[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
When we look back on 2013, we'll consider it the year of the event album. What's less clear is whether we'll remember the music or simply the marketing.
Over the last four months, there has been an unusual influx of blockbuster albums: Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, Kanye West's Yeezus and Jay-Z's Magna Carta … Holy Grail. Thanks to pre-existing popularity, exhaustive media coverage and viral marketing campaigns, all debuted at No. 1. As Jay-Z put it in his Samsung commercial (disguised as an album announcement): There are new rules in play.
Multimedia promotion is nothing new. Michael Jackson's Dangerous campaign in 1991 revolutionized the possibilities of mixing music, television and Pepsi. Wu-Tang celebrated the release of 1997's Forever — which included a CD-ROM — by staging midnight release parties and free jersey give-aways. What's different now is the increasing reliance on brand sponsorships, social media and unorthodox marketing methods to feed the hype machine.
After a half-decade hiatus from releasing music, Timberlake and his team spent nearly a full year plotting his return. Sidestepping traditional media channels and dwindling brick-and-mortar retailers, Timberlake announced the record via Twitter and his website. He followed it up with Bud Light Platinum and Target commercials, Clear Channel radio takeovers and exclusive iTunes streaming campaigns. The blitz yielded double-platinum sales, easily the strongest of 2013.
Daft Punk broke their album news through a prolonged and cryptic campaign. It began with the album artwork, which was posted on their Facebook page without explanation. Then came a pair of 15-second ads on Saturday Night Live, which were filmed by an excited fan, uploaded to YouTube and subsequently spread to every music website extant. Anticipation metastasized when the robots premiered single “Get Lucky” in a short clip on a screen at Coachella. It fostered false rumors that they were going to make a surprise performance at the festival, generating nearly as much publicity as if they actually had shown up.
The most brilliant part of Yeezus might have been West's mastery of mind-fuck marketing. Explicitly stating that he wanted to avoid a full-scale campaign with radio singles and NBA spots, he instead launched a series of video projections in cities all over the world. West followed that up with several well-deployed Kanye rants and the message to deface the Yeezus ads plastered across America. A generation ago, it would have required full-scale street teams, radio promo and media saturation to disseminate the word. With nearly 10 million followers, all Kanye had to do was put the locations on his website and tweet about it.
Jay-Z's salvo might be the most potentially transformative of all. Partnering with Samsung, he got the telecommunications company to purchase a million copies of the record at $5 each. With Jay-Z's Magna Carta … Holy Grail app, they obtained more than half a million email addresses and social media account names. Jay-Z later tweeted that the data mining “sucked” and that the company would have to do better — but not before his actions gave a double meaning to “Big Brother,” the song West once wrote about Jay-Z.
See also: No One Cares About Jay-Z's New Music
If you're keeping score, the winners in this scenario are the major record labels that received a healthy return on their investment, the artists who now can afford another Warhol or Basquiat, and the corporations that bought “cool.” It's murkier what the fans get (unless you already owned a Samsung smartphone).
After all, each album was flawed to varying degrees. None is straight-up bad, but few if any would rank them among the best of each artist's discography. As producer Flying Lotus tweeted: “I keep gettin' hyped on these big records, hear 'em and always end up sayin merrrr.” But the actual quality might be incidental at this point; the goal was to get you saying something.