With albums bombing left and right, Beyoncé went all drone warfare at year’s end: The R&B diva’s digital release of a self-titled collection of 14 songs and videos came right out of the blue. According to Apple, 828,773 copies of the electro-souled Beyoncé sold worldwide in its first three days, making it the fastest-selling album in iTunes history.
Beyoncé’s blitzkrieg was a stunning reversal in a year when music was a tougher sell than ever before. By packaging her product as a “visual album,” with each song accompanied by a brand new video, and with the downright stealthy nature of the release, the launch of Beyoncé was a pop-culture event in itself, quite apart from the actual music.
She wasn’t the only innovative marketer in a year when it became clear that the old strategies of selling records no longer work. In the week following the October release of Katy Perry’s Prism, U.S. album sales (tabulated since 1991 by Nielsen SoundScan) fell to a new low – in a month when they traditionally begin spiking. Perry’s disc had a solid first week: her best ever, with 286,000 copies sold. It’s worth noting, though, that Prism’s numbers would not be matched by the next eight titles – including Drake’s Nothing Was the Same and Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt – combined.
There is no longer any depth to the charts. Drop-week successes like Perry’s represent sales to the diehard fans. After that, the numbers tend to drop dramatically. Miley Cyrus, for example, had the twerk but not the torque. Two weeks after her Bangerz debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, the album fell to fourth place, with a paltry 43,000 copies sold that week.
Nobody can say they didn’t see this coming. Plunging sales have forced creative thinking and tinkering in the past. Prince tucked copies of his Planet Earth into a British tabloid newspaper in 2007. That same year, Radiohead employed a pay-what-you-can scheme for In Rainbows.
In 2013, however, the marketing of an album drop, as Beyoncé’s non-campaign shows, came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some schemes worked and some did not, but it is evident now that doing the same old thing is no longer an option.
Okay, you’re a recording artist. What are you to do to sell your brand? Well, there are options.
You could forget the notion of the album as “statement,” and just put out an LP of dynamite tracks
Billboard just named Bruno Mars its artist of the year, and it wasn’t just because of the sales of his Unorthodox Jukebox (though the album, released late in 2012, did come in at No. 4, trailing One Direction’s Take Me Home, Taylor Swift’s Red and Justin Timberlake’s year-end chart-topper The 20/20 Experience). No, Mars is a singles machine: Locked Out of Heaven and When I Was Your Man both reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and Treasure made it to No. 5. The dude gets radio play, and there is no publicity better than that.
You could play one song for hours
Also in May, in advance of the release of its sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, the brooding indie rockers the National played their older tune Sorrow for six hours straight in a collaboration with the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. The one-song show took place at MoMA PS1, a contemporary arts institution in Queens, N.Y.
A press release from the gallery read: “By stretching a single pop song into a day-long tour de force, the artist continues his explorations into the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound.” (This is a touch more cultured than any high concept of Lady Gaga. This year the meat-dressed pop star released Artpop, a disappointing disc with a title track that has her copping out. “Art pop,” she sings, “could mean anything.”)
In July, Jay Z took the National’s six-hour marathon idea and ran with it. For a video, the entrepreneurial rapper performed his song Picasso Baby for six consecutive hours at New York’s Pace Gallery. There, the ball-cap-wearing Brooklynite danced with a variety of stars and personalities, including artist Marina Abramovic.
You could put your face on a building
In May, the unbearable Kanye West gave the world its first official sampling of his Yeezus album by projecting the video to the audacious song New Slaves on buildings the world over, including the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. West did not debut his new creation on iTunes or YouTube. His publicity was an event.
You could play a rooftop
In contrast to some of the more nuanced acts of album promotion, Paul McCartney pulled out old tricks for his album New. Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the 71-year-old mop-topper performed on top of a Hollywood Boulevard rooftop, just as he did in 2009 in New York for David Letterman’s show and just as he did as a member of the Beatles on top of Apple Studios in 1969. But note, New sold under 70,000 copies in the United States in its first week. A roof? We already saw him standing there.
You could go undercover
No act used more craft in its publicity approach than Arcade Fire, the artful Montreal rockestra that pumped its album Reflektor with a string of “secret” club shows, teaser videos, enigmatic billboard ads and worldwide viral graffiti. The band members, disguised with giant papier mâché heads, called themselves the Reflektors. And when its much-anticipated and laboured-upon album leaked online prematurely, Arcade Fire streamed the songs on its own website, with the 1959 Brazilian film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) as visual accompaniment.
Detractors will say that Arcade Fire, which encourages fans to dress in formal wear or costumes for its concerts, is conceited, and that those giant fake heads are life-size. The Grammy-winning band should pay the naysayers no mind. If anyone is pretentious, it’s the acts who cling to old ways and assume the public will automatically buy their albums.
You could go serial
Justin Bieber employed a “Music Monday” scheme that involved the weekly drop of a new single. For a limited time (Dec. 16 to Jan. 2), those 10 singles plus five unreleased tracks are available on iTunes as the compilation Journals.
You could die
Sales of Lou Reed’s solo albums jumped six-fold upon the news of his death in October.
Or, like Beyoncé, you could do nothing
David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine both went sneak-attack with their comeback albums this year. They didn’t return to engage in the same old game.
“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it,” Beyoncé’ said in a statement. “I am bored with that.” Her label, Sony, declared this in a press release: “Stripped of gimmicks, teasers and marketing campaigns, this project is truly about art before hype.”
But, really, it was a stunt, and only something a god or goddess could pull off. The hard fact is that albums by mere mortals don’t sell much any more. So the innovative artist goes the other way, which is to craft a creative promotional campaign, with the aim of distinguishing your album as something significant beyond crass commercial concerns. You align yourself with the sophisticates. Your promotion is not persuasion; it is performance art in and of itself. And your album is precious, not disposable.
The year in music by the numbers
The amount of money German authorities asked pop star Justin Bieber to hand over for the costs of caring for the capuchin monkey he left in Munich
The number of kilometres above Earth, which is the approximate altitude of the orbiting vessel in which Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded his high-flying version of Space Oddity
Percentage of tour leader Bon Jovi’s 90 concerts that sold out
The length, in hours, of Pharrell Williams’s video for the song Happy
The number of Drake’s songs on the Billboard Hot 100 – the most by any artist this year
The number of weeks that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines spent on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart
The year-ending chart position of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, the highest-ranking Canadian album on the Billboard 200
The number of 2014 Grammy nominations for Jay Z, who got more than anyone else
The years between Justin Timberlake’s previous album (FutureSex/LoveSounds) and 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, the top-selling album of the year in the United States
Number of acts with more than one song in the year-ending Top 10. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis scored with Thrift Shop (No. 1) and Can’t Hold Us (No. 5)