In the old days we all knew what to expect from our popstars promoting their wares; some touring, some interviews with magazines, some radio and TV, some daft new facial hair or a silly haircut or two, maybe an appearance on Jonathan Ross or Later... With Jools, and then - and only then - would the record be released. Not anymore. In the last six months we’ve seen a glut of new and innovative ways to promote music, and none of them involve being beaten into submission over an arduous three month campaign. Marketing departments are now fixated with the task of presenting us with new ways to be amazed, as an album appears ready to devour as if it had been magicked out of thin air that very moment.
If Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ threw down the gauntlet in 2007 by daring to try something radically different, then it was David Bowie who picked up that same gauntlet in 2013, slapping us around the face with it when we weren’t looking. Now we’re at the mercy of militarily slick offensives, and the only surprise is that we can still be surprised. Where campaigns were built in public, now for a certain sized talent they’re constructed behind the scenes by a cast of thousands in despotic gulags, where major label lackeys are under pain of death should they reveal anything even to their own families, with the projected element of surprise at the conclusion their only abiding friend throughout the whole sorry, protracted process. Oh the humanity!
Here are eight examples of new marketing techniques to keep us on our toes.
The drip feed method
The Pixies have surprised many with a campaign that led to the announcement of a first album in 23 years. The biggest shock of all had to be when the video for ‘Bagboy’ dropped at the end of June last year, heralding the first proper new material in a generation. We might have guessed something was up when the band announced Kim Deal's departure a few weeks before that, and shrugs of indifference about a group that had coasted on old material for nine years suddenly turned to sadness that she wouldn’t be involved in an exciting new chapter. Suddenly everyone wanted to see Pixies again! Since then the Bostonian alternative rock legends have more or less drip fed us all the material from the forthcoming ‘Indie Cindy’ LP via videos and EPs, and given that songs like ‘Blue Eyed Hex’ and ‘Magdalena’ have been so strong, pre-orders for the album (which includes a bonus live disc) are bound to be plentiful even from fans who’ve already bought up the EPs. The strategy has been an adroit masterclass in how to manipulate media to your advantage, proving you can teach old dogs new tricks (or the old dogs can teach us a new trick or two!)
The big bang method
Beyoncé Knowles really put the cat amongst the pigeons when she presented the sum total of her clandestine endeavours unto the world in one flabbergasting moment last December. For Queen Bey fans who’d been, ahem, baying for a new record, Christmas arrived early and all at oncé, when she released her eponymously-titled visual album with every track complete with its own video. If Bowie’s return had been an operation of supreme cunning, then the sheer scale of the enterprise here meant the ex-Destiny’s Child singer had even trumped the Thin White Duke with her audacious emergence from purported slumber. One could only sit back and admire the sheer bravado and the innovation, and all dropped on a Thursday night too. It certainly didn’t harm sales - ‘Beyoncé’ went on to sell 828,773 copies worldwide in three-days, the fastest selling album in iTunes history.
The corporate tie-up
Indie kids - in the truest sense of the word - may wince a little at all the dirty cash changing hands here, from one thriving South Korean multinational to one seasoned hip hop mogul. In early July last year, copies of Jay Z’s ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ were dispensed to the first million owners of Samsung’s Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note II, a full 72 hours before the record hit shops (physical and online). That’s one million albums kids! (and Jay Z is believed to have trousered a cool $5m as part of an estimated wider $20m with his Roc-a-fella enterprises). Some bright sparks pointed out that those million albums that were sent out to mobile users wouldn’t register as chart placings. Do you hear Jay Z screeching as he jingles all the way to the bank?
Do a Gedge
At the outset of 1992, you would have said the Wedding Present would surely have been the band least likely to equal a 35-year-old chart record set by Elvis, but it was David Gedge’s winsome indie troubadours who scored a mighty twelve consecutive top 30 hits that year. How did they do it? By releasing one tune a month and relying on their loyal fanbase to snap up every single single. These days everything moves much faster, and so it was that someone (Scooter Braun probably) had the idea to release 10 Justin Bieber singles in successive weeks (leading up to a DVD release just in time for Yuletide). Naturally it was phenomenally successful like Justin himself, the kids swooned and spent all their pocket money, and Justin got on with being a bad boy who deserved nothing more than two satsumas and a slapped arse for Christmas.
The Trojan horse
You don’t get any more modern than this method of release, and there’s no doubt the Darling of Dubstep knows his demographic only too well. Fans of EDM figurehead Skrillex were thrilled when they downloaded the video game app ‘Alien Ride’, only to discover the gift that kept giving. On Monday, February 10th, fans with the app soon became aware they could stream all eleven tracks from Skrillex’s long-awaited debut album, ‘Recess’. The emergence of the long player came completely out of the blue, and had music journalists faffing like a bunch of faffmeisters. That never used to happen when you played Street Fighter II.
The power of suggestion
Arcade Fire went for something a little more abstract when they unleashed the campaign for ‘Reflektor’ on us, throwing out imagery in weird places, graffiti-ing the name of their album in prominent places, releasing an “interactive video” and playing a secret gig under the name The Reflektors (the “secret” soon got out, surprise surprise). The media drive, which had echoes of Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ (and even Suede graffiting the words ‘Dog’, ‘Man’ and ‘Star’ around London in ‘94), threatened to unravel when the title track was leaked ahead of time. The artful pitch for media attention in disparate forms was enough to see the double album sail to No.1 in plenty of global provinces though, no doubt spurred on by all the publicity generated. Arcade Fire had one of their massive heads stolen recently, which probably wasn’t part of any campaign as far as we know, although it did generate a fair bit of publicity as well. If you know anything about this theft, then we do urge you to call the police immediately. Don’t have nightmares.
The software dump
There are apps for almost everything these days, and yet in the pop game it’s still an area that artists rarely exploit, possibly due to the cost and the niche uptake, which borders on cabalistic at this stage. Oh yes, and the other reason is that you need a clear aesthetic vision, which is maybe why Lady Gaga was one of the only artists in 2013 to bring out an illustrious app for her album ‘Artpop’ - which was no doubt much beloved of her Little Monsters. Before her, the last high profile app dedicated entirely to one album was Bjork’s wildly ambitious ‘Biophilia’ in 2011, which users also lapped up on their laptops. Perhaps we shouldn’t ask why more artists aren’t using this technology, but why we don’t have more artists who could use this technology, such is their dearth of visual creativity.
The ‘stream it and they will come’ method
It might sound a bit gimmicky this one, but putting your music in unusual and hard to reach places will generate publicity and put the ball in the prospective music buyer’s court. In 2014 Beck followed up the arcane innovation of releasing his sheet music only album (not the most popular way to disseminate your songs since about 1952) by streaming his new album - ‘Morning Phase’ - on flights, as part of Gogo aeroplane inflight entertainment. It certainly beats watching the latest Adam Sandler movie. Whether anyone actually bought a flight with the express intention of listening to the new Beck album is unlikely, but the novelty factor was enough to get people talking.