A surprise album or surprise release refers to the release of an album with little or no prior announcement, marketing or promotion. The strategy contrasts traditional album releases, which typically feature weeks or months of advertising in the form of singles, music videos, tour announcements and album pre-sales. Often, the release of a surprise album is the formal announcement of its release. This strategy developed in part due to the prevalence of album leaks on the Internet during the 2000s and became popular by the mid 2010s among high-profile recording acts.
The English rock band Radiohead's 2007 studio album In Rainbows is often credited as the first surprise album. The release was announced on the band's blog ten days prior, which DIY magazine describes as "a pretty unexpected move" at the time. Shortly after the release, Radiohead's bassist Colin Greenwood stated the band had several motivations behind the album's release format, including the increased popularity of the internet as a tool for discovering music, frustrations with the traditional release and promotion format, the freedom of not being signed to a record label at the time, a desire to do something special and unique, and an interest in broadcasting their music directly to listeners globally at the same time. It also served as a countermeasure to Internet leaks of albums, which had become prevalent at the time. In Rainbows is also credited for starting the pay-what-you-want model.
After ending a tumultuous relationship with Interscope Records in 2007, Nine Inch Nails independently released Ghosts I–IV and The Slip in 2008. Both were released for free (with the option to purchase higher-quality digital or physical editions) and were released under a Creative Commons license to allow fans the ability to edit and remix the new music as they desired. Nine Inch Nails manager Jim Guerinot said the idea to release the albums without prior announcement was to pre-empt a leak and control the marketing, stating: "Internet searches peak around the leak, not around the single or the album. By the time the album comes out, it's done."
In 2011, American rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West advertised false release dates for their collaborative album Watch the Throne, in part an effort to pre-empt leaks. This strategy inspired the singer Frank Ocean to surprise-release his second album Channel Orange one week earlier than its publicized release date.
Jay-Z and American singer Beyoncé are often credited with mastering the release strategy through multiple solo and collaborative releases, beginning with the latter's 2013 self-titled album Beyoncé. Harley Brown of Vulture wrote, "Ever since Beyoncé's self-titled visual album appeared like a Christmas miracle on the iTunes store at midnight on a Thursday in December of 2013, the rules for how to release a record were rewritten literally overnight." According to Vulture writer Lindsey Zoladz, the release was made possible by, "presumably, an entire rain forest's worth of nondisclosure agreements". The singer would also adapt the release format for her follow-up album Lemonade in 2016. Jay-Z surprise released his 2017 album 4:44, and the following year the couple surprise released the collaborative album Everything Is Love as The Carters.
By the mid 2010s, the music industry had entered what Zoladz called the "surprise-album era". While Beyoncé's name became synonymous with surprise albums, subsequent acts used the strategy in different ways. For instance, certain artists unexpectedly released an album, or a selection of tracks, that had been announced at an earlier date in an effort to outpace Internet leaks, as in 2015 with Björk's Vulnicura, Madonna's Rebel Heart, and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.
Some surprise albums created controversy. In 2014, Irish rock band U2 partnered with Apple Inc. to release their thirteenth studio album Songs of Innocence through the iTunes Store at no cost to half a billion people. The album was automatically added to users' music libraries in iTunes, which for those with automatic downloads enabled, resulted in an unprompted download of the album to their electronic devices. Many users did not want the album and several months after the release were frustrated that they could not delete the album from their devices. David Sackllah of Consequence of Sound noted that "U2 and Apple deserve credit for thinking ambitiously, but they overestimated the band's relevance with fans, and many felt like the automatic download constituted an invasion of privacy."
In 2016, American R&B singer Frank Ocean surprised released his visual album Endless, to complete his contract with Def Jam, and quickly followed up with Blonde a few days later independently, both as Apple Music exclusives. The act of Frank Ocean leaving Def Jam called into question surprise albums and exclusive digital releases. An anonymous Def Jam employee said to Buzzfeed at the time, "Our view is that giving exclusives to individual streaming platforms for long periods of time is not good for the artist, it's not good for the fans, and it limits the commercial opportunity for everybody involved." By 2019, Vulture and The Music Network published editorial articles questioning if the surprise album release format had peaked in popularity and effectiveness.
