As the traditional music business continues to morph into a new animal that no one has managed to tame, a number of artists shook up the status quo further in 2013 by trying innovative release strategies that bucked the norm. Instead of operating under the standard modus operandi of releasing a single to radio a few months before a widely-announced album release, planning a promotional campaign to build anticipation for the release, and running the press gauntlet, these artists rewrote the rule books. They didn’t all achieve the same level of success, but they all make the industry think as they caught the eyes and ears of consumers.
The biggest losers: print press and terrestrial radio: in most cases, both media were left out of the equation. Artists like Justin Timberlake turned to TV, appearing for five nights straight on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
Here's a look at six artists who did things a little differently in 2013:
David Bowie, “The Next Day”
With not so much as a hint that he had been in the studio, on Jan. 8 (his 66th birthday), David Bowie dropped a new single, “Where Are We Now.” Its arrival served as the announcement of his first album of new material in 10 years, “The Next Day,” and proof that, contrary to popular belief, he hadn’t retired. Bowie didn’t give a single interview for the project, instead letting producer Tony Visconti be his mouthpiece, as well as letting a number of stirring, creative interviews speak for the project. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, selling the most copies of any of his albums in the 22-year history of Nielsen SoundScan.
Justin Timberlake, “The 20/20 Experience”
Surely tired of being asked when he would release a follow-up to 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” Timberlake coyly announced in January via a Twitter video that he had been back in the the studio. Three days later, he wrote an open letter to his fans on his website, announcing the album, and releasing first single “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay Z. Timberlake did no print interviews for March release, instead he took to TV, appearing on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” for five straight nights and then appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” An exclusive with Target also helped propel the title, which sold 958,000 in its opening week, the most of any album in 2013. A Vol 2 was released in September.
Jay Z, “Magna Carta, Holy Grail”
In a sign of things sure to come, in July the rapper aligned with electronics company, Samsung, to distribute up to 1 million copies of “Magna Carta, Holy Grail” for free to Samsung mobile users one week before the album was available to traditional retail. In return, Jay Z reportedly received $5 million up front in part of a multi-pronged $20 million deal. The release was plagued with problems, including people having trouble downloading the app and complaints about data mining, but there’s no doubt that these kinds of deals, with the kinks hopefully worked out, will continue.
Garth Brooks, “Blame It All On My Roots”
The country superstar never does things in a small way, so to mark the start of his return after a 10-year hiatus, he dropped an 6 CD/2DVD boxed set at WalMart Thanksgiving night that included 4 CDs of new material and sold for less than $25. With very little advance promotion and no radio single, he debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 with only 4 days of sales his first week, rose to No. 1 his second week, and would have snagged another week at the top if Beyonce hadn’t launched her sneak attack. Brooks, who has a live CBS special and did lots of promotion following the release, is going to have to figure out how to sell his material online in a way that works for him —he is the lone superstar hold out from iTunes. When that happens, he’ll see if he’s bringing along younger fans. But in the meantime, with sales of more than 600,000 in four weeks through one retailers, he’s showed that there is still a pent-up demand for his material...and that physical releases aren’t dead yet.
She upped Bowie by dropping an album out of the blue at midnight Dec. 13. She went completely the opposite way from Brooks, with her album only available via iTunes... and she managed to do something that is virtually impossible: for the first week, iTunes sold the album (and videos) as a total package, as opposed to a la carte. She shattered all kinds of iTunes records for the first week (even with only 3 complete days of sales) and remained on top for a second week, even as brick-and-mortar outlets like Target declined to carry the album. She conducted no interviews, had no promotion, released no advance single (to the chagrin of radio, which counts on partnering with major pop stars like Beyonce), and still managed to become one of the top sellers of the year. You better believe other superstar artists will be studying this kind of stealth attack for ways to make it work for them.
Justin Bieber, “Journal”
For the 10 weeks leading up to the release of his new movie, “Believe,” Bieber released a new song every Monday in a gambit tagged #MusicMondays. After the 10 weeks concluded, on Dec 22, fans could download all 10 songs, plus 5 previously unreleased tracks and a new video as a completed album, “Journal.” The compilation was No. 2 on iTunes’ album chart, but with no singles climbing the charts and “Believe” opening to a paltry $1.2 million on Christmas Day, the lack of excitement for the project was perhaps even more ominous than Bieber’s Christmas Eve tweet that he planned to retire.