Whether it’s a new season of your favourite television show or an album release from your favourite artist, the time before a release date is often full of anticipation crafted by advertising. Ads scattered in our web browsers, commercials, promotional tweets, and Instagram posts all serve to hype up an upcoming release and create conversation and excitement about a new pop culture phenomenon.
So what happens when there is no promotion at all? What happens when pop culture is simply released without warning? Some believe that this lack of promotion is a promotional technique in and of itself. Consumers already spend a large amount of time on social media, which has the power to make even the most mundane videos go viral. Why wouldn’t a last minute announcement tweet for a new show or album do the same?
When the new Netflix series The OA was released recently, fans did not quite know what to make of the lack of promotional information available regarding the show. How could they know if the show would be worth watching if there was nothing to get excited over? There were no interviews or reviews released prior to the show’s premiere. The show’s creators have not publicly stated what “The OA” means.
This mysterious drama may have taken viewers by surprise and piqued their interest in the process. In an interview with The Guardian, The OA creator and star Brit Marling stated, “We thought it would be fun to give the audience that experience, rocketing into a mystery with very little information beforehand.”
Other TV shows have certainly benefited from this lack of promotion. The summer breakout hit Stranger Things, for example, has been renewed for a second season. Surprise releases have succeeded for famous singers like Beyoncé as well. Beyoncé’s unexpected 2013 album Beyoncé brought us songs like “Drunk in Love,” “Mine,” and “Superpower.”
Her latest album, Lemonade, which dropped last April, had practically no promotion. Beyoncé announced the album with a tweet that simply read, “#LEMONADE the Visual Album,” accompanied by a link to the streaming service Tidal.
For musical artists, the benefits of the no-promo strategy include a smaller budget, lower expectations for both the label and artist, and the perception of the release as a ‘reward’ for fans who didn’t have to wait for the album to be released. Plus, in the case of delayed album releases, fans will not be disappointed if they were never aware of the intended release date.
The ‘surprise release’ follows from the way consumers now engage with media — largely instantaneously through the Internet. With the wide array of content available upon demand today, it would be reasonable to assume that the attention spans of the modern consumers are greatly diminished relative to what they once were.
A surprise album drop can also be more profitable for artists, particularly if they make the content accessible online through a paid streaming service. By directing fans to streaming services themselves, an artist can generate profit and promote their own album at the same time.
Some may think that ‘surprise album’ releases as an alternative promotional strategy will only work for popular music artists with a huge fanbase to appeal to. However, independent and lesser known artists have embraced elaborate promotional strategies as well.
Alternative bands like Bring Me the Horizon pulled off a successful surprise release in 2015 by posting umbrella icons on their social media in anticipation of their new album That’s The Spirit. Motionless in White created a scavenger hunt through use of geotagging technology for fans to stream tracks from their third album, Reincarnate.
The horror-punk band Creeper created a paranormal mystery last August when they spread ghost stories online, and their ‘disappearance’ was reported in the local newspapers and music press.
This elaborate hype was part of a surprise announcement of their new album, to be released in March. Though Creeper’s album release was not exactly a surprise to fans, the reveal that they were writing a new album allowed their fans to interact with their favourite band in an unusual and appealing way.
While surprise releases and alternative promotional strategies will always be a risk for artists, these strategic releases have brought into question the way traditional advertising is able to market products. When executed correctly, viewers and listeners can enjoy the most pleasant of surprises.