In 2020, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift's eighth studio album, Folklore, was released with less than 24 hours notice to much surprise among listeners and the music industry. The record was created in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, under total secrecy; Republic Records, Swift's record label, were let known about the project only a few hours before its launch. According to Elias Leight of Rolling Stone, while Swift had preferred traditional album-release cycles and was "a rare holdout" among major recording artists, Folklore's surprise release acknowledged that "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." Five months later, Swift surprise-released her ninth studio album, Evermore, which she dubbed as Folklore's "sister" project. Vulture stated that the news of another surprise album from Swift "came as a major shock", as she has been "the industry's most prominent loyalist to the pop-album rollout", who turns her carefully planned releases into "an art of their own".
Rachel Finn of DIY said that while surprise albums were becoming too common to be truly surprising, "it gives artists breathing space to really make an impact and retain control over the way their music is released, pre-empting album leaks and taking their album out of the pre-album press cycle to let the music speak for itself." Entrepreneur and freelance writer Cortney Harding wrote in a Medium article that while surprise albums give artists more flexibility, the strategy can usually only pay off for well-known musicians and can be problematic when the album is exclusive to a specific streaming service. David Sackllah of Consequence of Sound noted that while many major artists had attempted a surprise release, few had matched or surpassed the level of excitement of In Rainbows. Writing for The Ringer, Lindsay Zoladz expressed criticism toward overuse of the term that began to dilute its meaning as music journalists were using "surprise album" to describe albums that were previously announced. Zoladz stated:
"'Surprise album' has become such a ubiquitous term that its meaning becomes more vague with each passing tweet. (Last month the Chicago Tribune even used it to describe Drake's Views, an album that not only had a previously announced release date, but which Drake himself had been teasing for the better part of two years.) But even when the phrase is used more precisely, it's becoming a bit hollow; we're living through a deluge of albums — even something as long promised as Rihanna's Anti — that lay claim to that trendy term 'surprise,' but have, like Lemonade, given us a lot of hints that they were coming."
Prominent surprise albums
The following is a non-exhaustive list of surprise albums in chronological order.
- Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)
- Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I–IV and The Slip (2008)
- Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (2012)
- David Bowie – The Next Day (2013)
- Beyoncé – Beyoncé (2013)
- U2 – Songs of Innocence (2014)
- Drake – If You're Reading This It's Too Late (2015)
- Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (2015)
- Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)
- The Carters – Everything is Love (2018)
- Eminem – Kamikaze (2018)
- J. Cole - KOD (2018)
- Eminem – Music to Be Murdered By (2020)
- Childish Gambino – Donald Glover Presents / 3.15.20 (2020)
- Drake – Dark Lane Demo Tapes (2020)
- Taylor Swift – Folklore and Evermore (2020)
- Hayley Williams - Flowers for Vases / Descansos (2021)
- Finn, Rachel (March 25, 2019). "Out Of The Blue: A Brief History Of The Surprise Album". DIY. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Butler, Ben (May 20, 2016). "The 10 greatest surprise album drops ever - ranked". Gigwise. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Murphy, Sam (September 29, 2019). "Why the surprise album drop is falling in popularity". The Music Network. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Sackllah, David (May 5, 2016). "Why Radiohead Is the Only Rock Band to Perfect the Surprise Album Release". Consequence of Sound. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Greenwood, Colin (September 13, 2010). "Radiohead's Colin Greenwood: Set yourself free". Index on Censorship. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Leeds, Jeff (May 6, 2008). "Nine Inch Nails Album Is Free Online". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
- Serpick, Evan (May 29, 2008). "Nine Inch Nails Release Free Album Online". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
- Smith, Da'Shan (June 2, 2019). "Surprise Albums: 17 Drops That Shocked The Music World". uDiscoverMusic. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Brown, Harley (January 2, 2019). "Does the Surprise Album Release Still Work?". Vulture. New York. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Zoladz, Lindsay (April 8, 2015). "Everybody 'Pulling a Beyoncé' Has Given Me Surprise-Album Fatigue". Vulture. Retrieved December 11, 2020.
- Bean, Daniel (February 23, 2015). "From My Inbox: People Are Still Trying to Get U2's Free Album off Their iPhones". Yahoo! Finance. Verizon Media. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Ugwu, Reggie (August 24, 2016). "Frank Ocean's Apple Deal Was A Wake-Up Call For The Music Industry". BuzzFeed. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Shah, Neil (2020-07-23). "Taylor Swift's New Album 'Folklore' Is Making a Surprise Debut". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved 2020-07-29.
- Sodomsky, Sam. "The National's Aaron Dessner Talks Taylor Swift's New Album folklore". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2020-07-29.
- Leight, Elias (July 23, 2020). "Taylor Swift Finally Abandoned the Traditional Album Rollout". Rolling Stone. Retrieved September 4, 2020.
- "Taylor Swift to release surprise ninth album 'Evermore' tonight". NME | Music, Film, TV, Gaming & Pop Culture News. 2020-12-10. Retrieved 2020-12-10.
- Curto, Justin (December 22, 2020). "Did 2020 Kill the Long, Fancy Pop-Album Rollout for Good?". Vulture. Retrieved January 30, 2020.
- Harding, Courtney (August 5, 2016). "Surprise Album Releases are Terrible". Medium. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Zoladz, Lindsay (June 1, 2016). "Save the Term 'Surprise' for Albums That Are Actually Surprising". The Ringer. Spotify. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Ramirez, Erika; Hampp, Andrew (February 12, 2015). "Drake Releases Surprise Album 'If You're Reading This It's Too Late'". Billboard. MRC. Retrieved August 2, 2020.
- McSpadden, Kevin (February 13, 2015). "Drake Just Dropped a New Album Called If You're Reading This It's Too Late". Time. Retrieved August 2, 2020.
- D'Addario, Daniel (August 30, 2015). "Miley Cyrus' Surprise Album Is Bigger Than the VMAs". Time. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
- Bell, Crystal (August 30, 2015). "Miley Cyrus Just Dropped A Free Surprise Album". MTV. ViacomCBS. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
- Shifferaw, Abel; Skelton, Eric (August 31, 2018). "A Roundup of Rappers Eminem Name-Drops and Takes Shots at on Kamikaze". Complex.
- Thompson, Desire (August 31, 2018). "Joe Budden and 16 Other People Eminem Dissed on Kamikaze Album". Vibe.
- Purdom, Clayton (September 6, 2018). "Eminem's Bad New Album Has Created a Vortex of Bad Rap Beefs". The A.V. Club.
- Eminem. "Eminem Surprise-Releases New Album, 'Music to Be Murdered By'". Rolling Stone.
- Kreps, Daniel (March 15, 2020). "Donald Glover Surprise Releases Collection of New Music". Rolling Stone. Wenner Media. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Elassar, Alaa (March 15, 2020). "Donald Glover just dropped a surprise album featuring Ariana Grande and SZA". CNN. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- "Taylor Swift's Surprise New 'Folklore' Album: What a Great (And Overdue) Idea!". Billboard. 2020-07-23. Retrieved 2020-07-29.
- Rowley, Glenn (July 23, 2020). "Swifties Flip Over Taylor Swift's Surprise Album Announcement: 'There Are Still Good Things in 2020'". Billboard. MRC. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- Canal, Alexandra; Guzman, Zack (July 24, 2020). "Taylor Swift drops surprise album 'Folklore' as fans rejoice". Yahoo! Finance. Verizon Media. Retrieved July 28, 2020.
- "Stream Hayley Williams' Surprise New Album 'FLOWERS for VASES / descansos'". Stereogum. 2021-02-05. Retrieved 2021-02-05.
- "Hayley Williams just released a surprise album". Blunt Magazine. 2021-02-05. Retrieved 2021-02-05.