I remember how shocked everyone at the radio station was on July 5, 1993, when a new U2 album suddenly appeared in the office. It was called Zooropa.
“A new album? But they’re still touring Achtung Baby! When did they have time to record an album? And in secret?”
Looking back, you could do easily something like this is a pre-Internet time–especially if you were U2 and had your own studio to play with. You plunk away on new material until it’s time to hand over a master tape to your record company.
It can still be done, of course, but it’s much, much harder to keep everything a secret. Yet Bowie did it. Trent Reznor did it. Drake did it. Beyonce did it.
And therein lies the problem. Everyone seems to be in the business of releasing a surprise album. Vulture points to a certain type of fatigue that’s set in with music fans.
Artists like Radiohead and David Bowie had previously toyed with secret recording sessions and unconventional release strategies, but the day the bubble truly burst was December 13, 2013 — whenBeyoncé “changed the game with that digital drop” (as she later put it in her guest verse on Nicki Minaj’s “Feeling Myself”) and released her blockbuster self-titled visual album with no prior promotion and, presumably, an entire rain forest’s worth of nondisclosure agreements. Music fans did not seem to miss the familiar grind of the album-promotion cycle: Beyoncé sold 828,773 copies in three days and became the fastest-selling album in the iTunes Store’s history.
Since then, any time another artist has released music in an even vaguely surprising way, it has been dubbed “pulling a Beyoncé,” but the joke is already old and the phrase misleading — the surprise album now comes in many shapes and sizes.