NEW YORK • Rockers Radiohead erase their Internet presence. Singer Beyonce posts cryptic hints on her Instagram account, then schedules a mysterious hour-long HBO special. Electronic musician James Blake retweets photographs of billboards suggesting the title of a coming project.
These are the signs and symbols that portend a new album this year. As listeners have shifted away from CDs and downloads, artists have become nearly as creative with their album release strategies as they have with their music - all in an effort to stoke excitement for the few records that still have a chance at netting major sales.
This year, many artists have resorted to a novel strategy: offering fans a trail of digital breadcrumbs that lead to a release.
Over the weekend, Radiohead joined the crowd, gradually removing all signs of their presence online, including their website and social media accounts, before releasing a new single, Burn The Witch, and accompanying video on Tuesday.
Ms Catherine Moore, a clinical associate professor of music business at New York University and an expert in strategic music marketing, said the "breadcrumbs" strategy was an example of fans' enthusiastic participation in what used to be considered the business side of the industry.
People talk about user-generated content – user-generated distribution is just as important.
MS CATHERINE MOORE, a clinical associate professor of music business at New York University and an expert in strategic music marketing
"Harnessing the sharing, harnessing the excitement and enthusiasm of the first to see the next breadcrumb is really exciting for fans," she said.
"People talk about user-generated content - user-generated distribution is just as important," she added.
Radiohead fans who were paying close attention noticed that something was afoot in January, when news surfaced that the band had filed papers months earlier to create an independent company, an action they had also taken before the release of their past two albums. Additionally, in advance of Radiohead's release on Tuesday, certain British fans were sent fliers that read, "Sing the song of sixpence that goes burn the witch" and "We know where you live".
These covert actions, although they would be unusual for many artists, were almost tame by Radiohead's standards. The English rockers have had unusual album releases for nearly a decade, anticipating a sea change in album promotion.
The band's 2007 album, In Rainbows, was made available on a pay-what-you-wish basis just days after the world was informed of its existence. Their 2011 album, The King Of Limbs, was released on even shorter notice after it was announced.
In 2008, Nine Inch Nails released an album, Ghosts I-IV, online with no warning. In December 2013, Beyonce opened the floodgates by releasing a self-titled surprise album, pre-empting out-of-nowhere releases from Drake, U2, David Bowie and D'Angelo in the following years.
"I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it; I am bored with that," she said in a news release at the time.
Ms Moore said the turn away from conventional marketing was inevitable after iTunes began to gain traction early in the previous decade, taking away control of retail distributionfrom the labels.
"They changed the pricing rules, and once the pricing rules changes and the means of distribution changes, the marketing has to change," she said.
The lead-up to the release of Beyonce's album Lemonade last month was comparable to that of the Radiohead single. She offered obsessive fans hints at the album title on Instagram months ago (pictures of a glass of lemonade and the singer sniffing a lemon were clues to the album's title and themes) before announcing the HBO special that was a visual presentation of the album.
The singer was rewarded for her efforts: Lemonade has had the most successful week of any album so far this year.
Mr Marc Hogan, a journalist who covers the business for music website Pitchfork, said the strategy could be seen as a way to reward fans' attention and loyalty.
"Feeling like you're in the know about your favourite band makes you feel closer to that band and makes you more excited to check out that record," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES