Who Needs the Critics? Go Cryptic Instead

JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. NY Times 06/21/1

For all but the most knowledgeable pop-music fans, Jay-Z’s three-minute commercial during the N.B.A. finals last Sunday might have been perplexing. The black-and-white spot showed a rumpled Jay-Z working on music in a studio. Its documentary style created the impression the viewer was eavesdropping on a session as the rapper talked with producers in poetic terms about an album. It ended with a cryptic text message on screen, “The Next Big Thing Is Here” and below it the Web site magnacartaholygrail.com.

At the site it becomes clear that “Magna Carta Holy Grail” is the title of a new album, and that the commercial was, in effect, Jay-Z’s announcement of its release on July 4 under an arrangement with Samsung. The company will give away the first million copies to owners of its cellphones through an app.

The mysterious tone of the ad and the secrecy surrounding the making of the album are in keeping with recent trends in music marketing. In the last six months, several major artists — David Bowie, Daft Punk and Kanye West — have kept their new albums under wraps, then mounted brief, intense campaigns aimed not at critics and radio programmers, but at generating waves of interest on the Internet, banking on their fans to pass along news.

Such viral marketing isn’t new. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, for instance, concocted an elaborate online scavenger hunt involving codes on T-shirts and songs left on flash drives in bathrooms at his concerts to promote his 2007 album “Year Zero.” But the recent examples are bigger in scale and ambition and seem to underscore what marketing experts see as two trends: the decline of record sales as part of the overall income of musicians and the rise of the artist as a branded commodity.

A musician’s interaction with fans, they say, has become a form of entertainment itself that drives sales of merchandise and concert tickets as well as corporate sponsorships. Jay-Z’s decision to let Samsung buy the first million copies of his record at a discounted price and give them away is bound to boost his personal brand.

“It ain’t like there is a lot of money in selling records anyway,” said Steve Stoute, founder of the marketing agency Translation LLC. “If the music is shared and people like it, you are going to make the money on tour.”

Mike King, who teaches marketing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, said that teasing fans with tidbits, creating a sense of mystery and letting Internet buzz do the marketing, circumvents the critics and the major media outlets that used to set the agenda. Once, “it was ‘How can you engage with the gatekeepers?’ ” he said. “Now it’s ‘How do you remove these gatekeepers and go directly to the fans?’ ”

But marketing experts say this approach works best with established acts who have a large online following. Errol Kolosine, who teaches music business and marketing at New York University, said, “When you as an artist reach a point where your brand is as valuable as any label, then you are at the point where you can call your shots.”

Mr. Stoute said viral marketing taps into the treasure-hunting instinct fans display when they scour the Internet for pirated tracks. Musicians have learned that news passed from fan to fan can be more powerful than a review in a major publication. “The marketing of music today has been informed by the process of how music was stolen, ” he said. “Everybody figured out through the hard route that once there is buzz on a song it’s going to be shared at an intense rate.”

Most albums are still marketed the old-fashioned way with labels distributing promotional copies to journalists and other tastemakers ahead of a release. Then theyissue a single to radio stations a month or so before the album, looking for a hit to attract people. And the musician does interviews and makes radio and TV appearances to generate publicity.

That paradigm seems to be changing or undergoing variations, at least with big artists. David Bowie, for instance, kept his new album, two years in the making, a secret until Jan. 8 (his birthday). Then, without fanfare, he released the single “Where Are They Now?” and posted a surreal music video on YouTube. He did no interviews, though it was his first album in a decade. Instead, he plastered London and other cities with posters showing the album cover, a guerrilla campaign more fitting for a DIY punk band than a major star. Then he posted a second video for the single “The Stars Are Out,” starring Tilda Swinton.

Daft Punk, the French electronic duo famous for their robot headgear, also gave few hints that they planned to release an album in May. The first clue came in February when they posted a picture of their helmets fused together on Facebook, along with the logo of their label, Columbia Records. Over the next two months, they tantalized audiences with enigmatic billboards and Saturday Night Live spots and played the entire album at a small fair in rural Australia, posted interviews on YouTube and showed a 60-second ad at the Coachella Music festival.

By the time the single “Get Lucky” was released to radio on April 19, the online buzz was in high gear, said Scott Greer, Columbia’s vice president for marketing. “We were trying to reveal as little as possible,” he said.

Kanye West was also coy about his new release, “Yeezus.” He sent a Twitter message to his fans on May 1 saying only “June Eighteenth,” which turned out to be the issue date for the album. Two weeks later, he had a video for one of the singles, “New Slaves,” projected on the outsides of buildings in 10 major cities around the world, alerting fans about the showings on Twitter. Thousands recorded the screenings on their phones and posted the images online.

The next day, he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and performed “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead.” Before the release of “Yeezus,” he did only one traditional interview — a long one with The New York Times. He skipped releasing a single to radio altogether.

When the album finally leaked on the Internet four days before its release date, fans scrambled to get it. The record was on track to sell more than 500,000 copies this week.

“It was Kanye’s vision to create intrigue and mystique around the project,” said Steve Bartels, the president of Island Def Jam Music Group. “Kanye always wanted to create a way for fans of music to be presented an album and his vision all at one time

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