"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness. It previously appeared at The Daily Swarm.
Last week, inspired electronic music artist Four Tet released Beautiful Rewind, his sixth album. Though a new Four Tet record is a pretty big deal in some circles, he only publicly announced the release date for Beautiful Rewind two weeks before it was due in U.S. stores. Six days later it was streaming online, a day after that it was available to purchase digitally and another 11 days later it was on American record stores' shelves.
But Four Tet is just one of many artists who've recently decided to drastically cut the usual two to three month lead-time between announcing an album and having it hit stores (physical or otherwise). This year's most obvious examples are Kanye West's Yeezus, Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail and Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, but there are also others, like Sleigh Bells, who only gave fans and the press a month's notice that its third album Bitter Rivals would be coming in early October. Unlike the film industry, where movies that are expected to bomb are dropped into limited theaters or the rental market as quietly as possible, these surprise album releases are high profile events and the hope is that they'll sell well.
While the practice of dropping an album with little warning might be growing in popularity, it may not necessarily work for every artist. To make sense of this approach, what it's a reaction to and who can pull it off, Ducker got on the phone with Amaechi Uzoigwe, who has been a manager for two decades and has worked with El-P since the earliest days of the rapper and producer's career. El-P recently teamed with rapper Killer Mike for a project called Run the Jewels, which put out its album as a free digital download, but still gave folks ample warning time that it was coming.
ERIC DUCKER: What I'm trying to wrap my head around with the surprise album approach is whether it's a marketing technique or if it's a reflection of the reality of how people consume music now.
AMAECHI UZOIGWE: It's actually both. It's something people came up with because once an album leaks, that can really impact sales. If you have a three-month setup with press and marketing and everything, if it leaks digitally, it can put a giant hole in that campaign, or at least take the wind out of its sails.
[Surprise albums are] an adaption by people on the marketing side to get in front of these things. It can be really savvy and smart, but a very important consideration is that the artist has to already be very established. Jay Z and Four Tet are obviously on very different planes, but Four Tet has been around and has passionate fans. Jay Z is obviously a huge superstar. People know who both of them are. If you're an unknown artist and you release a surprise album, it's like, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it matter? If you have a name and a brand, the surprise release is a great marketing tool, you get great press. It's exciting to people, because everything moves at such a high velocity these days. The enormous volume of music out there also plays a role. How do you compete? Instead of 50 bands trying to get reviewed by Pitchfork, there's 5,000. You've got to do something to get people to pay attention to you.
DUCKER: Of course this all ties back to is the so-called "Radiohead model" where the artists put up the music seemingly out of nowhere and say, "It's free if you want it" or "You can pay what you want," but, again, you can only really do that if you have dedicated followers.
UZOIGWE: Absolutely. Radiohead is still the best example of that. I know that for Run the Jewels, giving away a free album certainly worked for us. It reached so many more people than El-P or Killer Mike would have reached if they were selling one of their own albums. And that's translated into a very, very successful campaign in terms of touring and merchandise. They've done really well. They've made great money off this album even though it was a free digital release. The CD is selling. The vinyl is selling like crazy. On iTunes it's selling, even though there is a free link out there.
DUCKER: You guys did do something new in that you offered it for free download, but you still did have a somewhat traditional setup where you announced it two or three months in advance, then you released a free single. Why did you think it was still important to have that lead-up time to it, even if you were doing this untraditional thing of giving it away for free?
UZOIGWE: It's always the mix, right? With something like Jay Z's album, there's sort of this new approach, but they didn't throw the old way out. They have still done the videos and the touring. Everything has to work together. They all compliment one another when they're done right, when you can get the alchemy right. You need the young kids who are really the beating heart of the body you're trying to reach, but you still need the traditional media. Artists of a certain level still want to check all those boxes.
When Jay Z drops something, the entire world is going to know about it instantly, but with Run the Jewels, it may take time to spread out. There are people who didn't know who either El-P or Killer Mike were as individual artists, and it takes time for stuff to reach those people. And now there are kids who are fans who didn't even know who El-P and Killer Mike were before the Run the Jewels. It's a whole new dynamic in play. That's the way we came up with everything. There's a teasing aspect in some sense, you want to spread the campaign out, but ultimately everything we do is for marketing purposes. How do you get people's attention when it's so hard to do that and attention spans are so short?
DUCKER: That's actually huge, the fatigue music consumers feel. If they keep hearing about something, but don't hear it soon, now they're going to lose interest in it.
UZOIGWE: And once it's been sent out and worked to press for a few months, it's going to leak. Period. It's going to happen. And once it leaks, it's everywhere. You may as well try and beat it to the punch by not giving it three months to circulate and have a journalist put it online or somebody get a hold of it at some label or someone somehow push it out there. It doesn't matter to people any more. They don't care if it leaks and destroys your campaign. I'm not saying they don't care in some malicious way, but I don't even think this new generation of music consumer even thinks that way.
I don't think the goal is to change their behavior, you need to monetize or leverage their behavior to your advantage. That's what people are trying to do, because the horse is out of the barn. The digital ecosystem operates in fundamentally different ways than the physical one did, so you've got to go with the flow to a certain degree. I don't think anyone's cracked the code yet, there may not even be a real code to crack. A lot of it is luck and, honestly, having great music. If it's really good, a surprise release is going to work. If you're a really big act and you put out a surprise release and nobody likes the music, then it didn't work.
