It seems like every major artist on the planet has at some point in their career decided to do a surprise album drop. They, to the surprise of fans, critics, and sometimes their own record labels, just release an album out of nowhere and let the music do the talking rather than promo. However, the surprise album drop hasn't always been big in the music industry and is actually more of a modern phenomenon than you might think.
So, where did surprise albums start? Why would an artist choose to do them? and are they always successful?
So, where did it begin?
Really, there are two starting points with surprise album drops. The surprise album drop style we know of now became more well known recently, but the first album that's considered to be a surprise drop was back in 2007. We say back in, it still isn't really that long ago at all.
IN RAINBOWS - RADIOHEAD (2007).
In Rainbows by Radiohead is considered the first official 'surprise' album, but in reality, there was more lead-up than we're used to with more recent sudden drops.
10 days ahead of its release Radiohead announced that the album would be coming and it would be 'Pay What You Want' download; basically meaning it's free. The album was also initially only available online, with a physical release later in the year, which was also a big change from the norm at the time.
The drop of In Rainbows also came after disputes with their label over their back catalogue and contract, so this release was essentially a big F you to the label, which is a pretty consistent theme across a lot of surprise albums.
Overall, there was a lot of controversy around the release and the implications it would have on the future of the music industry. However, the surprise drop that changed the game didn't come until much later in 2013.
BEYONCE - BEYONCE (2013)
If you were anywhere near the internet or a news outlet back in 2013 then you'll know about the way the world lost its collective mind when Beyoncé dropped her self titled album literally out of nowhere on December 13, not just as a full album but a full album with music videos alongside every song.
The release of Beyoncé quite literally broke the internet as it went straight to number one on the iTunes chart in the US, and became one of the top-selling albums of 2013 despite there only being 18 days left in the year when it was released. Although Beyoncé was already a legend in the music world, this really cemented her position and showed the strength of her fanbase and her hold on music and pop culture generally.
All of this is why Beyoncé is often credited with beginning the surprise album drop craze. There was absolutely zero warning, and it was such a phenomenon that it completely paved the path for future drops from other artists over the next few years.
Why would artists release a surprise album?
There are two main reasons that a music artist would release a surprise album it seems. These categories are defiance and relevance.
By defiance, we mean that an artist or band is having some kind of dispute with their record label, or management, or with the concept of capitalism itself, and they decide to release an album without any promo as a way of 'sticking it to the man'. In Rainbows is an example of this, but there are also albums like Blonde by Frank Ocean (2016), which was released independently shortly after releasing an album with his label that completed his contract.
Then we move on to relevance, which is more usually the reason for these surprise releases in recent years.
The thing about surprise albums is they only really 'work' when you're a big enough artist that you can get people talking about you without promotion. This is essentially what artists like Beyonce, Jay Z, and Drake do it for. They know they're relevant enough to not just have their fans do their promo for them, but also the general public will be intrigued enough to give the new release a listen. It's a type of 'I Made It' moment when you can get a number one album without any marketing or promo, and it acts as another notch on the musical success belts for these music icons.
Do surprise album releases work?
No matter what the reason for it is, surprise albums only work if you release them properly. There have been some great examples of really successful and some that haven't worked as well.
Folkore by Taylor Swift (2020).
Although maybe not as impactful as Beyoncé's 2013 release, it's still safe to say that all eyes in the music industry were on Taylor Swift when she suddenly announced that she was bringing out a new album with 24-hours notice.
As someone who has been known to have some of the most iconic album roll-out 'eras' in the industry, this decision to release an album with zero pre-promotion, only one single released alongside the announcement, definitely shocked both fans and critics alike. The album had been created in the months of lockdown meaning that the album wasn't years in the making: it was made as a surprise as well as released as one. To match the energy of it's creation, Swift decided "hey, let's just release this" and quite frankly, it's probably her best album to date.
However, there's another aspect to 'folklore' that makes the surprise-ness make more sense than most. This was the first new album since the huge blow-up with her previous label Big Machine Records and Scooter Braun, and it showed Swift was now doing things on her terms. It's not clear how many people knew of folklore before it's release, but the main record label team definitely didn't. She feels comfortable doing her own thing and releasing albums whenever she wants, and that must be incredibly refreshing.
If You're Reading This, It's Too Late by Drake
Back in February 2015, mainstream rap superstar Drake dropped his mixtape If You're Reading This It's Too Late. The album went straight to the top of the charts and broke Spotify records for first-week sales. This release was in the era where a lot of artists were releasing 'surprise' albums; particularly those in the rap, hip-hop, and R&B worlds, no its not a surprise that Drake joined that club.
Generally the album was well-received by critics, and much like everything else Drake puts out, the general public ate it up.
There's not much else to say other than: the album did damn well, and the element of surprise undoubtedly helped it shoot up the charts the way it did.
Songs of Innocence by U2 (2014)
Most surprise album releases that aren't as good as the ones mentioned above are just meh. But it's safe to say that U2's surprise drop of their 2014 was downright shameful.
If you owned an iPhone in 2014, then it'll probably be etched in your brain that U2 decided to drop their new album for free on every single Apple Music account in the world. The band had been working with Apple for years, and this was another marketing team up from the tech giant and classic band. It's safe to say that this did not go down well.
People weren't just mildly annoyed that this album appeared in their carefully curated libraries, but it questioned a lot of people continuing to buy Apple products, citing this album drop as a safety issue and invasion of privacy.
Plus, the album wasn't even that good.
Note to any artists out there: even if an album drop is a surprise, you should probably still give people the choice as to whether they want to own it or not.
What's the future of the surprise album drop?
In 2015 and 2016 it felt like everyone was dropping albums to the point where it just, wasn't unexpected anymore and as fast as the surprise album became the norm, it faded slowly in to the background.
It's almost as if there needs to be a rule of 'one surprise drop per artist'. It's exciting when a huge artist who has never done this before drops something, but it gets a bit tedious if it's every time. Even Taylor Swift's second release of 2020 evermore felt a bit like 'oh great, but again?' and famously Beyoncé and Jay Z's third surprise album drop 'EVERYTHING IS LOVE' got beaten to number one by Aussie pop-rockers 5 Seconds of Summer.
With the past two years where promotion wasn't really possible at all taken in to account, it seems that what people actually want right now is exciting marketing and promotion where they can really engage with the artist and their vision for the upcoming release. For example, Lil Nas X went all out for his promo for his most recent album and singles, all of which are a massive success and the internet has pretty much fallen in love with him.
Sometimes it can also feel like there's a disconnect with fans if the albums are just dropped out of the blue, an expectation that they'll just eat up. But at some point, you do actually have to engage with fans and convince them to keep supporting you otherwise they just... won't.
Overall it's unlikely the surprise album is going away, but artists need to be strategic about why and how they do it. There needs to be a fine balance between a fun surprise and making it seem like you don't actually care about your music releases. But, we'll still be here every Thursday and Friday, watching and waiting to see if there are any drops out of nowhere.