Here at Zumic, we've just begun making some year-end lists. This is our second, preceded by "13 Music Videos that Prove 2013 is the End of the World." We promise that some of our future lists will glorify music, rather than shaming it, but for now, we hope you enjoy our rage.
For the most part, the internet has been great for music fans. We've gotten a 24-hour news cycle of music news (Twitter), free streaming of the vast majority of commercially-released music (Spotify), and more personal ways to connect with our favorite artists (Facebook, and Twitter again). But the internet has sucked out nearly all the alluring mystique that used to surround rockstars and rappers allowing them to be seen as mere humans by dispelling the rumors that used to fuel conspiracies (Are Led Zeppelin actually Satanists? Is 2Pac really still alive?).
Some artists, such as MF DOOM, Zomby and (early on in his career) The Weeknd opted out of this full-disclosure model of internet stardom by attempting to conceal their true identities, but in 2013, a much more popular method of withholding information began to surface: the infuriatingly vague promotional campaign. The signs were subtle at first -- a few more question marks than usual at the end of music news headlines, a greater prevalence of the words "might" and "maybe" in music journalism -- but then TV commercials, sides of buildings and even entire mobile apps became the sites of mysterious album rollouts.
These campaigns certainly attracted attention in the form of page views and tidal waves of hype, but as I sit here at the end of the year, I cannot believe how much time I devoted to following the idiotically arranged paper trails that preceded albums (some of which I really enjoyed), some of which failed to live up to the expectations set by these campaigns advertising them as some sort of musical end-all-be-all.
Here are the five most invasive, annoying album promo campaigns that were rolled out across this year:
5. Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience"
Before The 20/20 Experience dropped in March, JT had been mostly absent from music since 2006's Futuresex/Lovesounds, which went platinum four times. Anticipation was so hot for the star to release new music that he could've just done the classy thing -- announce an album, release a single, and once again join the ranks of America's biggest pop stars -- but no, he had to give us a friendly little case of blue balls first.
Hype began rearing its head on January 9th when a radio station in Florida announced that a new JT song featuring Jay Z and Beyoncé would drop the next day, and the report was backed up by MissInfo and Timberlake himself (albeit by simply tweeting a date and time). But alas, it was not a new song that was released, but instead a one-minute-long "trailer" (above) cheekily titled "I'm Back." In it, JT wrestles with himself over a (impending? somewhat likely?) return to music, further frustrating fans. Oh yeah, he also linked to website called "countdown.justintimberlake.com" that had a timer mysteriously counting down to a point in time some three days later. The plot thickens...
Finally, we got a single that featured Jay Z (but not his wife) and an open letter from JT announcing The 20/20 Experience. In the letter, he wrote, "Some people may criticize me for the last 3 days. But it was fun, right?? Right?!?!" Wrong, Justin. Very, very wrong.
4. Kanye West's "Yeezus"
In May, reports of Kanye performing new music at various concerts surfaced, and I thought, 'My, what a normal way to roll out a new album.' I was horribly mistaken, however, when West began projecting videos of his face rapping "New Slaves" on the sides of buildings in 66 cities around the world (watch one such instance of this in Williamsburg, Brooklyn above). My sister, in college on the Southeast side of Chicago, told me that some of her friends traveled for close to an hour to see the projection in another neighborhood. I scoffed. It was an inventive strategy to be sure, but plastering his own face around the world might not have been the best move for a man who's very often considered self-absorbed and arrogant.
The fun and games didn't stop there, as Kim Kardashian Instagrammed this picture with the pseudo-cryptic caption: "#Yeezus #RedYeezy's #SNL #Tonight #NewSlaves #YeezySeason #Donda #June18." At this point, we had no idea if an album was coming, what it would be called, or what it would look like. Her picture contained incorrect artwork, as we learned days later when Kanye updated his website to include the Yeezus artwork and "a few seconds of what sounds like some new music that may or may not appear on Yeezus," according to Pitchfork. The updates to West's site continued, later including a video of him performing "I Am a God" for a couch-bound Rick Rubin, and an American Psycho-inspired short film. Finally, on June 18th, Yeezus dropped and this whole dog and pony show could at last end. Yeezus F'in Christ.
3. Jay Z's "Magna Carta Holy Grail"
In the case of hip-hop titan Jay Z, it wasn't necessarily the method in which his album was announced that was infuriating, but rather the way that it was presented and distributed. During Game 5 of this year's NBA Finals, Hov aired a commercial (above) that announced Magna Carta Holy Grail in a relatively straightforward fashion, but also contained some disturbing displays of false advertising and corporate monopoly.
