With this in mind, here are six examples of bands and artists that have used innovative tactics to release their music, and the marketing lessons we can learn from them.
(Disclaimer: I’m in my mid-twenties so I’ll only be looking at albums releases that I can actually remember/was alive for.)
U2 and Apple – 2004, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
U2 actually have two album releases worth discussing in this piece, but for two opposing reasons… let’s tackle How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb first.
Released in 2004, the Irish band teamed up with Apple for the release of their highly anticipated 11th studio album.
The partnership was pretty simple but highly effective with Apple making limited edition black and red iPods (the ones with the turning wheel, for the uninitiated), prepopulated with U2’s entire discography (How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb inclusive), in addition to unreleased songs from the band.
In 2004, Apple wasn’t the global giant that it is today, but they still saw an opportunity to partner with U2 in a way we seldom saw 14 years ago, and seldom see today.
We recently covered the effectiveness of music in advertising – and it made sense for the product to be accompanied by an advert using U2s lead single, Vertigo.
All of this activity helped raise awareness for U2’s single and album, made U2 look like the coolest band in the world by partnering with such an innovative brand, and helped Apple further ascend into mainstream consciousness. Beneficial for both parties.
The lesson here is in building partnerships and influencer marketing. It would probably be egregious for me to suggest that Apple wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of Bono and Co. but the band definitely helped the tech giant’s cause. The tie-up was beneficial for U2, too. Although MP3s are old news now, they were the ‘in thing’ back then, and by U2 championing MP3s, the wages of war were set and the band looked like true innovators, of the time.
I’ll get to the second album a bit later on…
Nine-Inch Nails, 2007 – Year Zero
With Year Zero, Nine-Inch Nails criticised the US government, and its contemporary policies, by presenting a dystopian vision of the year 2022. With the help of marketing agency 42 Entertainment, Nine Inch Nails used a really clever strategy to bring their album to life and engage their fans.
The band created an alternate reality game, based on this dystopian vision, as a way of communicating the theme of the album.
“An immersive and interactive experience”, that encouraged users to create their own communities, the whole campaign started with a tour t-shirt, which spelled out ‘I AM TRYING TO BELIEVE’, and took fans on a journey to remember.
Curious as you’d expect, fans in their droves went on to search for the t-shirts meaning online and would go on to find a website of the same name. The website was the portal into the game, and a new world for visitors.
The band and the marketing team at 42 Entertainment did so much with this album release; from storing USBs (containing songs) in the toilets of concert locations, encouraging users to submit their own art into the reality game, ‘first resistance’ fan meetups, and much more. It probably warrants its own piece but, for the sake of brevity, the campaign highlights are in the video above.
In a time where social media wasn’t as prevalent as it is today, and marketing capabilities were nowhere near as sophisticated, Nine Inch Nails managed to communicate their message and amplify their reach through multiple channels. The band created an active community both online (by driving their audience to their bespoke website), and offline (through fan focused meetups), and in turn created a lot of buzz all the while maintaining (if not enhancing) their authenticity.
The lesson here lays in the omni-channel approach the band took for this albums release. Nine Inch Nails clearly know their audience and how to keep them engaged, across multiple touchpoints at the appropriate times, without compromising their art. Something that big brands still have trouble with 10 years on.
Radiohead, 2007 – In Rainbows
Another rock band releasing their music in an innovative way was Radiohead – also back in 2007 (must’ve been a good year for it).
For as long as music has been a big business, labels and music groups have controlled everything from album release dates to album pricing strategy, but Radiohead wanted to shake things up with the release of In Rainbows.
Finally out of their long-term deal with Parlophone and Capitol, the UK band decided to give fans the option to pay what they wanted for this album.
Hosted on the bands website, In Rainbows (at the time) was a polarising take on what an album release should be. On the one hand, it could be seen as a bold move against labels that want to control everything about the art that hard working musicians produce. On the other hand it could be argued that giving consumers the power to pay what they wanted could be to the detriment of the perceived value of music – subsequently stifling smaller artists.
