2020 was the year of surprise albums by major artists, and most offline marketing efforts went out the window. So some artists experimented with releasing their album with zero marketing. This is an interesting strategy for a major artist, as it is a pleasant surprise for fans, which is likely to become a success and an engagement driver.
However, with surprise albums, the key element is engagement. A surprise album might work for an artist that has a lot of engaged fans. But, if you are an independent artist, who is trying to build a fanbase, this might not be such a good idea. In this blog post, I will summarize four reasons why the surprise album strategy is risky for an independent artist:
1. No press means you lose potential fans
In the case of an independent artist dropping a surprise album, the first outcome will be losing potential fans because of the lack of press. Press, such as blogs, might not be a huge driver of streams or sales. However, they are significant in terms of providing quality access points for potential fans. Publications provide credibility and more meaning to potential relationships between a listener and an artist. The press, in a way, is the tool that will help you tell your story to more people, which then will send people to your social media or your digital store. Press is also important to give you a place in the music industry for future collaborations, shows, and potential sponsorships.
Major artists already have a lot of press credibility, so they might not lose so much from a lack of press activity. Everything they do can be potential news, as they already have millions of people watching every single thing they do. For this reason, a major artist dropping a surprise album is a story by itself. For an independent artist with a small number of fans, a surprise album means your music disappears into the void.
2. Not using social media will drop your engagement
A major artist can get away with not posting something on their social media platform for six months. They already have millions of people following them. In fact, it is a good thing that major artists withdraw from public life from time to time. During their absence, they keep their faces fresh in people’s minds, so they can come back with a new image and a new project. If a major artist disappears from social media for six months, and then comes back with a surprise album, that is a wonderful surprise for the fans.
On the other hand, an independent artist not engaging with people for six months basically means most people will move on and possibly forget who you are. When you come back with your new album, there will be some people who will engage, but not nearly as much as you would have when you had regular interaction with people on your social media.
3. Not using pre-save or other streaming perks means less first-week data
A major artist not engaging with fans and then coming back with a release is a stream driver both for audio and video. Fans love that because it’s a nice surprise.
For an independent artist who is building a fanbase, a surprise album will also look bad on your streaming data. Since much fewer people will be aware and less engaged, you will probably have lower streams than usual. When the pre-save numbers and streams are low on your first week, you will be less likely to be added to major playlists, creating a kind of downward spiral for your streaming profile. For this reason, a surprise album with no marketing is not a great idea for streaming.
4. Not creating anticipation means fewer sales on music and merch
The last and final result of an independent artist releasing a surprise album is probably going to be fewer sales in music and merchandise. Since fans will be less active, you will have lower sales on all accounts and it will also mean a potential revenue loss for you.
Keep in mind that here the key is having an engaged fanbase. You can be an indie artist with an engaged, large fanbase, and so, a surprise album strategy might work. However, if you’re still building your fanbase, this is probably a bad idea. If you are tempted and curious, instead of risking a whole album, you can do a surprise single release and see how it performs. Sometimes a surprise single is a nice way to give something to the fans as they are waiting for your big release. Keep in mind that what works for one artist might not necessarily work for the other, and strategies such as surprise albums can vary dramatically between different artists.