At the beginning of 2013, Daft Punk had been silent, aside from one middling Disney soundtrack, for six years. In human or robot years, that’s a solid amount of time. In pop years, it’s a generation. Since monsieurs Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo turned off the lights on their highly successful Pyramid Tour of 2006-2007, dance music had exploded stateside in unprecedented ways – creating a culture that certainly seemed ready to welcome the duo’s new Random Access Memories. But why leave anything to chance?
And so the year’s most innovative and influential marketing rollout began. In late February, posters showing stark images of the robots’ heads began popping up in cities in Europe and the United States. Even if passers-by had never heard of Daft Punk and thought the posters were a Darth Vader rebranding initiative, the message was clear: Something important was coming. March brought more tantalizing clues in the form of an enigmatic 15-second teaser trailer for Random Access Memories that aired on Saturday Night Live. Then in April at Coachella, another album trailer was shown on the festival’s main stage, this one featuring Daft Punk performing with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers. The week following Coachella saw the release of the eventual smash “Get Lucky” – that single and the Coachella promo bracketed by an online series of Random Access Memories “Collaborator” videos consisting of laudatory interviews with the likes of album contributors Giorgio Moroder and Panda Bear. If you were somehow only vaguely aware of Daft Punk in the winter, by mid-spring – when Random Access Memories was premiered in, of all places, Wee Waa, Australia – you could be convinced they were returning heroes. Mission accomplished.
In 2013, trying to win the sales game is a crapshoot, and one that, depending on sales numbers, might merely result in a victory of the tallest-midget variety. Back in the pre-digital dark ages, the album itself was the event. Now the release is but one of many points along the promotional cycle. It’s easier to focus on shaping the conversation and piquing curiosity than it is to compel a purchase. That Daft Punk was able to both sell and generate discussion – Random Access Memories moved a sturdy 339,000 copies in its first week, and “Get Lucky” broke online streaming records – surely factored into the stunt-centric rollouts of some of the year’s other most noteworthy albums.
Take Arcade Fire. After the Grammy-winning success of 2010’s The Suburbs, Win Butler and his merry band of Montrealers found themselves, perhaps unexpectedly, at the top. Long in advance of the follow-up’s October unveiling, they set about building a pre-release Reflektor guerilla campaign – one that could both re-affirm their subversive bona fides and re-energize their new cohort of mainstream fans. This mainly consisted of pretending to be a different band. All the way back in December of 2012, billed as Les Identiks, Arcade Fire played songs from the as-yet-untitled new album. The pseudonym didn’t stick, but the Sneaky-Pete impulse did. By summer 2013, in very Daft Punk-poster fashion, Reflektor graffiti was showing up on walls across North America. Then there were teaser clips, secret shows, murals. The stunts were mysterious, sorta silly, and pretty successful at puncturing the band’s serious art-rock aura. Instead of wearing button-down shirts and throwing pre-release concerts in austere churches, Arcade Fire was now donning psychedelic Nudie suits and hosting secret dance parties. You didn’t even need to hear the new music to know that this was a radically different Arcade Fire.
Jay Z, meanwhile, was aiming for legacy consolidation rather than a revamp with his rollout. Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail majestically announced itself in a stark black-and-white Samsung-sponsored TV spot that aired during the NBA finals in June. The mogul-rapper was seen working in the studio with super-producers Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin and Swizz Beatz. The album would be available early as a free download to the first million Samsung Galaxy app subscribers. Star power and telecom partnerships: The message here was that Jay Z was above anything as quotidian as a regular album release. (And the million-download figure meant the rapper got to tout platinum “sales” levels – far from guaranteed if he’d stuck to normal distribution channels.) Do sales metrics and smartphone deals make an average fan’s heart go boom? Maybe, maybe not, but they were talking points, and as such evidence that Jay’s album was different and more special than those released by mere non-billionaire rap mortals.
Other top strata stars took a similar big-splash approach: In July, a massive gold-plated truck tooling through L.A. heralded the coming arrival of Katy Perry’s Prism, the rig adorned with the album’s title and October release date. A month later, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 was announced via Beats by Dre ads that aired during the MTV VMA telecast. They were stunts designed to build awareness, burnish brands, and, maybe, drive sales. All of which suggests that for a bevy of this year’s biggest pop stars, whether or not their fans saw something could be as important as whether or not they heard something.