Where were you when Beyoncé broke the Internet in December 2013?
The night Beyoncé appeared online without any warning was arguably the definitive musical moment of the early 2010s. That surprise self-titled album was a monumental achievement. Beyoncé smashed digital sales records in a year when album sales had reached all-time lows. She sold more copies in the album's first week than its two biggest rivals (Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) combined. And it did so without any traditional industry build-up — because "record labels [are] boring" and Beyoncé is the future.
Shortly after her epic drop, many journalists justified the incredible figures saying Beyoncé was one of only a small handful of stars who could pull off that kind of surprise and manage to generate sales. But in the past two weeks, two surprise albums have dropped — Kid Cudi's Satellite Flight and Pharrell's G I R L. (Coldplay tentatively joined in with a single drop out of left field.) Both albums performed very well, despite the fact both artists sit on a much lower plane of stardom. The surprise album is clearly becoming a trend.
But as anyone who has watched an individual Walking Dead episode more than once knows, surprises get old fast. Already, these albums didn't do even close to as well the Queen's. It raises the question: How long can the surprise album remain an effective tactic? How long will surprise albums remain surprising before their novelty wears off?
The novelty will fade quickly, but that doesn't necessarily mean surprise releases don't illustrate some important new facts about how the industry is changing. The reaction to surprise albums is immense, not only because Pharrell's and Beyoncé's fan-bases are huge, but also because people tweeting feel like they're building something together. A lot of people bought the album just to cash on the social experience of it all. Rather than a handful of fans tweeting how excited they were at sporadic intervals over the course of a month, we saw a concerted effort to get the album out. For the marketing move of the millenium, Beyoncé didn't even need a marketing team.
We already know everybody wants to be Beyoncé, but the surprise album lets fans feel engaged with music history in a way they normally aren't. It makes us feel important. Kid Cudi played up this personal connection between him and his fans on Twitter in dropping Satellite Flight. He urged fans to share the album and congratulated them when they did:
These release strategies feel way more exciting than massive, coordinated corporate campaigns like Jay-Z's massive Samsung deal (which was the wrong kind of surprise). It's basically grassroots crowdsourcing, and the effectiveness of those strategies are well-documented.
Artists have to go to extreme measures to sell records these days. But, for now, it seems the easiest way to do that is with the least flair and most drama imaginable. And if, for the time being, that means most famous musicians are just emulating Beyoncé, well, that's all right with me.