From Radiohead and Beyoncé to David Bowie and Drake: does the surprise release work for albums?

More and more pop and rock stars are forgoing traditional plans in favour of releasing albums with little or zero notice. We look at the trends and how it benefits musicians.

This year, David Bowie’s Blackstar was released on short notice. EPA
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Nine years ago, on October 1, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood took to the band's official Dead Air Space blog with the deceptively low-key statement: "Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days. We've called it In Rainbows."

The group that has arguably done more than any other artist to revolutionise the distribution of music in the internet age – beginning with the ground-breaking "pay-what-you-want" roll out of In Rainbows – once again made global headlines with the surprise arrival of their latest album on Saturday. A Moon Shaped Pool was announced just 48 hours before its release.

It is the latest example of pop and rock stars forgoing traditional release plans in favour of unexpectedly dropping albums on the public with little or zero notice.

So far in 2016, we've seen "surprise" records from Drake (Views); James Blake (The Colour in Anything); Rihanna (Anti); David Bowie (Blackstar); Beyoncé (Lemonade); and Kanye West (The Life of Pablo). In some instances, such as U2's much-criticised decision to give away their 2014 LP Songs of Innocence free to all iTunes customers, the method grossly backfired.

In others, such as the unexpected release of Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 record – the singer’s first experiment with dropping an unexpected album – it successfully repositioned the singer at the forefront of musical innovation while also proving a huge commercial hit.

“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve [previously] done it,” said Beyoncé at the time of the record’s midnight bow.

“I am bored with that. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans.”

For A-list artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Drake, the appeal of flash albums lies in their ability to cut through the noise and create instant global headlines that can be turned into big sales via download stores and streaming sites.

In its first six days of release, Drake's Views album, which was made available exclusively on Apple Music and iTunes, was streamed more than 250 million times, selling the equivalent of 1.2 million copies.

The financial windfall that brings for Drake and his label is considerable (not including whatever Apple paid to land the exclusive), but more important is the publicity that it brings ahead of his upcoming North American summer tour (also sponsored by Apple).

In an era of diminishing returns from album sales, the social-media-driven rush release method also significantly cuts marketing costs, lowers the risk of leaking and reduces the influence of music critics. Interestingly, the same reasoning is prevalent in the television industry.

Louis C K released his weekly acclaimed comedy series Horace and Pete on his website with little fanfare. Also, it would be hard to imagine Netflix comedies such as the critically mauled Fuller House and Richie Rich becoming a hit with viewers if the online network previewed it to the press first instead of releasing all episodes on the service at once.

The surprise element, however, is not effective for everyone and this is especially true in the music industry. Flash releases works to the advantage of big name acts with an already dedicated fan base.

For new and upcoming artists, the traditional method of building anticipation over several months remains the most effective option.

Artists with an older audience following also tend to shun the surprise release. Adele announced last year's biggest-selling record one month ahead of 25 hitting stores for the simple reason that CDs still make up a large number of her sales, requiring manufacturers and retailers to plan ahead.

Taylor Swift has also tended to follow traditional release patterns and like Adele famously kept her past two albums off streaming services.

Those two artists, however, are proving to be the exception rather than the rule. As CD and download sales slide, we can expect to see more and more unannounced album drops frequently tied to digital platforms.

"Release dates is played out," said Kanye West ahead of his endlessly teased, ultimately anti-climatic The Life of Pablo, which was distributed exclusively on Tidal earlier this year.

Public interest in rush releases will inevitably wane as the once revolutionary sales tactic becomes the norm, but for now, the surprise album launch retains sufficient shock appeal for artists and fans alike.