By Shannon Carlin, with additional reporting from Jeremy D. Larson
2013 will forever be known as the year of the spectacular album rollout. No longer could an artist just simply have their publicist whip up a press release to announce his or her upcoming project. No, the pop stars, indie rockers, rappers and electronic duos of the world had to come up with clever stunts so that three, four, and in some cases even, six months down the line, people would actually want to pay for their record.
Promotional stunts are nothing new — Madonna did it in 1992, releasing her headline grabbing coffee table book Sex as the companion to her album Erotica and in 1995 Sony Music spent millions to erect statues of Michael Jackson throughout Europe in hopes to boost sales of HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1 — but this year, 11 different artists had to reach deeper into their bag of tricks to come up with something original.
While Miley Cyrus took control of the Twitterverse, Vampire Weekend took advantage of happy accidents. Katy Perry burned her blue wig, Boards of Canada staged a scavenger hunt, Justin Timberlake counted everything down, Eminem left no one out and Jay Z started a new precedent for how album sales are tallied thanks to an innovative business move.
Lady Gaga and Kanye West entered the world of high art, while Arcade Fire made statements in chalk. And Daft Punk got fans so excited about “Get Lucky” that they created a 10-hour remix that we can only hope got someone lucky.
All of these acts — excluding the heady electronica of Boards of Canada — saw chart success, debuting at No. 1 with sales that ranged from 134,000 to 968,000 copies sold. These numbers prove that these tactics managed to do something the record companies haven’t been able to do in a long time: get people excited about buying records again.
But in our opinion, first week sales are only half the battle. You have to hold people’s attention in the days after your album actually comes out. Once the spectacle charade is all said and done.
Who really did it best? You’ll have to read our list to find out.
(Ed. note: Beyoncé just trumped all these guys and gals by releasing her album today (Dec. 13) without any notice whatsoever, but unfortunately she released her record a day too late to make our list. But know, we bow down to Queen Bey and her sneak attack. )
11. Lady Gaga – ARTPOP
Release Date: November 6
Metacritic score: 61
First week sales: 258,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: Throwing an artRAVE the weekend before her album release, complete with the unveiling of her flying dress and artwork from Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons, who debuted the giant sculpture seen on her album cover, which features Gaga, legs open, with a giant orb between her legs. Someone might be overcompensating a tad.
End result: Gaga’s nearly two year long promotion — made longer by a hip injury, which left her out of commission for several months — seemed to be filled with disappointment. On November 11, she revealed the release date of her album and touted her ARTPOP app, which since the release of the record no one has spoken about. Her first single, “Applause” leaked, leading Gaga to release it earlier than planned and even with that extra time it still hasn’t been able to top the charts. And though ARTPOP debuted at No. 1, in its second week it only moved 46,000, copies, dropping 82 percent to No. 8. In the end her best move was hosting SNL for the first time. The episode — the highest rated of this season — showed off Gaga’s comic timing and had her channeling her inner Elton John on “Gypsy.” We won’t try and explain what that was she did with R. Kelly. Tip for Gaga when it comes to promoting her next album: Ditch the high concept and keep it folksy. Fans really do like you just the way you are.
10. Miley Cyrus – Bangerz!
Release Date: October 4
Metacritic score: 61
First week sales: 270,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: Wearing a teddy bear teddy, Miley twerked her way into the zeitgeist and stole the MTV VMAs right out from under Robin Thicke’s nose. Her cameo ended up becoming the most talked about performance of the night. Because of her, no one will ever quite be able to look at foam fingers the same way again.
End result: If Justin is the King of Countdowns, Miley is the Queen of Twitter. Her Smilers are like a well-trained army. If Miley says tweet, they say how much. Most of their tweeting was relegated to using hashtags like #WeCantStop, which she encouraged fans to tweet during this summer’s Billboard Music Awards where she revealed the title of her new song and talked about her new direction. Her young internet savvy fans were not only able to get Miley-centric hashtags trending, but set viewing records for her music videos. The clips for “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop” are the first and second most-viewed videos on Vevo, respectively. But for someone with so much personality, the nearly five month album campaign was a little bland. Sure, only God can judge her, but we’d imagine even He’d tell her to let her freak flag fly a little higher the next time around.
9. Katy Perry – Prism
Release Date: October 18
Metacritic score: 61
First week sales: 286,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200 and earned the year’s highest album sales week for a female artist
Biggest Stunt: A golden semi-truck riding through the streets of Los Angeles helped announce her follow-up to 2010’s Teenage Dream.