DUCKER: The Four Tet thing is what keeps interesting me. He doesn't really do much press, so he doesn't need that built in three-month setup that people expect because that time period is still tied to this idea of that's how long magazines need to report an article, write an article, edit an article, get it laid out, get it sent to the printers and then get it on stands. For a guy like Four Tet, even if he did chose to do press on this album, there's not even that many options left for magazines that would actually cover him.
UZOIGWE: Right. What does he have to lose?
DUCKER: I'm curious if other more independent or smaller-scale artists will realize they don't need this lead-up time to build interest in an album. Are you noticing that artists on the scale of those you work with are realizing that?
UZOIGWE: Absolutely, especially with the niche-oriented artists. They know they're not going to be getting press in the big magazines anyway. They know that their audience is reading blogs or online music magazines that are published daily or hourly. Why do they have to wait three months for Rolling Stone when they know they can put something up online and have it on the blogs, where their audience lives, that day or the next day? It makes a lot sense.
DUCKER: Do you think that the artists, labels and managers are adapting to this thinking at the rate that they should or are they still stuck in the older models?
UZOIGWE: We're sort of in an in-between stage. The younger artists, they didn't grow up even knowing the old model, so it doesn't matter to them. They're all about immediacy. It's frustrating to them, especially those who end up getting signed by a label who then has a more traditional approach.
I've seen many of them get frustrated by the waiting, by what they would consider to be over-management of the process. They're like, "My fans want it now." Artists will record a song and then put it up the same night. To them the validation comes directly from the fans. A lot of people care what rating Pitchfork will give them, but a lot of artists don't care. It's irrelevant [to them]; all that matters is if the fans like it.
DUCKER: In the next year or so, do you foresee you advising El-P or Run the Jewels to give people two weeks advance notice or less before putting up an album? Do you feel like you're heading in that direction?
UZOIGWE: It certainly could be an option if it makes sense. It's not something we would do for the hell of it. There would have to be some methodology to why we would make that decision.
[El-P and Killer Mike] made the first Run the Jewels album a free release strictly as a thank you to their fans for supporting the solo albums that they had put out the year before. That really was their impetus. I was like, "Why would you give out a free album?" I'm the manager, I'm like, "C'mon, let's make money," but they're like, "No, man, we really love the experience we've had working together and the way the fans have responded to us and we want to give them a thank you gift for the love that they've shown." It was a really honest thing.
Sure it's marketing to a certain degree, but for El-P, his credibility is everything to him. He's very serious about his music, everybody who knows him knows that. And he's very serious about his fans and that relationship and respecting that. It happened to really work for this project, but I'm not saying it will work for every project. Next time around, who knows?
But tactically speaking, [the surprise release] will make more and more sense to people because of the reasons we've already talked about. If [listeners] hear something is coming out and it's been several months, it's like last year's news already. You lose that impact that you could have by generating that excitement over a very short period of time. It's going to be really interesting how the landscape shifts in this direction.
DUCKER: Do you think people ever use the surprise release as a tactic because the music isn't that great? There won't be time for the negative buzz to build that the music is actually disappointing because it will be masked by the excitement of, "There's something new!"?
UZOIGWE: My personal opinion is: Yes. I tend to be a little bit cynical about these things anyway, but it does make it harder to get that terrible review from established publications because they don't have time. You can get away with something that normally you wouldn't be able to. It can be very crafty in that regard. I don't want to come off as too much of a hard-ass when it comes to judging the quality of other people's music, but I definitely think it's a crafty way of avoiding scrutiny.
DUCKER: Do you think the surprise approach can be a disservice to the music itself? If as artist unexpectedly drops something — even if he's been crafting it secretly for six months or a year — but it seems rushed in its delivery, will people not take the time to absorb what it is artistically? I felt that a little bit with Yeezus, where at first people said it felt rushed and that it didn't cohere, though opinion on it has been changing over time. Do you think people take something less seriously as an artistic statement if it's dropped into the world?
UZOIGWE: I would tend to agree with that. It fits more into the disposable music category if it's rushed out there. But then again, and this is sort of an abstract point, but the quality of it, if it really is a genius piece of work and it drops spontaneously, it's going to have an impact. People will buy into that. They will explore it and they will dive into it if it's really that compelling.
I have similar criticisms about the Yeezus album. It's well known it was sort of rushed and Rick Rubin was given a short amount of time to work with it. Kanye, to his credit, does try to make artistically focused albums, and sometimes if you're going for a higher concept, people need more time to wrap their heads around it, rather than the candy that some artists will throw out there. It can do a disservice if you want your music to truly be considered in a deeper way. That's where a longer campaign can help. You can introduce people to what you're trying to get across.
It also depends on who your audience is. If your audience is my daughters, who are 14 and 12, then good luck trying to take a whole bunch of time introducing them to deeper concepts, because they want it now. Then if they really like an artist and if they really think that artist speaks to them, they will then take the time on the other side of the release to invest and dive deeper. But generally they want what they want, and they want it now.