But how did it perform? Quite well, I’d infer. Following its release, the album was subject to a lot miscalculated stats but in 2008 the band’s publisher Warner Campbell put the record straight – by highlighting the 3 million times the album was either downloaded or bought – CDs and ‘Diskboxes’ inclusive (these numbers don’t take into account the amount downloaded on BitTorrent, and other sites).
Although this strategy for releasing the album was shrouded in doubt and scepticism, it cannot be denied that at the time it was revolutionary and, ultimately, successful.
We now live in a time where sites like Bandcamp exist to support new artists and offer fans the ability to pay what they like for music for up-and-coming musicians, but back when Radiohead did it, Bandcamp was nonexistent.
The lesson here is in belief in the value of the product, non-conformism and connecting with the audience. Going against the grain can be daunting and stupid, in equal measures, especially in marketing, but when you know your audience well enough, execute a strategy meticulously and believe in the value of your product – it can be truly fulfilling, and pave the way for new business models and companies. Legendary stuff.
Kanye West, 2010 – GOOD Fridays and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
By far my favourite album on the list and probably one of my favourite albums of the last 10 years, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a modern day classic. Classic in terms of concept and classic in terms of campaign execution.
(One of the Good Friday releases)
Every Friday for 14 (yes, 14) weeks Ye released a new track on his website. Establishing the name ‘GOOD Fridays’, Kanye dropped a huge range of music, with a plethora of featured artists, to whet the appetite of me and the rest of his fans. But what’s most notable is that all the songs were free.
Giving anything away for free, in music, can be open to some level of doubt (from the artist’s perspective) but when it ties into an overall campaign and is used to warm fans up in the lead up to something bigger, it feels like a bit of reciprocity may be at play.
It’s well known in marketing (and life) that if you do something for someone first, they’re more likely to do something for you in return and I think Kanye knew this. Aside from the GOOD Friday tracks being album worthy (and the resulting album being, arguably, his best work) I don’t think I’d be remiss in suggesting that Kanye had all his fans on a tether with the amount of free content we were awarded because he knew a large proportion of us would go on to buy his album at the end of it.
He scratched our back, and we went on to scratch his…
Another noteworthy tactic at play was the use of multiple media formats. In this case the short film ‘Runaway’ (named after the album’s lead single) that was released about a month before the album (it’s pretty long and visually arresting so if you’ve got some time, I implore you to watch. It’s great!)
By teasing fans with songs from the album throughout, and an easy to follow and clear narrative, the film (much like the GOOD Friday songs) acted to get fans ready – for what now seemed like a world stopping event. Featuring things that had become synonymous with Kanye like fine art and fashion, the look and feel of the film was consistent with Kanye West the brand, and indicated what may be in store when we got the full project.
Released on Vevo, YouTube, MTV and VH1, the Runaway film was also a clear demonstration of Kanye’s knowledge for where his fans were likely to be and the medium which would be palatable to them. A successful exercise, as to date, the film has amassed over 22 million videos on YouTube alone.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy finally dropped and, it was as masterfully crafted as the GOOD Friday strategy, and film that preceded it.
At the time of writing it’s his most critically lauded album and helped Ye score his 5th platinum album, making the whole campaign from GOOD Friday, through to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a success.
Whatever you think of Kanye, especially given his recent incessant ranting in the lead up to his GOOD Music album releases this summer, marketing lessons can still be taken from him (this piece on him from DigiDay is great).
The lessons here are don’t be afraid to give things away for free, because if your product or service is valuable enough people will find an excuse to spend money on it in the long-term. Keep with the times and observe your audience’s behaviour – people were already downloading loads of music for free at the time of its release so why not make it come from the source. And, it pays to know your audience and how to get them to invest in your product – I remember being at uni and this whole album release feeling like an massive event. Free music every week, a discussion invoking film and a stellar album (which I did actually buy) to top it off. Mr. West knew me too well.
Beyoncé, 2013 – Beyoncé
Beyoncé is to music, what Apple is to tech. Universally worshiped and adored; she’s a once-in-a generation artist.