End result: After giving her new album a title and a release date, Katy set her sights on teaser trailers that featured her burning her blue wig, eulogizing her candy coated persona and proving a cat’s roar is actually worse than its bite, all in anticipation of her empowerment anthem “Roar.” The track ended up selling 557,000 downloads in its first week, earning Katy her personal best sales week and the biggest for her label, Capitol Records. But all of these teasers were meant to usher in a new era of Katy, a much darker, more goth version of the California Gurl. In the end though, her album is just as sugary as the one before, leading us to feel a little betrayed by Katy’s promises of something more brooding.
8. Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
Release Date: March 15
Metacritic score: 75
First week sales: 968,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200 and earned the highest first week sales of any album this year
Biggest Stunt: Ten days into 2013 — and seven years since the release of his last album, FutureSex/LoveSounds — Justin tweeted a message that simply said, “To whom it may concern, I think I’M READY.” In that moment, the rest of the world prepared for the inevitability that sexy would once again be brought back.
End result: JT focused in on the patented countdown formula, giving fans a heads up and time to process the news that would be coming their way, whether it was the name of his new album, his first single “Suit & Tie” featuring Jay Z or its video. It all paid off when it came to album sales, but even without his countdown clocks, Justin would have most likely broken records. So if Justin’s going to get mixed up in the album promo game, he’s going to have to step it up.
7. Eminem Marshall Mathers LP 2
Release Date: November 5
Metacritic score: 73
First week sales: 792,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: The rapper dropped his new single “Survival” in a trailer for the new video game, Call of Duty: Ghosts. After tweeting that fans should check out the press conference for the new video game, he also revealed that his eighth album would be out in the fall.
End result: Eminem was able to gear his promotion towards all his fans. He got the gamers excited by aligning himself with Call of Duty. He got the “I Want My MTV” crowd onboard when he revealed the album’s name and release date in a Beats by Dre commercial during the VMAs. He even got the jock contingent on his side when he previewed the music video for “Berzerk” during halftime of the Michigan-Notre Dame Saturday Night Football game. And for all the comedy nerds out there, he then gave the most hilariously awkward interview with the game’s announcer, Brent Musburger. Seriously, it would make Andy Kauffman proud. All of these things together helped amplify Em’s return to the more fun and carefree Marshall Mathers. You remember him, he’s the one who 13 years ago rapped about Christina Aguilera giving him a VD and Burger King employees spitting on his onion rings. The Real Slim Shady is back to his ol’ tricks.
6. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
Release Date: May 14
Metacritic score: 84
First week sales: 134,000 copies, earned No. 1 spot with their highest sales week ever.
Biggest Stunt: To announce the title and release date of their third album, the Columbia-educated band took to the New York Times, namely their Notices & Lost & Found section where the item, all on its lonesome, was printed on February 4. Luckily their fans still read the newspaper or they would have just announced the title some old-fashioned way. How gauche!
End result: At first there wasn’t much flash to their campaign, a banner on their website revealing the release date here, a more detailed album announcement in the New York Times there. But things started to pick up in March when things all of a sudden became unintentionally funny. We’re talking even better than that whole Lemon Sounds hoax. After the guys released the lyric video for “Diane Young,” which featured enflamed Saab 900s, Saab enthusiasts cried foul. One even wrote a blog post entitled, “Vampire Weekend Are a Bunch of Dicks.” Frontman Ezra Koenig later apologized, telling Spinner, “I want people to understand that we do respect cars and the last thing we want to do is to f*** up a collector’s item or something like that. Hopefully people believe me when I say that our record label was trying to purchase the cheapest, oldest cars possible… From what I understand those old ones actually had a lot of electrical problems.” Then they decided to get intentionally funny for a few teaser videos with actor Steve Buscemi — bassist Chris Baio’s distant cousin — to announce their first concert behind the new album. The unsolicited controversy ended up turning the band’s pre-conceived album roll-out into something a little less pretentious and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.
5. Jay Z Magna Carta…Holy Grail
Release Date: July 4
Metacritic score: 59
First week sales: 527,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: Jay Z had Samsung buy one million downloadable copies of the album and offer them free via an app, none of which would count towards his first week album sales, but did help it reach platinum status in its first week. Usually an album has to be out 30 days before being granted platinum status, so to make this possible, the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) changed its certification rules in light of the special circumstance. Once again proving the old adage: Jay Z is not a businessman, he’s a business, man.
End result: Jay went for a majorly condensed, but innovative version of the album cycle. He announced on June 16 during game five of the NBA Finals in a three-minute commercial that his solo record — the follow-up to 2009’s The Blueprint 3 — would be out in less than a month. In that short time he still managed to set up a scavenger hunt that would lead to the Magna Carta track listing and rub some people the wrong way by asking for a little too much information with his free downloads. The album certainly isn’t one of Jay’s best — even Hov himself rated it his No. 6 best album — but the idea of someone successfully shortening the album cycle in this day and age was rather refreshing.
4. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Release Date: June 5
Metacritic score: 85
First week sales: N/A
Biggest Stunt: Releasing an unannounced 12-inch on Record Store Day that a fan happened to find on at New York City’s indie record store, Other Music. The mysterious vinyl didn’t actually include any music, just 20-seconds of static, some random tones and a robotic voice reading off the numbers “9, 3, 6, 5, 5, 7.” This was just one piece of their album announcement puzzle. A very expensive piece, which ended up going for $5,700 on eBay.
End result: For the Scottish duo’s first album in eight years, they decided to teach their fans the importance of teamwork. After releasing only a handful of mysterious 12-inches to record stores in different areas around the world, the owners of said vinyl — along with every BoC fan with a Reddit account — had to come together to crack the code using clues in music videos, radio transmissions from BBC and NPR and an Adult Swim commercial. While the mysterious treasure hunt was clever, some of their other antics seemed old hat i.e. having a listening party in the middle of the desert or their Tokyo wall projections. Come on now, guys, Kanye already did that! But overall the stunt managed to pique the interest of those who had never heard of Boards of Canada or quite possibly weren’t even alive when the band released their previous album. Seriously, Clinton was still in office.
3. Arcade Fire – Reflkektor
Release Date: October 28
Metacritic score: 79
First week sales: 140,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: Playing a live show wearing over-sized papier mâché masks as a fake band called The Reflektors at a salsa club in Montreal with A-list Hollywood stars in attendance all while filming the whole thing for a 30-minute TV special that aired after an episode of Saturday Night Live.
End result: The Reflektor roll-out was so complicated that The Hollywood Reporter ran a feature on the entire timeline. With Capitol Records handling much of the band’s backend, Arcade Fire’s fourth album went to No. 1 in 40 countries. Even though it was a departure for the band’s arena-stomp — their first single was over seven-minutes of Italo-disco — the band succeeded in alluring fans to their fascination with foreign sounds, like the rala drum grooves of Haiti or the reggae vibe of Jamaica, where the band spent time recording. Then there was the guerrilla campaigns that chalked the Reflektor logo on buildings as well as costume/formal attire-only parties in major cities offering lucky diehards and media elite a chance to spend an intimate night with the band. It all drummed up major interest for a rather dense album. Name me the last time an album debuted at No. 1 that featured an intra-album retelling of the Orpheus/Eurydice myth?
2. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Release Date: May 17
Metacritic score: 87
First week sales: 338,677 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: Revealing a snippet of their first song in nearly three years to the crowd at Coachella while standing on the sidelines, helmet-less, watching everyone freak out.
End result: The French duo — Guy Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter — didn’t need to do too much to get people excited for their fourth LP. Heck, just a photo of their helmets did the trick. So these savvy robots had a little fun coming up with out-of-the-box ways to garner attention for their upcoming project — their “Collaborators” video series comes to mind — and unknowingly set a new standard for album pre-promotion. Plus, they managed to revive not only the career of Nile Rodgers, but synth disco king, Giorgio Moroder. Hell, just take a look at the personnel that played on the album whose careers were bolstered or rejuvenated. For that alone the world is forever grateful.
1. Kanye West – Yeezus
Release Date: June 18
Metacritic score: 85
First week sales: 327,000 copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard 200
Biggest Stunt: On May 17, Yeezy managed to pull off a surprise worldwide art show, projecting his face on the sides of 66 buildings to premiere his song “New Slaves.” But when he decided to recreate the same magic a week later, in Baltimore, Houston and San Antonio, he was met with apprehension from the local authorities who claimed he didn’t have the proper permits. The cops managed to shut down most of the projections planned in the three cities, except the one at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. After authorities tweeted that the screening was cancelled, Kanye’s record label, Def Jam, sent their own message to fans telling them to get themselves to the museum because the event was still on. That’s how much Ye doesn’t give a f***.
End result: By sheer volume alone, Kanye did the most to bolster interest in his music. He yelped “I Am A God” at the Met Gala, performed in a translucent pyramid, told radio he didn’t need it (something he would later take back), released a video of him palling around with Rick Rubin in the studio and created an American Psycho parody starring Kardashian clan associate Scott Disick. Sure, all these things didn’t lead to phenomenal first week sales, but six months later he’s still grabbing accolades for his industrial turn and filling our feeds with his bons mots on becoming the “Obama of fashion,” the Kardashians being the modern day Cosby family and reappropriating the Confederate flag. But if Kanye’s right — and we know that he knows he is — about relevance being the most important thing in this world, than Yeezy’s got them all beat.