Surprise Album Releases are Terrible

They’re bad for artists, bad for fans, and not even surprising anymore. So why do musicians and streaming services keep dropping them?

So it’s come to this: vast swaths of the internet waiting with baited breath, watching Frank Ocean mess around in a woodworking shop, counting down until the release of his much-delayed new album (exclusively on Apple Music, because of course). Sure, it’s August and we could all use a break from everything else going on in the world — but is reading an interview with Frank’s high school woodshop teacher really it? And how much time will most of us spend combing torrent services tonight to download the album (and will whatever advance Apple gave Frank make up for it)?

To put it another way: when everything is a surprise release, is anything actually a surprise? And how much of a surprise can an album be when an artist does “quirky” things that basically stop short of sending out a press release announcing their surprise release. Radiohead “just coincidentally” scrubbed their website and socials a few days before — surprise! — dropping a new album. Frank Ocean has been teasing and teasing for so long that the whole things feels like it’s just too much effort. Amid the breathless social response, I’m already starting to see some backlash from people who just want him to put the damn thing out, already.

Surprise releases are entirely a product of the digital age — in the physical age, logistics would have made it impossible to pull something like this off. But now, any artist can wrap an album, have all of his or her collaborators sign their lives away, and then put it out whenever they feel like it. And to be fair, this does have some benefits — if an artist wants to release something timely, they can do so easily, and they are no longer stuck dealing with restrictive release schedules.

The downsides of the surprise release trend far outweigh the benefits, though. For one, surprise releases are pretty much limited to big artists — if you’re an up-and-comer and just put something out, it’s the old tree falling in the forest line playing out in the real world. Critics are so focused on breathlessly reporting the latest Easter egg clues that big artists leave that they can’t pay attention to the smaller folks might actually benefit from the coverage, and if one of those artists decides to drop an album on the same day as a smaller musician, it’s game over for them. You used to be able to pretty much predict when big albums would be out and make plans around that, and while real life could always intrude, it made it much easier to have some idea of when an album could land best, Now, all bets are off.

Coupled with the surprise album trend is the rise of the exclusive surprise album, which is a further disservice to fans. Want to hear the hot new thing everyone is talking about? Be prepared to shell out an extra ten bucks and make sure to keep track of when to cancel your subscription, because almost every artist gets paid to do some sort of one-platform-only release when they drop something new. Frank Ocean is not only teasing us with his weird table-saw videos, he’s then actively screwing fans by making the album only available on Apple Music. For listeners who already pay for Spotify or Tidal, this feels like a colossal middle finger in the face — and as we saw with the explosion of piracy in the wake of Kanye’s exclusive release, many fans take out their frustration by illegally downloading the album rather than paying up.

We’ve established that surprise releases are bad for most artists and terrible for fans — yet why do artists and streaming services keep doing this? For artists, many of them probably do it because it’s the thing to do — all their peers are doing it, and it’s probably more fun to make some daffy online videos and drop clues on Snapchat than it is to do a two-month press tour all centered around one big date. Then there’s the money — streaming services are cutting huge advance checks, and even if the result is massive piracy, the financial gamble can pay off in the short term.

Streaming services see this as the best customer acquisition model, although it’s debatable as to whether or not it works in the long term. It certainly jukes the stats in the short run, and if they’re looking to be sold or impress shareholders, those numbers seem shiny. And of course, a certain number of those who sign up for a free trial only to hear one record will forget to cancel and stay on as zombie users. But eventually users are going to get sick of being manipulated to sign up for multiple services that offer virtually the same content across the board — and they’ll likely just go back to torrenting.

Hopefully the surprise release trend will start to wane as fans voice their frustration. There are still plenty of ways artists can release content regularly and keep listeners happy without having to put out new releases whenever they feel like it. I’m just looking forward to the day a pop star embraces the cool, “old-school” trend of picking a release date, doing press around it, and putting an album out wide on the selected day. Here’s hoping that comes back around soon.

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