As such, the release of her self-titled 2013 album sent shockwaves through the music industry. This was because there was no promotion, no announcements, no press. No nothing. On 13th December 2013 the album just appeared, available to download on the iTunes store.
As you can imagine this sent fans and fellow musicians into a state of frenzy:
my girl @beyonce just changed d game !! RT @whoopthis: Beyoncé b craaaayze… #getcultured http://t.co/fuW4kZ2BKv
— Snoop Dogg (@SnoopDogg) December 13, 2013
¥once #gamechanger ????????????????????
— LILY ALLEN (@lilyallen) December 13, 2013
(yep, totally gonna tweet about Beyonce all damn day. Get into my joy. GET INTO IT.)
— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) December 13, 2013
The above was the just the tip of the iceberg. Adweek reported that the album was tweeted about 5,300 times per minute (at it’s peak) and Mashable reported that it was tweeted 1.2 million times in 12 hours following its release . Eye-watering stuff.
What’s more, the album wasn’t only for listening. It was for watching too. Every song on the album was accompanied with high quality videos, something that had never been done on the scale or quality that Mrs Knowles-Carter managed on this project. Also worth mentioning was the use of free platforms like YouTube and Vevo to share these videos, after the album’s release, to ensure nobody missed out. Paying or non-paying fan.
And numbers don’t tend to lie, in music. The initial album sales were also ridiculous, with The Guardian reporting over 800K sales in less than three days, following its release. Truly remarkable for something people didn’t even know they were getting.
Putting Beyoncé’s magnitude and gravitas as a star to one side, the marketing lesson here is clear. Not everything needs a grand campaign. Beyoncé demonstrated that by knowing her core audience – what they’d want and how/where they’d want to consume it – she could execute one of the best album releases in recent memory. All without saying a word beforehand.
Well established brands often spend millions on epic campaigns, but moves like Beyoncé’s do make you wonder if it’s always necessary. Sometimes a surprise can cause enough of a stir to get customers (and non-customers) talking, discovering and buying, without any need for huge billboards or PR. Can you honestly imagine if one day the iPhone XV just popped up online? Would be interesting to see for sure.
U2 and Apple – 2014, Songs of Innocence
And finally, as it pertains to U2’s Songs of Innocence, this may be more of a case of overindulging in old practices than genuine innovation.
I remember waking up one morning and suddenly not being able to download any new music onto my space-deprived iPhone 5C. Why, you might ask? Because Bono and Apple were back at it again – prepopulating iPods and iPhones with the former’s 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence.
For U2 fans, it must have been like Christmas come early when the band and, now, tech giant CEO Tim Cook announced the move, at the company’s iPhone 6 event. However, if you’re not a hardcore U2 fan (like myself), you were most likely left with a bad taste in your mouth – especially if didn’t know how to get rid of it straightaway.
The publicity stunt was done by both parties in the aim of making Songs of Innocence “the largest album release of all time,” but at what cost?
I'm frightened to open this muller rice incase U2 have left an album in there.
— Joanna Bolouri (@scribbles78) September 12, 2014
I'd pay £10.99 to get rid of the sodding thing #U2
— Keith Wildman (@KeithWildman) September 13, 2014
Is there any way of getting the new Apple stuff without the free U2 album?
— Katy Brand (@KatyFBrand) September 9, 2014
And these are just a few examples of the chatter, on the day of the drop…
Both Apple and U2 haven’t done anything like this again and that’s probably for the best. The lesson here is three fold. Don’t piss people off with ‘over innovating’, think about the effect on all customers/fans, and take heed from your mistakes – here’s to hoping they have.
I’m not going to suggest that all companies can adopt or use the tactics I’ve spoken about in this article, but there are certainly lessons to be taken.
There are a number of parallels that can be drawn between how music is marketed and how other products/services are.
With the emergence and power of streaming, marketers in the music industry need to come up with creative ways to distinguish their work from the masses, if they don’t want to be drowned out by all the noise.
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