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Jay-Z, Kanye and Bowie draw up the new blueprint for releasing albums

David Bowie, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk, Kanye West and now Jay-Z are revolutionizing the way musicians release their work. It’s called the sneak attack!


When Jay-Z put out “The Blueprint 3” in September 2009, most of his fans had known about its arrival for the better part of a year. And in the months leading up to the release, the rapper would gradually share the title, track list, artwork and names of guest appearances to slowly and steadily amp up expectations for the album’s eventual release.

Four years later and Jay-Z is using a totally different blueprint. Earlier this month, during the fifth game of the NBA Finals, he appeared in a commercial promoting “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” a brand new album that fans were hearing about for the first time, scheduled for release on the Fourth of July, less than a month after the announcement.

“The Internet is like the wild west,” he says at one point during the three-minute spot. “We need to write the new rules.”

He is just one of a growing number of major artists this year writing new rules. In January, David Bowie broke a decade of musical silence with a cryptic video that appeared on YouTube on midnight of his 66th birthday. Then, in March he released “The Next Day,” a full-length album that reportedly not even all of the top brass at his publicity company knew about until just days before its arrival. And Kanye West only made fans aware of last week’s release, “Yeezus,” when he tweeted about it at the beginning of May. What these albums share is secret hard work behind the scenes, with a rushed approach and artwork that appears to just be dashed off the night before. Bowie’s album cover is just a white square covering the album jacket for his 1977 album, “Heroes.” West’s album cover is just a picture of a compact disc with a piece of red duct tape on the case.

“To be able to announce, ‘This is now,’ I see it as part of music marketing today that is on crack cocaine,” says music industry veteran and author of the upcoming book, “The Artist’s Guide to Success in the Music Business,” Loren Weisman. “Because if you’re telling me it’s coming in six months, I don’t want to hear it.”

Mike King, a former product manager at Rykodisc, who teaches music marketing courses at Berklee College of Music, says the sneak attack approach is not just due to the instant gratification of the Internet. It’s also the personal nature of social media.

“If you look at the things that labels used to use to market music, like commercial radio and MTV, all of these places that labels used to spend their way into don’t exist, but what does exist are these communities of hardcore fans,” he says. “If you sneak it out to those people, they will be your absolute best ambassadors.”

Steve Knopper, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and the author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age,” says perhaps the music business has almost come to a place of acceptance with today’s consumer culture.

“In the record industry this wasn’t really possible before,” he says. “Ten or 15 years ago it wasn’t possible at all technology-wise, because they couldn’t rush out an album that quickly. And then, up until the last few years, nobody wanted to do it even if they could because they were so scared of the Internet. They were so scared that, ‘If we release something too quickly and we don’t have the whole thing completely under control then people are going to pirate this!’ But now it seems like no one cares. It’s like, ‘I have an album! Let’s just get it out!’”

In the commercial for “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” Jay-Z shares his marketing strategy, and it doesn’t sound much more complicated than the last clause that Knopper outlined.

“The idea is to really finish the album and drop it,” he says, “giving it to the world at one time and letting them share it.”

This sneak attack approach isn’t exactly brand new. Mash-up artist Gregg Gillis built up a big word-of-mouth following with the 2006 Girl Talk album, “Night Ripper.” For the two Girl Talk albums that followed — 2008’s “Feed the Animals” and 2010’s “All Day” — he just quietly leaked them online and watched the reaction spread across the worldwide web like wildfire.

“Everyone gets to hear it at the same time, before reading any reviews or forming any opinions,” says Gillis. “I think it’s worked out great for me in the past, but for future releases, I have been actively thinking about giving it some short advance notice. Doing it in a strategic way can be helpful for giving it proper context.”

So does that mean we can expect a new sneak attack from Girl Talk soon? If we told you, it wouldn’t really be a sneak attack, would it?

 
 
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