Why It’s Time To Stop With Surprise Album Releases

In terms of how music gets released, 2013 was a game changer, and it all started with a little video dropped onto Vevo on David Bowie’s 66th birthday. ‘Where Are We Now?’ stunned not only the singer’s fans but just about everyone else who’d assumed the Thin White Duke had retired or wouldn’t be releasing any new music anytime soon. The announcement there and then that ‘The Next Day’ was coming and coming soon whetted our appetites in ways that had not been whetted since the digital dawn, and, witnessing the kerfuffle it created, it inevitably inspired music’s biggest players into action. Releasing an album out of nowhere suddenly became the done thing amongst rock and pop royalty, a faddish must-have accoutrement like a Kabbalah bracelet or a yappy dog in a Birkin bag. We, the public, could only sit back and watch as the bombs fell with excitement. The music industry, after years of stubbornly fighting against the internet, was suddenly – finally – using it to their advantage, pumping back into pop a sense of spontaneity thought long lost.

Jay Z dropped ‘Magna Carta… Holy Grail’ on July 4 2013, with his bespoke version naturally tied up in a lucrative deal with Samsung. Even lazy bastard Kevin Shields suddenly dropped ‘mbv’ in the summer – an album he’d been working on for 21 long years – on My Bloody Valentine’s website, crashing it with all the traffic in the process. But the piece-de-resistance and all our Christmases come at once arrived just before midnight on December 13th 2013: Beyoncé had excelled herself… the “visual album” was now a thing, and 14 songs suddenly magicked themselves out of nowhere onto iTunes, a truly astonishing achievement of totalitarian cunning. This would take some topping, and you got the feeling that everyone could just pack up and go home there and then, because the game had been won outright.

But they didn’t go home. Over the subsequent year-and-a-half we’ve seen instantaneous albums appear out of thin air with increasing regularity, to the point where what was once genuinely exciting because it was so unusual has become as routine as the sex in a long, loveless Victorian marriage. A bit like how the horrendous trend for pop-up shops, hoisting themselves on British high streets feel like consumerism’s desperate efforts to appear cool and impromptu, surprise albums aren’t surprising anymore, but grimly cynical – a bunch of revenue-leaking record labels frantically trying to engineer excitement around the same product they’ve been flogging for years.

The nadir surely came in October last year when U2 and Apple set about imposing a sub-par album onto the world whether they liked it or not. Tools were hastily sent out to give iTunes users the option of removing the ‘Songs of Innocence’ album following a tsunami of griping directed at Apple CEO Tim Cook. “But why put it there in the first place?” griped some gripers some more. What had started out as an act of Bonovolence became a damage limitation exercise, with the lead singer himself apologising for trolling the whole world with his music.

As a music fan I basically live in a constant state of razor blade anxiety now waiting for records that could drop any second, like waiting to sneeze or nervously sitting by a jack in a box. It’s stressful. So much so, I think a lot of listeners are desensitized now. Just because an album explodes into existence screaming “look at me!” doesn’t mean we’re all going to be immediately impressed just for the fact anymore. Sure, Kendrick Lamar made a mighty impact with ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ in March, but Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt’s recent surprise releases have been pretty much glanced over, lost in the melee of immediacy. Blur surprised everyone when they suddenly turned up in a Japanese restaurant in February with some exciting news and the last known sighting of Zane Lowe, but they’ve played a blinder slowly drip feeding us with material up to the release of ‘The Magic Whip’, in a kind of condensed version of what the Pixies did successfully in the run up to ‘Indie Cindy’.

What’s more, the LP out of nowhere with no signposting is turning us into a bunch of ungrateful little sausages. Take Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ launch. Okay, admittedly it wasn’t the greatest single since ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the first place, but fans on message boards were apoplectic with rage that the world’s most recognisable female singer had had the audacity to only return with one bloody song, and a fairly average one at that.

And so we wait for yet more offerings from the heavens. When is Kayne going to surprise us all with his surprise album that nobody saw coming? And how about Daft Punk? Are they having to wear disguises over those helmets when they go into the studio to avoid detection? If either of these albums drop out of the blue in the next 12 months, then we can all raise a cheer if they live up to the hysteria, and suspend our surprise release fatigue for those prospectively jubilant moments. But the rest of you can just jolly well go back to the tried-and-tested three month PR campaign with press, radio and an appearance on the telly with Jools Holland playing boogie-woogie all over your best song. Capeesh?