Why more artists are ‘pulling a Beyonce’ and what this means for the music industry

| Culture Editor

It’s not news to most that the music industry has become vastly digitalized, revolutionizing our ability to hear and buy songs from our favorite artists and bands via a plethora of online and app-based sources. But the latest trend of surprise albums, directly fueled by the music industry’s use of the Internet, may prove to be the next step in the industry’s evolution.

By “surprise album,” I’m referring to an album released by a musical artist without any prior promotion or marketing. And no, it’s not just Beyonce (although we have to give Queen Bey some credit for solidifying this trend) or random independent bands you’ve never heard of. The list is pretty sizable, with artists and groups ranging in genre and notoriety: Kid Cudi, Skrillex, Radiohead and Drake, to name a few. In fact, even Miley Cyrus thoroughly surprised us all just a couple weeks ago with the announcement of her new album “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz” during her live performance at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs)—and it’s no simple EP, but actually a 23-track collaborative album with Flaming Lips, Big Sean and Ariel Pink. From an economic standpoint, it’s crazy: how can you expect the same payoff from an album that no one even saw coming? And yet, others would say the exact opposite. The marketing strategy is, in fact, the lack of marketing altogether.

The advocates of the new surprise album trend emphasize the shock factor. Fans, totally caught off guard by the new release, will be quick to purchase simply to find out what this artist managed to produce in complete secrecy. It’s awe-inspiring and original and interesting—definitely one way to spice up the music world. And the thorough digitalization of the industry that has allowed fans access to previews, leaks and promotional materials prior to album release now allows these new surprise albums to spread like wildfire. The publicity that the album lacks in prior promotion is instantly made up for (or more) by the slew of articles, social media posts, videos and opportunities to download tracks that pop up just minutes after the release.

This may prove to be bad news for the music industry, whose executives function primarily to market and promote artists. Even so, it’s actually been cited as one method for preventing hackers from accessing new music and leaking it before set album release dates (which generates substantial economic losses for the industry): If the hackers don’t know it’s coming, how would they know where to look?

For the artists, it’s more freedom to choose their own release date and move forward with social media promotion on their own. Fans’ attention is redirected back to the artists themselves, an unintended homage to their creative work and a not-so-subtle knock on big business. Not to mention the extra leverage that artists gain for experimentation prior to release, without potential for judgment or speculations from the public. For artists with their own labels, the self-chosen album release is the natural next step to taking full ownership of their work. And for all artists, without the pressure to provide the public with intel on what’s coming, the process of creating an album will become more genuinely artistic.

The question is one of sustainability, in two senses: If everyone hops on the surprise album bandwagon, will we still enjoy the surprises, and can one artist drop two surprise albums? For the first time around, the data show an incredibly positive response. Beyonce’s surprise album at the end of 2013 topped the charts, selling over 800,000 copies in three days and making her the artist with the fastest-selling album on iTunes. In fact, it was such a success that the surprise album trend has often been called, “pulling a Beyonce.” A comparable success is J. Cole’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts after being announced only three weeks prior to being leaked.

Even so, it’s likely this trend should still be reserved for those with enough fame to truly pull it off. The shock factor only works if you’re a big enough artist that your fans are actually impressed that they had no idea you were working on anything new. In Miley’s case, fans knew something was coming—just not this much or this soon or, most importantly, for free. Did Miley’s album drop imprint itself on the music industry’s history quite like Beyonce’s? No, but it reflects the new trend of artists catching fans off guard—and her decision to make it free online is not just giving in to our obsession with downloading music, but it’s also her way of one-upping everyone else. If other artists can drop albums as surprises, Miley can do the same and make it free. What it says about the music industry is one question, but for the fans, the surprises and free downloads leave little to complain about.