Still, what about the beleaguered brick-and-mortar retailers? Bob Say, proprietor of Sherman Oaks, Calif., vinyl-heavy indie retailer Freakbeat Records, says he had to wait two weeks after Lemonade's April 23 release to receive his shipment of the CD and accompanying DVD. Acknowledging his store's indie demo isn't exactly Beyoncé's audience, Say ultimately ordered a half-dozen copies of the album. He says he received a single call about the album, and ended up selling just one copy.
Drake had been touting the release of Views, his latest studio album that recently debuted at No. 1, since an August 2014 tweet. In between, he dropped another album, If Youre Reading This Its Too Late, on Feb. 13, 2015, without any prior announcement. The surprise release, which earned a Best Rap Album GRAMMY nomination, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 535,000 equivalent album units. It was also streamed 17.3 million times in three days on Spotify, a mark eclipsing his previous streaming record for his 2013 GRAMMY-nominated album, Nothing Was The Same.
When it comes to guerilla releases, Radiohead are perhaps the pioneers, launching the Internet-only In Rainbows in 2007 just days after it was announced with their novel pay-what-you-want scheme, an approach that led to what they claimed was their biggest-ever payday, selling more than 3 million copies without a label. For their new album, A Moon Shaped Pool, the band is also selling digital copies via their website as well as paid subscription services Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and Tidal. However, the album is not available at Spotify, which bandleader Thom Yorke once famously referred to as "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse." The album debuted at No. 3 with 181,000 equivalent album units, representing their biggest bow since 2003's Hail To The Thief entered with 300,000.
The extent of the marketing campaign for A Moon Shaped Pool included a pair of singles/videos and wiping the band's Internet footprint clean the week of its May 8 release, while emailing their database about the new album's availability. The physical album, which includes limited deluxe editions and vinyl, won't be released until June 17, but Freakbeat Records' Say insists they are one of the few bands who can get away with such a plan. "Their hardcore fans have that collector's mentality… they want every piece of product they can get their hands on," he says.
One artist who is still a big believer in physical product is Adele, who combined traditional and surprise release elements for her latest studio album, 25. She not only personally announced 25 with an open letter just one month ahead of the album's release, she also decided to initially withhold it from streaming services. "I believe music should be an event," Adele told Time. "I don't use streaming. I buy my music… I know that streaming music is the future, but it's not the only way to consume music."
Adele's call not to stream did not hinder 25's success. The album tallied a gaudy 3.48 million equivalent album units in its first week of sales, 3.38 million of which were pure album sales — marking the single largest sales week since 1991.
Streaming exclusives versus physical product? To surprise release or not to surprise release? With artists such as Taylor Swift, Metallica, Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, and Jay Z currently in between new album cycles, it's fun to speculate how album release schemes will continue to play out.
Ian Montone, the manager for artists such as Jack White, Foster The People, LCD Soundsystem, Run The Jewels, Vampire Weekend, and Danger Mouse, among others, admits the surprise release strategy is probably more effective for superstars than young artists. He also emphasizes that despite their potential big-splash impact, a surprise album release should be one component to an overall campaign strategy.
"With streaming continuing to grow, as we get away from the shackles of 'first-week' sales determining an album's life or death, [surprise releases] may be a good thing," says Montone. "We still need to work campaigns just as long or more so, be it radio, your digital and streaming partners, or your label. It's a two-year game, not just a first week, and streaming makes this conversation even more relevant."