Album releases can be a monotonous pattern of press releases, cookie-cutter Q&As and by-the-books song premieres. Or they can be industry-stunning moments that show an artist’s creative powers go beyond the music studio. As the biz has changed in the digital era, so has the art of album promotion, and doing something unique and retweetable is often more powerful than a page-one interview. Here’s a look back at 15 of the most innovative, game-changing releases ever — from midnight sales to surprise freebies to alternate-reality games.
Guns N’ Roses (1991)
Four years. That’s how long Guns N’ Roses made fans wait for the follow-up to Appetite for Destruction. When GN’R finally finished their new LP, it was revealed that they had two albums worth of material. But instead of releasing Use Your Illusion as a standard double-disc set, Axl Rose and Co. opted to split up the albums as Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. As the release date drew near, fans couldn’t wait one minute longer to buy it, lining up outside music shops starting on Monday, September 16th, 1991 in order to get a copy, even though the album was due out Tuesday — making the Use Your Illusions one of the earliest and most high-profile midnight releases. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991, over 1,000 record stores nationwide stayed open until midnight so they could get a jump on the September 17th release date. Geffen estimated that nearly 500,000 copies of the albums were sold by Tuesday morning.
In 2004, Apple wasn’t the music industry force it is today. The iPod and iTunes were still in its infancy, and MP3s still weren’t quite as popular as CDs. In an effort to tip the scales toward the digital side, Apple teamed with the biggest rock band on the planet, U2. With Bono and Co. ready to release 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, they teamed with the tech giant for a commercial that made memorable use of the single Vertigo. Next, Apple crafted limited edition iPods that came stocked with the entire U2 discography, which included unreleased songs, laser-engraved autographs and, of course, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. A decade later, Apple and U2 reteamed again for the surprise release of Songs of Innocence.
Nine Inch Nails (2007)
While the lead-up to a new album’s release is often just a parade of press releases and song premieres, Trent Reznor turned promotion into an immersive, addictive alternate reality game. It all started with a portable USB flash drive in a Lisbon, Spain concert venue’s bathroom. Nine Inch Nails performed at the venue that night, and the USB ended up containing a new NIN song as well as a clue that would unlock a massive Internet-based universe that revolved around the band’s upcoming new album Year Zero. Reznor and game creators 42 Entertainment crafted a dystopian online world and riveting storyline that helped spread the word of Year Zero‘s arrival in an innovative way no press release could ever match. The alternate reality game was such a hit, HBO even considered turning it into a TV drama, though those plans have since stalled.
Radiohead fans waited four years for the band to follow up their 2003 disc Hail to the Thief, but a post on the band’s Dead Air Space site changed all that in an instant. ‘Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days,’ guitarist Jonny Greenwood wrote. ‘We’ve called it In Rainbows.’ Finally free from their longtime record deal with Parlophone and Capitol, Radiohead would forever change the music industry by offering up their new album to fans with a ‘pay what you want’ option. While there was extra incentive for hardcore fans to shell out cash, if the casual fan wanted to pay nothing, it was theirs as a free digital download. The experiment worked: The band is on record as saying they made more money from In Rainbows than any of their other albums. Plus, when the album arrived on compact disc in January 2008, it still topped the Billboard 200.
The White Stripes (2008)
As a member of the White Stripes, Jack White had gone to great lengths to keep his new albums from leaking before release date. When the Stripes sent out promos of Elephant to critics, it was in vinyl form only, making digitizing the albums almost impossible. With his side project the Raconteurs, White concocted another plan: Announce second album Consolers of the Lonely only a week before it would hit shelves, which would handcuff critics and illegal downloaders. Unfortunately for White, Rolling Stone uncovered his scheme when listings for Consolers of the Lonely started popping up unexplained in music stores’ inventory listings. When the band begrudgingly announced the album a few days earlier than planned, iTunes accidentally made the album available before street date, totally crushing White’s intentions in the process.
Nine Inch Nails (2008)
The In Rainbows pay-what-you-want scheme changed the way established, veteran artists could economically navigate in the music industry, and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, fresh off his Interscope contract, was eager to ‘pull a Radiohead’ and test the waters. Just over a year after Year Zero, Reznor self-released Ghosts I-IV, a collection of instrumental recordings. While a portion of the four-part, 36-song album was made available for free, Reznor toyed with different pricing plans to reflect different physical formats or better digital file quality. Like In Rainbows, the self-release was a massive success for Reznor, so much so that he gave away NIN’s album The Slip four months later as a free download to thank fans. ‘This one’s on me,’ Reznor wrote.
Smashing Pumpkins (2009)
Billy Corgan is well known for being prolific, but here’s one instance where he grasped beyond his reach. When Smashing Pumpkins announced their 44-song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, it sounded impossibly ambitious. Corgan and his revolving door of Pumpkins would record a song and then promptly offer it as a free download or – for the diehards – a limited edition EP. The project held Corgan’s attention for 10 songs that spanned from December 2009 to May 2011 before he dropped it entirely. The following year, the Pumpkins released Oceanea, and the 13 tracks on that ‘album within an album’ were added to the Teargarden lot… but two years later, the project remains stalled at 23 songs. Corgan has said the next two Pumpkins albums will complete the half-decade-old project, but don’t hold your breath.
