Unexpected Arrivals: Are surprise albums the way forward?

beyonce album

It’s not often you can say that the music industry has drastically and irreversibly changed, especially in this day and age, but that’s exactly happened in 2013. With David Bowie’s The Next Day and Beyoncé’s eponymous album bookending the year a new trend appeared prompting many artists to follow in their footsteps and release new albums completely out of the blue. A few years later and it has suddenly become the norm for big name acts. It comes as a massive change to the industry’s long standing norms, but what does the future have in store?

Surprise albums are not a new concept, Radiohead released both 2007’s In Rainbows and 2011’s The King of Limbs with very little notice (and are continuing the tradition with their next album). However it took a few more artists to get on board with the idea for it to really get going. The trouble is that few artists can really pull it off, even for household names it can be a massive risk. When U2 released their album Songs of Innocence unannounced and uploaded it automatically to every iTunes account, the stunt backfired massively causing a lot of negative publicity for the band. In this case though bad publicity is still better than none at all, the album could have passed by unnoticed as has occurred with many other acts who have tried to jump on the surprise album bandwagon.

So with so much at risk why bother releasing an album out of the blue? The way things are going you won’t save much money on advertising, you’ll simply be advertising after the release to get the word out rather than leading up to it. Even Beyoncé who helped spearhead the idea needed the equivalent of a small town’s worth of people to contribute with marketing her latest controversial album Lemonade. By keeping records in progress under wraps you minimise the risk of the music leaking online and effecting sales. But with the widespread availability of music streaming, as well as the fact that only the biggest acts can pull off surprise albums effectively, leaks aren’t going to make much of a difference. Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, their last conventional release on a major label before embarking on spontaneous releases, suffered an internet leak but still debuted at number 1 in the UK. I think the only reason to release an album unannounced is simply to prove that you can.

More and more acts, including Adele, have been joining the movement. The trend seems set to rise so what does it mean for the industry? Firstly there will be a lot of trial and error. A lot of albums will slip under the radar as artists won’t be as high profile as they think they are. Some cocky artists such as Kanye West will tease a new album into oblivion to the point that when it finally drops people will be fed up of hearing about it before they’ve even actually heard it. It’ll be like the musical equivalent of Jon Snow’s return in Game Of Thrones: everyone knows it’s coming, it’s not some big unexpected twist! Once things have settled down and the limits and restrictions of it have been mapped out then I can see surprise albums becoming the new norm. Sure, smaller acts have no chance of pulling it off, but there’s nothing to stop them releasing an album through conventional methods and having a big risky release to someday work towards.