SAE investigates the merits and drawbacks of surprise album launches

31 Jul 2020

Following on from the release of Taylor Swift’s surprise album folklore, released on 24 July, we spoke to some of SAE’s expert Music Business lecturers about the merits and drawbacks of a surprise release. 

The Grammy award-winning American singer is renowned for historically building up her album launches with easter eggs for fans and gradual social media account rebrands, so it came as surprise when she dropped the news on Twitter on 23 July that she would be releasing her eighth studio album that was made during the Covid-19 lockdown at midnight. Considering it’s been less than a year since she launched her seventh studio album, Lover, in August 2019, fans were shocked but delighted by the news.  

Swift is far from the only artist to surprise release an album - David Bowie dropped The Next Day in 2013, and Beyoncé’s self-titled opus was also surprise-released in 2013 and followed up by Lemonade in 2016. You might remember that U2’s insertion of Songs of Innocence into peoples’ iTunes libraries in 2014 backfired somewhat. Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE (2012) and Endless, Blonde (2016), as well as Kendrick Lamar’s Damn were also surprise-released. So it’s not an unconventional way of releasing music, but it is an interesting tactic for a megastar like Swift who has over 86.7 million followers on Twitter. 

Critics immediately rushed to review folklore, with many heralding the stripped back indie-folk production as Swift’s best release to date. But we wanted to know what SAE Music Business lecturers think of the surprise release more generally - how successful is it, and does it separate megastars like Swift from smaller artists? 

We spoke to SAE Glasgow Music Business lecturer John Markey, who said: “Taylor Swift's new album's success is another good news story for the recording industry as it regains its place as the largest sector of the music industries since Covid-19's temporary shut down of live music. This is overall a good thing for music, as it demonstrates the health of an aspect of the music industry that was, up until recently, in serious doubt. Surprise albums in cases such as this can be a highly effective marketing tool, however with their increasing popularity the effect felt may be reduced over time. Such a strategy for artists lower down the rungs of fame can easily be reproduced, as long as the act has a dedicated fan base this means of promotion/release can be utilised as a means of keeping them engaged. Gaining such a fanbase is the first hurdle to overcome, which is exactly why knowledge of the industry and release strategies is key to success, this is our focus at SAE." 

On the other side of the fence, SAE Liverpool Music Business lecturer Veronica Skrimsjö said: “I think surprise albums are a bit tricky. As a music fan, on the one hand, it feels like you're getting a bonus because you didn't even know it was coming, but on the other, I've been following Blackpink who announced their October album two days ago, and all the teasers leading up to it are also valuable to fans. Like you mention, surprise albums do separate established artists from newcomers, and I'm not a big fan of that at all. There's enough elitism in the music industry and in popular music already. I also recall a few years ago when Ed Sheeran released Divide all at once (not really a surprise one, though) and it was the only thing in the charts - it was so boring, even he said so himself. I think surprise albums lend themselves to that very well - the idea that all the tracks will chart at the same time. I also noticed that pretty much everyone rushed to review Folklore. It felt like they couldn't do it fast enough. Of course I get it, normally we'd get sent a preview link and have a bit of time to review the album and have the review ready for the release date. But did everyone who rushed to review folklore actually do it because they would've done so normally? I'm not convinced. I'm also hearing a lot of 'this is Swift's best album yet'. It might very well be (I confess, I haven't actually listened to it yet!), but I think a lot of it was surprise excitement as well. Touché, TayTay, I suppose.” 

What do you think about surprise album launches? Tweet us your thoughts @SAEinstituteUK