Is the culture of spontaneous releases here to stay?

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Death Grips

Death Grips helped start the trend of spontaneous and unannounced album releases

Following the recent trend for established artists to spontaneously release albums, Getintothis’ Phil Morris muses on whether we’ve seen the end of PR men and scheduled release dates.

D’Angelo’s religiously anticipated, and might we add graciously received, Black Messiah (2014), is the latest in what is fast becoming a new culture of zero marketing and spontaneous releases.

‘Surprise-Album-Phenomenon’ shot to prominence in the early months of 2013 with Kevin Shields‘ shock announcement that after a tempestuous 21 year absence from recorded music, a new MBV album would be available in “2 or 3 days“. Traffic was so frenzied in its sudden pursuit of this download gold it managed to crash the band’s website server.

On November 13th 2013, Death Grips followed suit and controversially both announced and released Government Plates as a free download with absolutely no warning or advance notice. At the time, you might have overlooked this as another middle finger from Death Grips to the establishment. Their previous release No Love Deep Web was infamously mired in complications with former label Epic Records.

Hindsight however suggests a more innovative intention might have been at play. Death Grips were able to bypass the tedious publicity drive and critical mastication that ordinarily comes with any album campaign, this too played into their brand of defiance and massively inflated their credibility with nonconformist consumers. Death Grips have recently built on this strategy with 2015’s Fashion Week, a surprise ‘post-existence’ instrumental album from a band that called time on its endeavours a year prior.

Getintothis’ Joseph Viney further explores the duo’s game-playing in ‘Sweet Release: The new art of dropping bombs on the musical landscape’, as well as dissecting how RadioheadAngel Haze and Jai Paul have subverted industry protocols in recent years.

The most poignant example of ‘Surprise-Album-Phenomenom’ however, and perhaps the ultimate veneration of this cultural shift, came from Beyoncé at the apex of 2013. The freakish virility achieved in delivery by a few relatively underground innovators was to be tested by the reigning queen of mainstream pop. Beyoncé stunned the world by announcing an immediate eponymous new album, consisting of 14 new songs and and 17 exclusive videos.

Taking to Twitter to announce the news, Beyoncé said: “I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it… I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”

Astonishingly, Twitter reported 1.2 million related tweets in 12 hours. Furthermore, the release became iTunes’ fastest-selling album worldwide – but what motivated Beyoncé to buck the trend and drop one out of the blue?

The post-capitalist in you might hope she is idealising music consumption. The accepted means of releasing music traditionally involved a tediously protracted marketing campaign that aimed to whip the public into a frenzy of excitement and berate the critics into submission, normally via relentless hype mongering and mass media mail-outs. It’s not uncommon for artistic intention to be diluted in this chain of communication.

Perhaps by denying the middle-man, Beyoncé has christened the start of a new streamlined industry, one that is no longer reliant on capricious PR gate-keepers.  We as consumers are confronted with a plethora of new albums every day and the immediacy of an album’s impact is now a premium.

It’s also plausible Beyoncé took into consideration whether her album would leak; by releasing the album spontaneously and surprising the world with her ability to keep a secret, she succeeded in setting her own agenda. All too often an album can leak in poor quality, or before its intended shape is fully formed. Just as a surprise album can minimise risk, flexible release dates can now be pinpointed to maximise effect.

Black Messiah (2014) was dropped as a result of D’Angelo’s horror over the Ferguson verdict. D’Angelo told The New York Times“the one way I do speak out is through music. I want to speak out.”

Can what will inevitably be attributed to ‘Beyoncé’s genius’ become a blueprint for aspiring artists or is ‘Surprise-Album-Phenomenom’ a passing trend, like anonymous producers, or top-knots? All of the aforementioned artists have one thing in common, a globally established fan base that eagerly anticipates new content.

Could this experiment in industry innovation be successfully scaled down? Should we brace ourselves for an industry without marketing?

It’s unlikely. The originality Beyoncé is praised for expires quickly and, according to reports, iTunes is already preparing for another major label exclusive.

One thing, however, is clear; until the masses can mobilise and surprise an engaged fan base in its millions, we are unlikely to have seen the end of PR guys, pluggers or release dates. Less established artists are still inclined to adopt a drawn out approach to releasing music, you would be naive to risk a year’s worth of work for the brief rush of spontaneity, especially when you can savour the temporary glory of a 6 week press cycle.

Although it may seem as if D’Angelo and Beyoncé are now capable of birthing instant word of mouth releases, transcending end of year lists and critical validation, the reality is they still rely on a dedicated global social network and major label privilege to deliver their message effectively.

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