Albums don’t just magically sell themselves. Musicians and their labels have to put in the occasional effort in the marketing of their records. And sometimes, those artists have to be a little outrageous to get noticed (or at least strike a deal with Apple to put the music directly into your iTunes). Below are 12 promotions that went above and beyond the call of duty, with varying degrees of success.
Michael Jackson, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995)
Proving that record companies have ridiculously deep pockets, Sony and Michael Jackson spent a whopping $30 million promoting Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. The HIStory World Tour spanned 58 countries and was attended by about 4.5 million fans, but the real cost lay in the giant King of Pop statues that were placed throughout Europe. The original prototype weighed roughly 40,000 pounds, though the final statues were a modest 20,000.
Josh Freese, Since 1972 (2009)
It’s very likely that, at some point in your life, you’ve listened to an album Josh Freese has drummed on. He’s performed with Axl Rose, Sting, A Perfect Circle, Weezer, The Offspring, Sublime, Devo, The Vandals, and countless others. He’s even dabbled in some solo works, and with Since 1972, Freese created a Kickstarter of sorts, with all sorts of cool goodies. For a mere $50, consumers got the CD/DVD, a t-shirt, and a 5-minute phone call with Freese himself, where they could ask questions like “Which one of Sting’s mansions has the comfiest beds?” For $10,000, he’d take you to Disneyland and then give you his Volvo station wagon (pictured above) at the end of the night. And for $75,000, one lucky fan got a barrage of prizes, like getting a 5-song EP recorded about his or her life, having Freese as a personal assistant/cabana boy for two weeks, and taking a trapeze lesson with him and Robin Finck from Nine Inch Nails.
Kanye West/50 Cent, Graduation/Curtis (2007)
Back in 2007, Kanye West and 50 Cent were both near the top of the rap game. And with albums coming out on the same date, it only seemed natural that a little public feud was in store. During promotional interviews for Curtis, Fiddy said if Kanye outsold him, he’d retire from rap. Kanye’s Graduation went on to outsell Curtis 957,000 to 691,000. Not too shabby for either artist, and of course, 50 Cent did not retire from making music. In fact, his celebrity has only increased—he’s even gone on to throw out horrible first pitches at baseball games.
Nine Inch Nails, Year Zero (2007)
Frontman Trent Reznor hinted that his band’s album was just part of a bigger number of things he was working on. He certainly delivered: Year Zero had its own alternate reality game, set in the year 2022 in a world where the U.S. had become a Christian fundamentalist state devoid of civil rights. Fans could decipher cryptic clues in objects scattered around NIN concerts, like fliers protesting against corrupt government, spectrograms, and USB flash drives that were hidden in bathroom stalls at the concert venues. There were also several phone numbers that had wiretapped conversations and snippets of songs from the album.
Jay-Z, Magna Carta Holy Grail (2013)
Mr. Z is a man of the people. Specifically, people with Samsung phones. For his Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay-Z released the first million copies as a free download to Samsung users, with the company paying him $5 per copy. If you didn’t have a Samsung cell, tough—you’d have to buy the album the old-school way. Hova sold 528,000 copies the first week (not counting the free million), and topped the Billboard 200 charts in back-to-back weeks.
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013)
Record Store Day is a time when vinyl fans can get together and celebrate the glory days of music. You know, when you’d slide the B-side of a 45 on a record player and listen to a generally inferior song compared to the single on Side A. But the day is also a time for bands to sneakily announce their new record. Scottish duo Boards of Canada broke their eight-year hiatus from releasing new music with a complicated treasure hunt. They planted 12-inch vinyls in stores; when fans played them, they found short audio clips of a voice reciting a six-digit number. All of those numbers put together created a password, which led to a video announcing the band’s record. A new song debuted in Tokyo, accompanied by visuals projected on a building, and California fans were also treated to a concert of the entire album at an abandoned water park.
Katy Perry, Prism (2013)
Ms. Perry knows the true power of a successful album lies with the kids. At least, that was her aim for Prism. She enlisted a golden semi-truck to tour the country, and asked fans to create a music video for lead single “Roar.” The grand prize: a free concert at the winning entrant’s school the week of the album’s release.
Lady Gaga, Artpop (2013)
For her latest album, Gaga invited a group of her most passionate fans to graffiti her track list on the side of a building, and hosted an art showcase in Brooklyn. Of course, she wore a weird dress—this one a unique take on a hovercraft—and also unveiled a large nude sculpture of herself. The sculpture was created by equally unusual artist Jeff Koons.
Arcade Fire, Reflektor (2013)
Promotional images bearing the word “Reflektor” began sprouting up on building walls during August of 2013. Later on, Arcade Fire confirmed they were behind the graffiti, as they plastered a mural in Manhattan with four of the symbols and a cryptic message reading “Arcade Fire 9pm 9/9.” Sure enough, on September 9, the band dropped a video for the title track, and capped things off with a 22-minute “concert film” (shot by Roman Coppola) during the 39th season premiere of SNL.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (2013)
The masked duo always has a shroud of mystery about them, so it’s no surprise that the promotion surrounding Random Access Memories, was…well, mysterious. The group also made an appearance on SNL with a very vague commercial playing the now universally known “Get Lucky”. They partnered with Coca-Cola to release a series of limited-edition Coke bottles, complete with Daft Punk caps. And while the album technically debuted online a few days before it was supposed to (thanks to the all-too common internet leak), the album release party was in tiny Wee Waa, Australia (pop. 2,100), complete with a raving dance floor and LED lights aplenty.
Kanye West, Yeezus (2013)
Hate him or love him, the man knows how to make a spectacle. Mr. West took his video for “New Slaves” and projected it onto 66 buildings around the world to help promote his album Yeezus. Perhaps said world had grown tired of Kanye’s antics, though—Yeezus had the lowest first-week sales of Kanye’s career, moving a paltry 327,000 copies.
Wu-Tang Clan, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin (2014)
After staying silent for several years, Wu-Tang Clan hit 2014 with style. They announced the release of two albums: A Better Tomorrow and Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. The latter is a 31-track album with exactly one copy printed. That lone copy, housed in a hand carved nickel-silver box designed by British-Moroccan artist Yahyahas, is already receiving auction offers. Wu-Tang member RZA said the group got a $5 million bid on the album, but the group plans to tour museums, festivals and other events with the copy before auctioning it off. The reason for creating just one copy? According to the project’s website: “The music industry is in crisis. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. This album is a piece of contemporary art.” An incredibly expensive piece of art, but art, nonetheless.