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Can Stunt Releases Save Album Sales?

Millennials are somewhat of a conundrum for the music industry. They are extremely passionate about music, and experiencing their favorite artists live, but their anti-ownership attitude and love of streaming makes them a fickle and difficult consumer group. Artists and labels are fighting to raise the bar on album releases to grab Millennials attention, interest, and wallets. But can album gimmicks save album sales?

Beyoncé’s surprise album last year, accompanied by video teasers to each track, wasn’t just a bit of smart marketing to the visual generation—it was also a sign that album releases are drastically changing to keep up with the behaviors and needs of young consumers. According to end-of-year reports by Nielsen SoundScan, music sales for 2013 were down 6.3%, and unsurprisingly physical music sales dropped 13%. Vinyl remains the sole bright spot, with LP sales rising 33%—but those sales represent a very small fraction of album ownership. Now, simply dropping an album the traditional way doesn’t seem to be enough (unless you’re Mariah Carey), and even established artists are finding ways to make a splash with their album releases.

Last month, Jack White pulled a speedy album release stunt by recording the “World’s Fastest Released Record.” In honor of Record Store Day, White recorded, pressed, and distributed a limited edition vinyl of his upcoming “Lazaretto,” the title track of his upcoming album, all in 3 hours, 55 minutes and 21 seconds. For the event, a limited number of tickets were sold to the live recording at Third Man Records in Nashville, and after the single LPs were pressed, White himself handed them out to waiting fans at the store. The stunt was album marketing, but also part of White’s continued championing of the vinyl format. Since his record-breaking LP release, the artist has announced that the full vinyl of Lazaretto will “push the boundaries” with features like a floating holographic angel etched into the groves of side A (yes, you read that right), hidden tracks, and dual groove technology that allows fans to listen to both electric and acoustic versions of a song. As Third Man Records co-founder Ben Swank told Rolling Stone, “’we don’t shy away from the word ‘gimmick’ or ‘novelty.’… There doesn’t have to be that one cynical way of releasing music.”

While White works his stunts on the vinyl side of things, other artists are experimenting with how valuable an album can be. The Wu-Tang Clan announced earlier this year that their next album Once Upon A Time in Shaolin will be released as a single physical copy and sold to the highest bidder. The group recorded the album in secret over the last few years, and hopes that its drastically limited release will push music to be as respected as artwork. So far, they have reportedly been offered $5 million for the album from one individual, and are fielding many offers. For the rest of the public to hear the tracks, they will have to visit a museum or gallery near them. The album will be on tour in “listening spaces” where audiences will have to pay a fee to listen to it all in one sitting. Some fans are currently attempting to band together to makes sure that the single release isn’t purchased by a billionaire with no intention to share. A Kickstarter has been launched to raise money to buy the album with plans to digitally distribute it should they end up the highest bidders—though currently they are a long way off from matching that $5 million bid. Just in case the music-as-very-expensive-art plan doesn’t pan out, Wu-Tang will also release A Better Tomorrow, a commercially available album that will be out this July.

Even more traditional album releases are now getting elaborate teaser campaigns. Coldplay recently launched an album treasure hunt, hiding handwritten lyrics to each song from their new album Ghost Stories in libraries around the world, and giving clues to find them to fans via Twitter. One of the hidden envelopes of songs also included a “Golden Ticket” allowing two fans to be flown in to see Coldplay perform in London in July.  The group announced each lyrical discovery on their website, thanking fans for participating and celebrating the devoted super-fans who found the pages.

Whether these specific stunts will make a real difference in sales remains to be seen. While an innovative album release will undoubtedly increase awareness and buzz, almost always a positive in the crowded media space, the trends of streaming and decreasing interest in ownership are powerful forces. But the right “gimmick” can make all the difference: In 2007, Radiohead released their album In Rainbows with a disruptive, surprising plan that allowed fans to pay what they wanted for the tracks. Some consumers took the album for free, while others paid more than traditional album prices to show their devotion to the band. What seemed at the time like a stunt was actually a response to (at the time) the new streaming and pirating culture of Millennials, and the risk was rewarded: the band reported making more money from that record than any other Radiohead albums put together. Beyoncé’s surprise visual album was the fastest selling album ever on iTunes, even though initially consumers were required to buy the record in its totality, rather than as individual tracks. They still bought it. The album release stunts that echo back the needs and desires of the fans are the ones that have a good chance of succeeding, and yes, of saving album sales—at least for that artist.