Radiohead's 'Burn The Witch', Beyoncé's 'Lemonade': Artistes innovate to engage fans

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

May,06 2016 10:52 01 IST

Alert fans were involved in frenzied discussions in January this year about Dawn Chorus LLP, a company British rockers Radiohead had created quietly in late October 2015. Normally, this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, except that the last two times the band planned a guerrilla release, it was preceded by the formation of a company.

Xurbia Xendless Ltd was founded months before 2007’s In Rainbows, while Ticker Tape Ltd was formed ahead of their 2011 release The King of Limbs. Online fora and microblogging sites were abuzz with the potential of new material while knowing fully well that there’s no predictable timeline for it.

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke at a gig. Image from Getty

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke at a gig. Image from Getty

Then in late April 2016, Radiohead slowly fell off the radar, this time deleting all its digital presence (on social media or its website). As things go on the Internet, all it takes is for one person to post and another to share or retweet to kickstart user or fan involvement. Prior to the surprise release of its single Burn The Witch on Tuesday, select British fans were sent fliers with cryptic messages like “We know where you live” and “Sing the song of sixpence that goes burn the witch”. Needless to say, the response to the single has been wide-reaching.

Just weeks before Radiohead surprised its fans, Beyoncé released a one-hour video special of her latest album Lemonade on HBO. This was preceded by the singer teasing her fans with occasional Instagram posts of her sniffing a lemon and a picture of a solitary glass of lemonade.

Incidentally, these covert campaigns of Radiohead and Beyoncé, are consistent with the marketing strategies of both these artistes. Radiohead has been engaging on the Internet in the past decade, capitalising on its young fans to be clued into changing digital platforms to be abreast with band information.

Beyoncé on her part has had a rather enthusiastic fan base that is on the lookout for any hints that the singer might drop. So even as her followers were anticipating an album at point in 2014, she surprised them a self-titled album in December 2013 on iTunes that was also accompanied by a video album shot with the finesse of a full-length feature film. Fans quickly took to social media to post snippets of the songs and the videos to stake claim on who made it public first. The eponymous album became the fastest selling album on iTunes around the world, and gave Beyoncé unprecedented sales for a debut album in a week.

For over a decade now, artistes across genres have been innovating and experimenting with ways to engage with their fan base through their album releases. These marketing strategies range from the subtle to the completely over-the-top techniques of involving the eager fans in popularising the latest offering from the artiste. Stealth marketing is currently riding a very popular wave in the pop, rap and hip-hop scenes, with artistes increasingly releasing albums without an announcement. But before you think it to be a one-size-fits-all tactic, it might serve one well to note that those who’ve reaped the most of surprise, unconventional launches have actually gone through the grind of conventional announcement-followed-by-album techniques. In short, only those artistes with a massive fan following have been most effective in suddenly dropping an album.

Look at vocal goddess Adele for a moment. Before she greeted us from the other side, she had as good as disappeared from the limelight and there was next to no mention of her in the public or online space. Two days prior to the release of her album 25, she performed for free in New York. Soon after the album launch, she participated in that hilarious Adele impersonator contest, generating much traction online and goodwill amongst her fans. In its first week, 25 sold a record 3.38 million copies during its first week, with her single Hello setting a new record for the most-watched video on Vevo in 24 hours, racking up 27.7 million views.

A large part of how these strategies are derived find their roots in the essence or image of the artiste/band. Adele has always been a non-conformist who hasn’t hesitated to defy odds. Beyoncé, whose personal life has been devoted much print and online space, is accustomed to the life under a constant spotlight. It’s no surprise then that she plays her cards close to her chest while releasing an album.

That motormouth musician called Kanye West played to his tactless strengths while marketing his album this year. He whipped up much controversy taking on fellow musicians and exes alike for his The Life of Pablo album. He continuously teased his fans about the impending album, changing its name from So Help Me God to Swish then Waves before launching the album mid-February 2016 at Madison Square Gardens. The massive illegal downloading of West’s album aside, he debuted the album at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Another lover of the spotlight Justin Bieber too launched his comeback vehicle through a series of well-crafted collaborations with other artistes, and an “unintended leak” of his nude self.

While the strategy of unconventionally releasing albums has worked successfully since Beyoncé has upped the bar in the pop space, fewer rock artistes have resorted to this tactic. Barring Radiohead, David Bowie was among those who suddenly released his studio album Where Are We Now? on his birthday in January 2013 with no prior announcement. In 2016, two days before his demise, Bowie released his 25th and farewell album Blackstar, without much fanfare. He had released a single in December 2015 which in retrospect seemed to foretell to his fans what possibly lay in store for the musician.

Back in 2014, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters partnered with HBO for a TV series that took them across the country. Each new song of the album was recorded in a famous location while each episode covered the rich musical heritage of the city.

If the Foo Fighters resorted to a musical travelogue, U2 packed in their entire discography in a special edition iPod a few years ago. Its 2014 tieup with Apple however didn’t go as planned. The Songs of Innocence album shocked many iOS users who discovered that it had been automatically downloaded. In an age when music is almost instantly available, many fans were put off by the perceived presumptuous nature of the U2 strategy.

Barring this one instance, U2 has almost always read their audience expectation right. A major part of unconventional marketing in the music industry has been driven by the artiste’s need to find a way to directly communicate with the fan base. By systematically and unpredictably releasing information about their impending release, artistes make fans worthy stakeholders in the distribution process while reducing the conversational gap between the musician and the fan.

Then again, at a time when the unconventional has become the norm comes Red Hot Chili Peppers’ single Dark Necessities on Thursday, signalling the launch of The Getaway album next month. Not a band to conform to industry trends, this is perhaps RHCP’s rockstar approach to current marketing trends. Because no matter what the strategy, there will always be takers for the music.

The author runs a content consultancy firm, after ending her decade-long stint with The Asian Age as senior editor. She worships Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and her bass guitar.