When you record an album, you want the public to buy it; that’s just simple economics at work. So the question that remains then is, how do you make the public want to buy your album? These days, there aren’t as many 30 second TV ad spots as there used to be to promote new records, so you have to do things a little bit different, and a little bit left of centre.
You want to make sure that you intrigue the masses so that not only do your fans go out and buy your record, but newcomers to your music will be just as curious as everyone else so that they may check out your music based on your marketing alone.
In honour of those musicians who have done their best to make their albums appeal to the masses, we’ve decided to take a much closer look at some of the albums that had marketing campaigns that were not just memorable, but have, in some cases, become more famous than the albums they accompanied.
Nine Inch Nails – ‘Year Zero’
Undoubtedly one of the most popular alternative acts of the 1990’s, Nine Inch Nails have a fiercely loyal fanbase. In fact, their loyalty and love of Nine Inch Nails’ frontman Trent Reznor came in handy when it was time to market Nine Inch Nails’ 5th album, Year Zero.
In early 2007, fans started noticing certain letters on the band’s shirts were highlighted. These letters lead to a website which described a dystopian future in which the United States has been shaken by terrorist attacks and the government has taken complete control of the country. This alternate reality game continued when flash drives containing secret songs, hidden images within the audio files of those songs, and messages were found at various concerts, which lead to fans discovering websites with hidden audio of supposedly leaked phone conversations which urged the public to ‘fight back against the government’.
The game culminated in a small group of fans receiving correspondence that invited them to a secret ‘resistance meeting’ in which some fans were given mobile phones. Days later, they received a phone call inviting them to an address which turned out to be a secret Nine Inch Nails show. In keeping with the theme of the game, this show only lasted a few songs before it ended with a fake SWAT team storming the concert and rushing the audience out of the building.
Frank Ocean – ‘Blonde’
When Frank Ocean released his debut record Channel Orange in 2012, fans fell in love with the rapper. The record got an amazing reception, and fans were almost instantaneously hanging out for a follow up. Sadly though, they were set to be waiting for quite a while, since it wasn’t until 2016 that Ocean’s next record was released.
In July 2016, Ocean began teasing fans with cryptic clues that indicated a new record was set to be released that month. The record seemed to be titled Boys Don’t Cry. On August 1st, a video was shared which showed Ocean playing instruments. This video ended up being a trailer for a visual album called Endless that Ocean released on August 19th. Fans were confused, was this the ‘album’ that they had been waiting for? Fans hardly had time to ask that question though, because the very next day, on August 20th, Ocean surprised fans with the record Blonde. This time, it was the albums fans had been waiting for, and fans were absolutely overjoyed that their four year wait was completely worth it.
Radiohead – ‘Kid A’/’In Rainbows’
Radiohead’s OK Computer almost bought lead singer Thom Yorke to a complete breakdown due to the stress of touring and promotion, so the group were pretty adamant about doing things differently for their next album. 2000’s Kid A was already highly anticipated, but Radiohead’s decision to market the album entirely online, making it the first album to be done in such a way, made the anticipation that much greater. A small addition to fan sites called an ‘iBlip’ was created, making it possible for fans to briefly preview clips and pre-order the album.
Not satisfied with changing the way albums were marketed, Radiohead changed the way albums were bought 7 years later. When they announced the release of In Rainbows, they decided to take a completely new approach. In addition to letting fans purchase the album ‘the old fashioned way’, the band also made available an option to buy the album for the low, low price of absolutely nothing. Sparking the popularity of the ‘pay as you want’ movement, the group’s adventure proved quite fruitful, with Thom Yorke saying 2 months after the album’s release that he made more money from the digital sales of In Rainbows than the digital sales of all other Radiohead albums combined.
Thom Yorke – ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’
It really looks as though Thom Yorke knows how to market an album, doesn’t it? Years after Radiohead’s experiment with ‘pay as you want’ with In Rainbow, Yorke decided to release his second solo record, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes a little bit differently to how others were doing it.
In much the same way that Radiohead embraced the Internet with their previous albums, York decided to embrace piracy, and make people pay to download his albums using a service that would usually be used to steal an album. See, Yorke decided to sell his record through the BitTorrent service, making people pay for the record so that they could get an exclusive download of the record. To be fair, it’s really no different to using something like Bandcamp, except this time Yorke was able to rub in the faces of all potential pirates the irony of using BitTorrent to actually buy a record.
Arcade Fire – ‘Reflektor’
Much like Frank Ocean’s Blonde, fans had been waiting for a few years for Arcade Fire to release a new record, after their Grammy-award winning The Suburbs was released in 2010. Of course, in true indie-rock band fashion, Arcade Fire decided to do things a little bit differently.
In August of 2013, cryptic symbols began turning up in cities around the world. These symbols consisted of a diamond within a circle, with the word ‘reflektor’ written inside. While Arcade Fire had already announced their new album was coming by responding to a fan’s Tweet, no one had any idea that these symbols were part of the new record’s marketing. On August 26th the band made an announcement via a large mural in downtown Manhattan that something was coming in September. When September came around, the group announced the details of the record, saying it was coming in October of that year.
Of course, while Arcade Fire’s guerrilla-marketing style of graffiti saw lots of attention and praise from fans, man criticised the group for inciting vandalism. The group claimed that all the materials used in the record’s promotion were supposed to be easily removable. Of course, from a music lovers point of view, who wouldn’t want their town to feature a little bit of Arcade Fire and music history on its walls?
