“If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,” Drake’s latest mixtape, was released on Friday after he posted a cryptic Instagram message of the album art on Thursday night, further solidifying a solid progression of music superstars using the secret album model.
There's no official word if this album is really his long awaited, "Views From The 6" EP that he's been teasing for months. Fans frenzied their way to the internet to confirm the rumor and then logged onto iTunes and Soundclcoud to buy the Canadian born rapper’s latest. The 17 single EP is already making waves, with some critics saying the “hardly home but always reppin’” rapper is forging his way as a man and artist.
We’ve been here before.
At midnight, on Dec. 13, 2013, while many fans slept peacefully in their beds, Beyoncé posted an image of album art on Instagram, a simple black background accentuated with her name in bold pink letters. It was "Beyoncé," the superstar's fifth studio album. For the first time in her career, she did no promotion or marketing and released a full album at the stroke of a new day to her fans.
Along with the audio tracks, she filmed 15 visuals, a replicated concept from her sophomore album, “B-day.” In November of 2014, she re-released “Beyoncé,” including two new songs and four remixes. To date her album has sold over 5 million copies worldwide.
This rising trend of the surprise EP has the music industry buzzing and reflecting on how albums are marketed and made.
"It’s just an evolution of the business,” says Damien Alexander, director of A&R for Relumae Records and a 10-year industry veteran. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing or a positive thing. Not every artist will be able to do that.”
Alexander says the secret album model is reserved for superstars, such as Beyoncé, Madonna, Prince and others. "Fan favorites are the only ones that can do that and cause an impact in the marketplace,” he said.
But Arnaldo “A.G.” Gordon, CEO of MWE Music, who has worked with stars including Kanye West and Pharrell, says that if tweaked, the model can work for a variety of artists. “People are going to find different ways to drop a surprise album and have the masses pay attention to it” Gordon said.
A year after "Beyoncé” was released, D’Angelo, the reclusive soul singer, dropped his third album, “Black Messiah,” after a listening party in New York City. Though he was noticeably absent from his own party, industry insiders who attended took to social media to rave about the music. And in the dead of the night, “Black Messiah” was released on iTunes.
D’Angelo’s fans were euphoric, finally their long-awaited gift after a 15-year hiatus littered with arrests, bouts of addiction, and numerous rumors that an album was on the way.
The album was scheduled for release this year, but was moved up due to the grand jury non-indictments for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “Black Messiah,” reinstated D’Angelo as a headmaster in soul music and propelled him to the forefront of a social justice movement. In the linear notes of the album, he boldly affirms that “Black Messiah” is about “people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”
Rapper J-Cole released his third album, “2014 Forrest Hills Drive,” a tribute to his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Dec. 9, 2014. Unlike Beyoncé and D’Angelo, he didn’t release it under the cloak of darkness. Two weeks before the album dropped, he uploaded the album cover on Instagram. In the photo Cole is looking out into the distance from his roof, with his legs dangling over the edge. “2014 Forrest Hills Drive,” has been his most successful album yet.
“I think now that somebody did it in R&B, pop, and somebody did it in rap, the next person that does it will feel more confident because these people paved the way for that to happen,” says Gordon. Alexander feels that the success of these three albums can be attributed to trust. “They know they’re going to get quality from this artist because they’ve invested in this artist for ‘x’ amount of years and they’ve followed their career trajectory, they’ve been with this artist through high school and college and adulthood. So you know they have grown up on that music so to speak,” he says.
Gordon agrees. “If you have a strong base and you created that artist to fan consumer relationship where they brought into the artistry or the career of an artist they’re going to always be there to support it,” he said.
Beyoncé, D’Angelo, J-Cole and now Drake aren’t the first artists to release a secret album, or manipulate the business model to create an original concept. In the past some artists added secret singles on their albums. These songs mysteriously began after the dead silence of the last track, prompting fans to make good use of their fast forward buttons.
Radiohead is probably one of the earliest groups to use the secret album formula. Their 2007 release, “In Rainbows” used a pay-what-you-want business model. In 2013 alone, notable artists such as David Bowie and Jay-Z dropped albums with little to no promotion. However, it is the tremendous success that Beyoncé, D’Angelo and J-Cole collectively achieved, each redefining their careers by using this business model. Album sales for Drake’s new EP won't be released until next week, but based on the success of his last four efforts and his general notoriety, profits probably won’t be low.
Some may wonder if superstars bypassing marketing and promotion will threaten job security for some in the industry, particularly those whose job is to curate the formation of an album and promote the artist before an album drops to increase sales.
But Gordon isn’t worried. “It actually, if anything, makes it a little bit easier,” he says. "It helps the culture; it helps the music business be a little more innovative.”
It may also save companies millions of dollars and recoup money that would be spent in pre-promotion marketing and publicity, generating more revenue to use for post promotion once the album is released. In a time where music execs are looking for ways to retain funds due to pirating, streaming and alternative buying methods like iTunes, the secret album could fuel the spark the industry needs if placed in the hands of the right superstar.