First off, the commercial (like Kanye's website weeks before it) starred Rick Rubin in full Svengali mode, couch-bound again and talking to Jay about life experience, leading us to assume that he was involved (at least to some degree) in the album's production. Turns out, that wasn't the case at all. In an interview with XXL a few days later, Rubin said, "The point of me being in the commercials was that he [Jay-Z] was filming a documentary and he asked me -- I imagine he is comfortable talking to me -- to come listen to the songs with him and just talk about the songs. Just listen to it and talk about it, and that's what we did. It was fun." Unlike his role as the executive producer of Kanye's album, Rubin had literally nothing to do with the making of Magna Carta Holy Grail, and was merely a prop for Jay Z's commercial.
Then there was the glaring fact that the commercial was produced by Samsung, which also took the opportunity to promote its Galaxy smart phone at the ad's end. Soon came the announcement that Magna Carta Holy Grail would be available exclusively to Galaxy owners on its July 4th release date, as Jay Z was reported to have "sold" one million "copies" of the album to Samsung. This directly prompted the RIAA to change its standards regarding gold and platinum certification to include digital sales. This meant that Jay Z's album would go platinum instantly on the day it was released, regardless of how many Galaxy users decided to download it. He took to Twitter to smugly announce the music industry's "#NewRules," thus solidifying his place next to Donald Trump on the list of "America's Biggest Corporate Assholes." Oh yeah, then he revealed Magna Carta Holy Grail 's artwork next to THE ACTUAL MAGNA CARTA. #MoreLikeDoucheRules
2. Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories"
As it was with Justin Timberlake at the beginning of this year, it had been years since Daft Punk had released an official album. Disco / Funk / R&B legend Nile Rodgers got the pot stirring when he announced in January that a new DP album was coming out sometime this year. Vague? Yes, but this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Then in March, during an episode of SNL, a mysterious -- I hate how much I'm forced to use this word in this list -- 15-second-long ad (above) aired, not containing much more than the words "Daft Punk" and a snippet of retro-sounding music. Cool guys, that's very helpful.
The promotional campaign rolled out in full force after that, with billboards emblazoned with RAM's artwork popping up across the country, a bunch of these "Collaborators" videos (featuring various musicians waxing poetic about DP's supposedly earth-shifting new album) dropping every week, and an announcement being made about an album release party to be held in a seemingly random, extremely rural town in Australia called Wee Waa. If that wasn't enough, DP became arguably the biggest story that came out of this year's Coachella festival, as another short ad, this time featuring a little more info, aired before Phoenix's headlining set. A tracklist was eventually released via Vine video (below), and then came a stagnant period of two or so weeks before the album began streaming. Thusly, I was exhausted from faux-information overload before I even sat down to listen to RAM. Though it didn't stop me from loving the album, I felt like DP had pissed a good chunk of my life away with their vapid click-baiting.
1. Arcade Fire's "Reflektor"
In 2010, Arcade Fire became the kings (and queens) of indie rock when they won the Grammy for "Best Album." In 2013, the Montreal band became the kings (and queens) of the ever-expanding internet troll kingdom that lives and reigns supreme online.
As should never be the case with an album launch, it all started with an Instagram account. "Reflektor" kept posting different incarnations of a single design drawn, painted and stamped on concrete around the world. Then, on August 12th, the account posted something else: three images that spelled out "9pm 9/9" and led Pitchfork to posit that "Arcade Fire Might Be Doing... Something... on September 9." The account wasn't yet confirmed to be linked to AF, but a few days later filmmaker Anton Corbijn revealed in an interview that the date and time shared earlier would mark the release of a video for a song called "Reflektor."
Similarly to the weird saga of the vinyl release of Death Grips' No Love Deep Web, 12" copies of the "Reflektor" single began popping up randomly in a few record stores without word of their authenticity or a wider release. Then, Arcade Fire began playing unannounced shows as "The Reflektors" in a tiny salsa club in Montreal. As this whole campaign began to feel more and more like an Exit Through the Gift Shop-style charade, the band finally released the album's details, albeit through sources as disparate and far-flung as iTunes New Zealand and Amazon France. Even when they were releasing actual, pertinent information, they were being obtuse dickheads about it.
More spectacles, like an unconfirmed David Bowie guest spot, "secret" shows in a Brooklyn warehouse, and onstage misdirection continued as Reflektor neared its release date, by which point I was totally fed up with Win Butler's band of merry pranksters (unfortunately, AF weren't giving our free LSD like Ken Kesey and his homies).
An album should bombard the senses, overwhelm you to the point where you can't do anything but listen. Album release campaigns should not do this. A little bit of tongue-in-cheek trickery is fine, but 2013 had its fair share of artists who drastically crossed the line between "musician" and "spectacle-seeking provocateur." In the internet age, making an album release a landmark event is a difficult task, but confounding the public with gaudy non-events is not the way to go about it. This, my friends, is how you release an album with a bang in 2013.