Aphex Twin – ‘Syro’
Aphex Twin is a strange entity. He’s released some of the world’s strangest music videos, performed under numerous names, and is pretty well known for being a strange guy in general. His strangeness all came to a head in 2014 when he released Syro. Coming 13 years after his last album under the Aphex Twin name, Richard D. James (as he is known to his mother), surprised by fans by organising a blimp to fly around London with his infamous logo and the year ‘2014’ printed on it. Days later, his Aphex Twin logo began to appear in New York.
Soon, his Twitter account threw out a link which was only accessible on the notorious ‘deep web’. This link contained album information such as the title and track listing. Fans were still confused though, as many thought that these track titles were coded messages that had to be deciphered. When the album was released though, they were met with the information that it was all a red herring and in fact the album did actually include titles like ‘4 bit 9d api+e+6’ and ‘fz pseudotimestretch+e+3’. Considering the album’s cover was merely an itemised receipt for the album, you could forgive fans for still being confused.
Death Grips – ‘The Powers That B’
If you’ve ever looked for a band that messes with people, well you need look no further than Death Grips. Bursting onto the scene with their highly acclaimed fusion of hip-hop, punk, and electroclash, the group have had a short, but intense history. Following critical acclaim for their debut album The Money Store, the group breached their record contract by releasing No Love Deep Web for free online, complete with a picture of drummer Zach Hill’s penis as the album cover.
Following an incident in which they toyed with fans by booking a show they never intended to show up to, the group started to record their fourth album, a double album called The Powers That B. At first, they surprised fans in June 2014 by releasing the first half of the album, Niggas On The Moon, for free online, but then they went quiet. Fans clamoured for information about the next half, but this was met with the news that the group had broken up. Fans despaired and wondered when and if the second half, entitled Jenny Death, would be released, even creating a hugely popular hashtag of ‘#jennydeathwhen’.
In January of 2015, the group suddenly released an instrumental album entitled Fashion Week, made up of songs which spelt out the letters ‘JENNY DEATH WHEN’ acrostically. 2 months later, the group suddenly reconvened, announcing a new tour and a release date for the entirety of their The Powers That B double album.
Boards Of Canada – ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’
Boards Of Canada are a duo of Scottish brothers who have been making music for more than 2 decades. Their origins are murky at best, but their music has captured the attention of thousands over their lifespan. With their music having extreme influence from old-school instrumentation and featuring numerous samples from obscure sources such as nature documentaries from the 70’s, the group are certainly known for doing things their own way.
On Record Store Day 2013, a mysterious record was found at a New York store. Credited to Boards Of Canada, the record featured a vocoded voice speaking the numbers ‘9-3-6-5-5-7’, while the record’s cover simply said ‘——/——/——/xxxxxx/——/——‘. As time went on, more numbers surfaced, and once all numbers were discovered, the group’s website then changed so that it required vistors to enter a password. Once the password was cracked, it was announced that Boards Of Canada were on track to release their fourth album, and their first in 8 years, Tomorrow’s Harvest.
Paris Hilton & Banksy – ‘Paris’
You read that correctly, Paris Hilton and Banksy? Well, sort of. Paris Hilton in no way condoned this release in the same way no one condoned Paris Hilton actually releasing her debut album. In fact, famous artist Banksy took issue with Paris Hilton and what she stands for by teaming up with Danger Mouse to hijack her album.
In the week of the album’s release in August 2006, Banksy replaced up to 500 copies of Hilton’s album with a CD of music recorded by Danger Mouse. Consisting of titles such as ‘Why Am I Famous?’, ‘What Have I Done?’ and ‘What Am I For?’, Banksy then replaced the artwork with pictures of Hilton digitally altered to appear topless, while leaving the barcode intact so that retailers didn’t realise the album had been tampered with.
Cut Copy – ‘Free Your Mind’
With the success of games like Pokémon Go in the last year, the idea of media changing based upon your location probably sounded like some of technophile fever dream to the masses back in 2013. Well, it sort of was. See, Aussie group Cut Copy were getting ready to promote their fourth album, Free Your Mind, so they decided to try something a little bit outside of the box.
Billboards were constructed in places such as Mexico, Chile, Australia, Wales, and two places in the US, including Detroit, Michigan, and the Californian desert. Fans were instructed to visit these billboards and open the group’s website on their phones. Using location services built in the said phones, fans were able to preview the group’s newest track ‘Free Your Mind.’ It seems as though this marketing worked, because the album sold pretty well in America, bringing even more fame to the already legendary Aussie indietronica group. Have a listen to the song below, especially now that you don’t have to go back to 2013 and travel all around the world to hear it.
50 Cent’s ‘Curtis’ vs. Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’
50 Cent and Kanye West were already friendly rivals in the world of hip-hop with 50 Cent’s The Massacre losing the Grammy for best rap album to Kanye for Late Registration in 2006. But when their next albums were released, the heat was turned up a bit. 50 Cent’s Curtis was planned for a September 11th, 2007 release, while Kanye’s Graduation was planned for a September 18th release. Soon before their release, Kanye’s was brought forward a week to clash with 50’s album, resulting in a pretty memorable head-to-head battle.
50 Cent even commented saying that if he were to sell less copies than Kanye, he’d retire from music, a statement which he was contractually obligated to retract. As it turned out, Kanye sold a million copies, beating 50 Cent by 300,000, but that wasn’t quite the end of it. As it turned out, both albums were released on the Universal record label, meaning that this whole release-day war was nothing more than a publicity stunt manufactured by the label to sell more records.