So did U2 pull a Beyoncé?

Ever since December, when Beyoncé did the impossible by releasing an album without anybody knowing, basically altering the possibilities of how new releases are done, the obsession has raged on over who would be next to ‘pull a Beyoncé‘. Some have predicted and for the most part, the same names have popped up.

U2 - Songs of Innocence

The cover of U2’s surprise album Songs of Innocence, temporarily available for free on iTunes

The guessing game might have ended today as U2 released their highly-anticipated long-in-the-works 13th album Songs of Innocence. Like Beyoncé’s, it was released without a word of warning. No prior radio singles. No pre-release promo tracks. No album cover or tracklisting reveal. Nothing other than the fact that, like Beyoncé, they had been in the recording studio for the past couple years and were expected to release sometime between now and next spring.

But they one-upped Bey in that they made their album available for free.

Songs of Innocence was launched at today’s Apple Event, the annual products announcement held by Apple every year in California. Following the revealing of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+, the to-be-released Apple Watch, and a performance of a new song by U2, Apple CEO Tim Cook looked on as Bono announced the album’s sudden availability to all iTunes users.

That’s over half a billion people.

As Cook said, the “largest album release of all time.”

Those who logged into iTunes after that could find it listed under ‘purchases’, already in their cloud, ready to be streamed, downloaded, or synced. Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s the most widely owned album in music history.

U2 and Tim Cook

Apple CEO and Tim Cook connect over the immediate release of U2’s new album to iTunes.

It’s a big deal, but it doesn’t really seem like it. With the setting of its release at the Apple Event, Songs of Innocence might have already gotten lost in the iPod shuffle of Apple’s other announcements. Unless it can have a separate shelf life of its own once the Apple buzz dies down and the physical CD and vinyl come out next month, it will forever be linked to Apple.

U2 had popped up on a few lists predicting whether they would be next to ‘pull a Beyoncé‘. Their albums are still events big enough to earn some of the biggest opening sales weeks of their respective years and there was enough hype growing behind this record that it likely wouldn’t have been any different.

But the hype a rock band like this generates is much different than that of a pop music star. When it comes to relying on social media and the internet to make it into a big deal, so far it doesn’t seem like one.

So can anyone ever ‘pull a Beyoncé‘ again? There are some things to consider:

Digital vs. Physical sales
A huge part of succeeding at it means noteworthy first-week sales. Because it’s unlikely anyone can ever drop a surprise album using CDs as it would be impossible to ship CDs to thousands of retailers without word getting out, it can only work using digital retailers. Plus there’s the instant gratification factor. Therefore, the artist can’t rely too heavily on actual CD sales.
Prior to revealing the release date and info of 1989, Taylor Swift was in the running as a candidate to do a surprise album release. However, she still sells a large proportion of her music by CD so releasing a digital-only album would risk having a lower-than-otherwise-expected opening sales week.

Taylor Swift - 1989

Taylor Swift’s upcoming album 1989

A numbers game
It also wouldn’t make sense for Taylor to do it since, if her past albums are any indication, she’s already expected to have huge opening numbers anyway. Her last two albums sold over a million copies each in their first week so anything significantly less than that would look bad. Why mess with a working model? (It’s also worth noting that because of this, Adele is off the list as well.)

Target audience
Because digital sales outlets tend to have a younger customer base than physical retailers, an artist with an older demographic is unlikely to pull it off. Originally, I had U2 pegged in this section because, as a rock band that dates back to the late 70s, a huge chunk of their album sales likely come from CDs. Plus, there’s online word-of-mouth to consider. It’s likely that a large portion of those who would buy a U2 album are still unaware they have a new one out.

In need of a boost
If Beyoncé had gone the traditional route in the release of her album, she wouldn’t have received half the attention she did on that fateful December Friday. Her album prior, 4, didn’t perform as well as expected so Bey was in need of something that would draw attention to her and her album.

Reliable word-of-mouth
I argue that Beyoncé succeeded because she has always had a positive reputation as a pop singer. She’s capable of delivering a solid product and word-of-mouth doesn’t work against her. I don’t think acts like Rihanna or Katy Perry could pull off a surprise-album release at this point because, while they both deliver hit after hit, their reputations don’t lend themselves to producing solid front-to-back albums. They could release surprise albums, the internet would buzz about it, but would on-the-fence buyers be willing to invest in something that past releases suggest isn’t worth it?

Beyoncé albumMass public interest
Others have dropped surprise albums since Beyoncé did it but other than niche fanbases, few noticed. For it to make waves, the artist has to be prominent, on the general public’s radar, and be likeable at the time of release, or at least be someone people are sympathetic over.

Using this criteria, the selection of artists capable of successfully doing it is narrowed down to Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Britney Spears and Madonna. Gaga’s album with Tony Bennett is out later this month so if she does it, it won’t be until next year at the earliest. Bruno isn’t particularly in need of a career boost but can still benefit from a gimmick like this. Both Britney and Madonna have had recently underperforming albums as fans are quickly moving on. Pulling off something like this could save them.

Of course, it’s worth noting that maybe nobody will ever attempt to do what Beyoncé did again. After all, it is called ‘pulling a Beyoncé‘ and anyone who tries to replicate it will be reminded that she did it first.

But maybe that game-changing release didn’t open the floodgates for others to copy, but to simply reimagine and defy convention by doing something different from the norm. In that sense, U2 did it.

6 comments

  • Billboard posted an article on why Taylor Swift wouldn’t pull a Beyoncé. The physical vs. digital reason was one of the primary ones.
    http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop-shop/6289287/taylor-swift-would-never-pull-a-beyonce?facebook_20141021

  • Harold Goldman

    jeez max

  • Mateja Praznik

    I don’t know why Adele is off the list of possible candidates. Her previous album sold MILLIONS of CDs AND digital downloads. I’m sure it would sell like hotcakes digitally until the physical release.

    • That’s the point. Her previous album sold millions and her next one is poised to do the same right away. The thing with this approach to releasing an album is that it’s more-or-less a gimmick for attention. Adele doesn’t need to do anything to attract attention because she’s already got it. There isn’t any actual information out about her album other than that it *could* be called 25, yet that’s enough that she’s constantly a topic a discussion.
      That isn’t to say she won’t do a surprise release or anything like it, but that she doesn’t need to do one if it’s for the sake of rebuilding her brand.

  • I think a huge selling factor with Beyonce’s album was the fact that it came with an extra disc with music videos for all the songs. If Gaga had done the same, ARTPOP might’ve been a bigger hit. Beyonce (along with Gaga) are very visual artists. We anticipate the video as much as the song itself so we can learn the dance, go nuts over the fashion and try to find meaning in the visuals.

    • Beyonce’s videos made the project look more impressive as a whole because not only was it a full studio album, but each song had its own video. And I think that contributed to the overall value of the album when choosing to purchase it or not. But I think had the album come out without the videos, it still would have been a pretty big deal and the end result would probably have been the same as it is now. I don’t think it would have worked as well for ARTPOP though, but I could see it working for the album after Cheek To Cheek, since Gaga doesn’t seem to be a go-to target for criticism anymore.

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