10 crazy inventive album releases

Surprise albums! 96-hour streams! Pay what you want Radiohead albums! These days, artists are getting creative.

June 27, 2017

Earlier this month, Katy Perry invited the world to be her witness, exposing herself and her brand as part of a 96-hour live streaming event.

The stream, called Witness World Wide (#WWW) took over YouTube and saw Perry play house with multiple guests: she cooked with Gordon Ramsey; talked sleep and health with Arianna Huffington; broke down in a therapy sesh w Dr. Siri Singh and hosted multiple dinner parties that featured people like Sia, Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins and Caitlin Jenner.

The Big Brother-styled broadcast was in support of her new album, Witness, which was heard on repeat throughout the entire stream—all day, all night, all the time. You couldn’t avoid the music if you tried, which was clearly a strategy.

The event culminated with Perry performing in a ‘YouTube Livestream Concert’ on June 12, and according to Billboard, the entire weekend affair garnered over 49 million views from people in 190 countries.

While there’s been mixed reviews on its success, Perry and her team no doubt merked much of the internet with creative attempts to promote her new album.

In honour of Katy Perry’s efforts, we thought it would be fun to take a trip down memory lane, remembering other artists that released albums in inventive or unconventional ways.  Here are 10 of our favourites.

Wu-Tang Clan – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin [2014]

This 2014 album from notorious hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan was recorded over five years and, in the end, only one copy was sold to the highest bidder. The 31-track double LP was snagged by the controversial ‘pharma bro,’ Martin Shkreli for $2 million, making it the most expensive album ever sold. In an interview with Forbes, Wu Tang’s RZA explained that they “we’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before…[putting] out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music.” He compared the one-of-a-kind collector’s item to “somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” Don’t expect to hear more of the album other than this (which Shkreli dropped after U.S. president Donald Trump was elected) anytime soon though—Shkreli agreed not to release the album commercially for 88 years.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest [2013]

The Scottish electronic duo hosted their Willy Wonka golden ticket hunt for Record Store Day 2013. However instead of chocolate, their ‘golden ticket’ involved a few 12-inch cardboard sleeves, hidden at specific record shops among other releases.

Each of the sleeves read “Boards of Canada” with a code listed, and when all were uncovered each code made up a message that said the act would be releasing their first full-length album in eight years, Tomorrow’s Harvest.

Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy [2010]

Kanye is a creative genius known for doing things unconventionally, and his 2010 album was an attention-grabber in both promotion and execution. West used some of his extra recordings for a weekly “GOOD Friday” handout. Basically, West dropped a free download (of unheard songs not on the record) to fans each Friday, steadily building hype along the way. Among those releases were tracks from both Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and when the album came out in November, people got a ton of twisted new material from the rapper.

U2 – Songs of Innocence [2014]

In 2014 Bono and the boys decided it would be cool to release their album for free to everyone with an iTunes account, continuing their decade-long “collaboration” with Apple. The release came during the same window that the Apple Watch and Apple Pay launched, making it the “largest album release in history,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, since over half a billion people now “owned” it; owned by default that is, not by choice, since the album was installed automatically on Apple devices. Still, the band did manage to get their record in music libraries around the worldwide at record speed, so that’s gotta count for something.

Flaming Lips – Zaireeka [1997]

For their eighth studio record, experimental rockers Flaming Lips decided to release the album on four separate CDs. So, when you played all four of the CDs at the same time on different equipment the music would sync up and voila, you’d have the album as the band intended you to hear it. At this time the Lips’ also did the “Parking Lot Experiments,” where 40 cassettes were handed out for people to play simultaneously in their cars, creating a fusion like no other. Then, in 2011, they released Gummy Song Skull, which came buried inside a life-sized candy skull, so people had to eat through it to find a USB key with the songs on it. Only 500 skulls were made, and each sold for a $150.

Radiohead – In Rainbows [2007]

In 2007 Thom Yorke and Co. flipped record release conventions on their head, putting out In Rainbows through a then unprecedented online pay-what-you-want method. It was more than just a fun thing to do; it was Radiohead’s way of ridding themselves of the constraints of record labels (they were no longer under a record deal) and the ensuing expectations. Fans could get the seminal band’s album for free, essentially, but in spite of that In Rainbows ended up selling more copies than any of their prior albums.

Prince – 20Ten (2010)

Perhaps the artist most famous for hating the constraints of record labels is Prince. Without any help from a label, Prince put copies of 20Ten inside newspapers such as the Daily Mirror and Rolling Stone (Germany), distributing 2.5 million copies at no extra cost.

Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero [2007]

Trent Reznor was all about random pop-up surprises (and hints) when it came to the band’s 2007 album. USB drives at their concerts in Spain spun with clues that opened up an online world that would make Mr. Robot proud. 42 Entertainment helped create this game-like web-o-sphere, which showcased cryptic messages and had fans immersed in a total online-to-offline experience, all in the name of music. “It engages fans to the point where they can actually feel like they are an important part of the marketing of the album,” said NIN website admin, Mike Swindley.

Beyoncé – Beyoncé [2013]

Beyoncé and her team released her self-titled album with zero publicity, not even a tweet. It magically landed in the iTunes Music Store on December 13, 2013, right before Christmas. Rumours had circled that the album was to come out in the new year, but no one knew for sure, and Beyoncé was no ordinary album—she made 17 high-grade videos to accompany it, coining the term visual album in the process.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! [2012]

© The Guardian

Before Beyoncé did the whole “surprise! here’s an album” thing, Canadian post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor surprised  fans with their own takeaway to remember.  While playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, fans were not only treated to a show, but they also got a brand new album without anyone knowing it was coming. The band simply put it up for sale on their merch table and let the fans figure it out. Weeks later the album was released publically. Weeks after that it won the 2013 Polaris Music Prize.

Not bad, eh?

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