Taylor Swift hopped on Twitter on Thursday morning to announce that she had recorded an entire new album in secret over the last few months. “I’ve poured all my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into [it],” she wrote. The news of Folklore was a surprise, the release date even more so: Thursday at midnight.
This last-minute “hey, by the way” was a far cry from the multimedia bonanza that accompanied her last album. The Lover rollout was an old-school music-industry blitzkrieg. Promotional deals with Amazon, Capital One, YouTube, iHeartMedia, SiriusXM, and Target, among others, made Swift inescapable in the weeks leading up to her new release and guaranteed that her albums were blockbusters. Turn on the TV, open your streaming service of choice, even order a package that has nothing to do with music whatsoever — there she was.
Maybe that rollout technique just isn’t as feasible in 2020, with the U.S. suffering from a brutal pandemic. When people are relying on Amazon to deliver them essential goods so they don’t have to go outside, packaging those items with Swift’s image might strike the wrong note. But it also seems likely that if Swift, maybe the last superstar to rely on traditional music industry rollout campaigns, is leaving them behind, it might be the final nail in the coffin for that months-long, carpet-bombing approach to marketing.
This has been a long time coming, of course, with everyone from Beyoncé to D’Angelo to Drake releasing surprise albums through the 2010s. Swift was a rare holdout, a believer in giving her listeners plenty of advance warning and pre-release singles to whet their appetites. The sudden release was well established by 2017, but Swift put out “Look What You Made Me Do” in August and “Ready for It” in September before releasing Reputation in November. She relied on a long runway again for Lover, putting out “Me!” in April, “You Need to Calm Down” in June, and the title track before the album’s August release.
But more and more, the orderly, tightly plotted public rollout looks like an artifact of a different time when the music industry moved at a leisurely pace. Expect listeners to keep you at the top of their minds for three months while they wait for an album? Retaining listeners’ devotion for just one week, from this New Music Friday to the next, is hard enough. TikTok seems to create a new micro-hit — or several — every few hours.
Surprise 🤗 Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my 8th studio album, folklore; an entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. Pre-order at https://t.co/zSHpnhUlLb pic.twitter.com/4ZVGy4l23b
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) July 23, 2020
As a result, many of the music industry successes in 2020 are based on reacting quickly to unexpected surges of interest — throwing resources behind Trevor Daniel’s “Falling,” Young T and Bugsey’s “Don’t Rush,” or a random, technically illegal remix of Saint JHN’s “Roses” after they become suddenly popular in Instagram or TikTok communities — rather than any sort of methodical planning. The new class of winners release music steadily and adapt quickly to capitalize on sudden flashpoints, rather than trying to force those flashpoints to happen on any sort of regular, preordained schedule. If music industry success used to be all about muscle, now it’s more about speed.
By announcing Folklore as she did, Swift seems to be acknowledging the new world order. “Before this year I probably would have over thought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time,” she wrote. “But the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.” Folklore‘s release demonstrates that, for the music industry, “nothing is guaranteed” goes beyond the pandemic.