Prince has always had difficulty with record labels, going as far as changing his iconic name to ‘The Artist’ and that ‘Love Symbol’ after falling out with Warner Bros. in the mid-Nineties. He also expressed his undying disdain for the Internet by hiring the Web Sheriff and warring with his own fan site. Operating without a record label, Prince schemed a unique way to deliver his 2010 album 20Ten, and we use the word ‘deliver’ literally: Prince included his LP within copies of select European newspapers and magazines, like the United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror and the German Rolling Stone. In all, 2.5 million copies of 20Ten were distributed, and while the album was free of charge, it did give all the newspapers a temporary boost in circulation while also eschewing the Internet’s mercantile system. To this day, 20Ten still hasn’t been released officially stateside.
Kanye West (2010)
Kanye West recorded so much music for his 2010 epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that he could have easily made the overstuffed album a mega-sized double-disc affair. However, the rapper instead opted to take those extra cuts and distribute them as a free downloads on every Friday leading up to Twisted Fantasy‘s release. The weekly handout was dubbed GOOD Friday as a nod to West’s record label, and it featured some standout all-star tracks like ‘Chain Heavy’ with Q-Tip and Consequence, ‘The Joy’ with Jay Z and Pete Rock and ‘See Me Now’ with Beyoncé. That’s right, Bey was relegated to a free download, that’s how much good material Kanye accumulated. In the end, all the GOOD Fridays tracks made for the perfect compliment to West’s masterpiece.
Death Grips (2012)
This is not how you impress your new record label. From the beginning, Death Grips signing with Epic Records seemed like an imperfect pairing. While the release of 2012’s The Money Tree went relatively smoothly, the abrasive and elusive duo promptly canceled a tour to promote the album in order to record their next one. The band always planned on releasing both LPs in 2012, but when Epic wanted to delay the second LP until 2013, Death Grips responded by dropping No Love Deep Web — and its ultra-explicit album cover — as a free download on October 1st. ‘The label will be hearing the album for the first time with you,’ Death Grips tweeted at the time. After a very public war of words with Epic that featured legal briefings and leaked e-mails, the record label dropped Death Grips from its roster in November 2012.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2012)
Imagine going to your favorite band’s concert and then going home with an awesome album of theirs that you never knew existed. That’s the experience Godspeed You! Black Emperor fans had in Boston. It had been 10 years since the Montreal post-rock collective had released an album, but when they performed at the Orpheum Theatre on October 1st, 2012, attendees found something surprising at the merch table: A brand new LP titled Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!. And just like that, the decade-long wait for new Godspeed You! was over. Word quickly spread about the new album’s arrival, and two weeks later, Constellation Records was distributing it to the masses. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! ended up winning the 2013 Polaris Music Prize as the Canadian album of the year.
Boards of Canada (2013)
Record Store Day is like Christmas for music fans, and in 2013 Boards of Canada delivered the best present. At only a few of the hundreds of shops participating in the event, hidden among all the other exclusive releases, were a 12-inch cardboard sleeve that simply had the words ‘Boards of Canada’ and part of a code. When all the 12-inch vinyls were uncovered and the entire code was deciphered, it revealed that the mysterious electronic music duo would be releasing Tomorrow’s Harvest, their first full-length album in eight years, in June 2013. And those rare Record Store Day 12-inches that Boards of Canada secretly distributed? You can buy one of the six on eBay now for only $5,700.
Jay Z (2013)
Ever the entrepreneur, Jay Z devised a clever partnership to deliver his new album to (some) fans. First, there was the way Jigga revealed that his new LP Magna Carta Holy Grail was arriving: A minute-long commercial that co-starred producers Rick Rubin and Pharrell Williams that was shown during a key moment in the NBA Finals. As part of the deal, 1 million digital copies of MCHG were distributed for free to Samsung Galaxy users via a special app on July 4th, three days before the album’s wide release. While the free downloads didn’t count toward the Billboard 200, for one long July 4th weekend, everyone was crowding around someone with a Samsung.
This was the most shocking, industry-shaking album release since In Rainbows. On December 13th, 2013, Beyoncé’s long-awaited new album, titled simply Beyoncé, appeared in the iTunes Music Store. No press release, no big announcement, no promotional tweets. It just appeared, and it left an aftershock that could be registered on the Richter Scale. Fans knew that Bey had an LP in the works, but it was rumored to arrive in 2014, not 12 days before Christmas. Not only did Beyoncé drop an hour’s worth of new material, it was accompanied by a ‘visual album’ that featured cinema-quality videos for each of Beyoncé’s songs. ‘The whole project is a celebration of the Beyoncé Philosophy, which basically boils down to the fact that Beyoncé can do anything the hell she wants to,’ Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield wrote in his review.
Wu-Tang Clan (2014)
Thanks to Kanye West and Jay Z, hip-hop has shifted its gaze toward art galleries, and the Wu-Tang Clan are taking that to the extreme. In March 2014, Clan mastermind RZA revealed that the long-running collective had recorded a new 31-song album titled The Wu – Once Upon a Time in the Shaolin. Only one copy of the double LP would be produced, transforming the album into a singular work of art. As RZA revealed, he envisioned having The Wu tour the world’s art galleries as a special installation, allowing fans to hear the album in a museum setting before auctioning the lone copy off to the highest bidder. ‘Mass production and content saturation have devalued both our experience of music and our ability to establish its value,’ Wu-Tang Clan said in a statement. ‘Industrial production and digital reproduction have failed. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of contemporary art.’