Just how do you release a new album in 2016?
Surprise albums mean we’re seeing an interesting conundrum develop around the process of new releases
Back in January, Jack Garratt was plugging his new album “Phase” and talking about looking over his shoulder at what everyone else was doing. “I could release my album a week after Kanye and the album could just disappear”, he said. “James Blake and Frank Ocean could put out their albums the same week and you’d have to roll with the punches.”
Garratt proved to be prescient as West did release a version of his album “The Life Of Pablo” a few days before him, though the continuous tinkering and updating of the album makes you wonder if the thing is ever going to be finished. Last week, Blake got around to releasing his new album “The Colour In Anything” and he too, it seems, had concerns about what everyone else is doing. An interview in the Guardian contains the nugget that the original release date was supposed to be April 29, but the “surprise” release of the new Beyonce album “Lemonade”, on which Blake features, scuppered that plan.
Shortly after “The Colour In Anything” unexpectedly arrived with a clatter into our lives, Radiohead stuck out their new album “A Moon Shaped Pool” with a few days’ notice and Blake found himself taking a back seat in the pop news cycle. A good job for Radiohead that no promenient music star died at the weekend. The job of a music hack these days means reviewing albums which land on our desks with little warning in doublequick time and penning obituaries and career-long retrospectives at the drop of a hat. We’re still waiting for that Ocean album, by the way, but that Blake interview means we know it’s on the way.
This potted rundown on some of 2016′s surprise album releases (we could also add David Bowie’s “Blackstar” and Drake’s “Views”) lends itself to many questions and musings. For a start, it may be time to redefine the term “surprise album”. With the exception of Bowie, who successfully kept his album under wraps while the recording process was underway, most of the above records were known to be in the works and it was just the date of release which came as a surprise.
It would also seem that the old way of doing things, the one where a big album release was set up months in advance with loads of advance promotion and palaver, may be at an end. Certainly, for a blockbuster act like Beyonce or Drake, there’s no need for it anymore. You just release your new album and your fanbase, your huge and engaged fanbase which you have developed and tended over the years, goes ballistic to spread the word about how AWESOME the new album is. The general view is that the album is always AWESOME – surprise releases are rarely reviewed as mediocre or average or so-so because of the need for your snap reaction to chime with the hive’s snap reaction. Why bother with all the fuss with promotion, PR and interviews when you can do that? Job’s oxo.
But what about the acts who don’t have that sort of devoted fanbase who’ll turn on a dime for them? For many bands, releasing a new album is a piece of business which takes time and teamwork to tee up and execute. You may have worked for ages on the actual music (years, maybe) and spent months making sure the album is going to get some attention when it’s released and then Radiohead come along and you’re relegated to the also-ran department.
Of course, it’s not all front-loaded promotion and many albums go on to have lengthy timelines because the band got traction on the road or the album receives a renewed lease of life because of some other event (watch Christine and The Queens’ “Chaleur Humaine” take off in the coming months on the back of the recent extraordinary Later with Jools Holland TV appearance). However, there are also an increasing number of albums which are released and sink without trace because something else came along, attracted everyone’s attention and no-one was prepared to spend the time required to decipher your work. It’s much easier for many reviewers to write about Radiohead’s ninth album because they know the band’s history than it is for them to devote the time to write about a new band’s debut or second release.
All of which means we’re seeing some conundrums develop around the process of releasing an act’s new record. Does the team who work with a band stick with the tried and tested marketing campaign? This is the one which involves getting the album out early to journalists, editors, DJs and broadcasters to ensure pre-release or date-of-release coverage online, in print and on radio and TV. This is the one which involves the act doing a lot of making nice with interviewers and media folk in advance and having to do interviews which they may not want to do.
Or do you go for broke and just stick the album out on some random date and let the market decide? Certainly, if you’re an act with a sizeable fanbase already, you can do this and it doesn’t matter a jot that there are no reviews or features set up around the release. The fact that you’re releasing a new album does the trick and you just have to make sure it’s on (or not on, as the case may be) Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and the rest of them so the fans can start to evangalise on your behalf.
That, though, just won’t work for acts who don’t have that kind of audience reach (and that includes Mr BBC Sound of 2016 and BRIT Critics Choice, Jack Garratt). For them, it’s still a case of for now of doing the advance legwork and making sure you’ve covered all the bases you’re supposed to cover. Then, you sit back and hope Frank Ocean or U2 or whoever doesn’t choose the same day to release and take the spotlight.