravating. It can still be a surprise release, but has a different tinge to the excitement — imagine being that fan who gets to go online and tell everyone the new album is, actually, already here! And it’s a way for artists to interact and give back to fans directly. We get a lot of surprises online these days, and most of them are bad. Who knows if other artists are going to adopt this trend of unsolicited mail, but the ones who did already have given their fans something special in 2017: the surprise of a token and new music, the old-school experience of finding something cool and unexpected in the mail blended with the contemporary experience of getting to jump online and share that with everyone else.