Build Up vs. Surprise Release Pros and Cons

BeyoncéJay-ZJustin TimberlakeKaty PerryKid CudiPharrell


Over the past year, Gupta Media has been focused on running album sales campaigns with longer flights, including pre-order, to maximize the opportunity to reach core fans the moment that they are thinking about the product. This strategy focuses on connecting fans with appearances and promotions while keeping paid media running throughout. This is based around the idea that consumers are less driven by release week than previously thought, and that the window of interest extends out much further than the typical release week schedule. The iTunes Top 100 charts back up this notion, as 40-60% of the albums are over 30 days old.

At the end of 2013, Beyoncé took an entirely different route. She shocked the entire music industry by releasing an album that only a handful of people knew existed. Her self-titled album was released without a pre-order phase, and no singles, appearances or promotions to drive interest. The album was quietly placed on iTunes at midnight, announced only by an Instagram video from her personal account.

Both the traditional build up approach and surprise releases have pros and cons, and both strategies helped support major album releases in 2013. Traditional build ups will always be a less risky option, but moving forward, finding innovative ways to release music will grow in importance.

Traditional Build-Up: Pros and Cons

The traditional build up approach has continually proven to yield impressive results. Using a long pre-order window allows a campaign to be flexible and targeting core fans helps to spend efficiently, based on the level of interest at that time as well as drive sales of the right people at the right time.

Throughout the year, major album campaigns put a focus on driving pre-orders. Justin Timberlake’s album became available for pre-order in time for his 2013 Grammy performance. This was further driven by many other notable appearances, including hosting Late Night with Jimmy Fallon for a week, as well as hosting Saturday Night Live. During the five week pre-order window, if a person decided it was the right time to purchase, a Gupta Media supported campaign was running to connect the dots and drive sales. Katy Perry’s album was supported with three instant grat songs that became available upon pre-order. In addition, she performed ‘Roar’ at the MTV Video Music Awards, with fans then able to pre-order the album and get the new song, ‘Roar’ instantly.

With longer campaigns, there are usually multiple retailer platforms available for pre-order and purchase. This allows consumers to buy the album at the time they are ready to, at the location they are most comfortable purchasing from.

The standard pre-order build up does have a few drawbacks. It is less likely to have one singular moment to catapult the release and start creating buzz of its own, the way Beyoncé’s surprise release did. People are less likely to be surprised when the album has been at the forefront for months. In addition to this, the media coverage will always be focused on what’s new and fresh at the moment.

Surprise Release: Pros and Cons

When a surprise release is done for a global superstar artist, and it truly comes as a surprise, it can garner the attention of everyone, and create a level of buzz unmatched by a traditional release. This buzz can extend far past the traditional music community and be the center of conversations in various media outlets. The Beyoncé album came out of nowhere and it was instantly the biggest story across the web, on television news, and around the water cooler. Upon release, the album was also backed by a Gupta Media campaign that launched simultaneously in 28 countries, to ensure people who were finding out about it were being driven to purchase. In addition, the album was only available on iTunes, so anyone who wanted to be in the conversation didn’t have the ability to stream it on Spotify or any other streaming services, likely boosting initial sales. The album became one of the biggest of 2013, selling 1.3 million copies in its first 17 days.

Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, also used a shortened announcement to release his album “Magna Carta Holy Grail.” The album was announced via a commercial in an NBA playoff game with no singles released ahead of time, and no major appearances from Jay-Z. A Gupta Media campaign was initiated on July 4th, surrounding the exclusive release to Samsung users and the general album pre-order.

The biggest downside to the surprise release is the risk element. If the surprise doesn’t take off, there is no back up strategy. With a pre-order, if the first strategy doesn’t take off as well as planned, there are additional options to try to see what moves the needle. A surprise release is also more likely to include some sort of exclusivity, which can alienate core fans who would prefer to purchase from another retailer. It is important to note that the surprise element needs to be used with a big name star, if a developing artist attempts this, it is likely that it won’t generate enough buzz to drive a successful campaign.

Both Pharrell and Kid Cudi have found ways to mesh the two approaches. Pharrell made a surprise release of his pre-order which would only run for two weeks. So, in the span of two weeks, the album went from being unknown to being released, but still had time to build pre-order numbers and for him to make appearances. Pharrell’s album pre-order was also supported by a Gupta Media campaign running both domestically and in many territories throughout the world. Kid Cudi, hinted at his album on Twitter, saying it would be coming in the near future as well as leaking the track list, but the album itself still came as a surprise.


For a safer, less risky option, a longer pre-order window allows for many opportunities to reach fans and allow them to buy the album when and where they would like to. Meanwhile, while surprise releases are a bigger risk, they create one chance to make a splash and hope that it takes off. Both options saw great results in 2013 and we are excited to watch the trends that continue to unfold moving forward.

Joe Schlesinger
Written By:
Account Director
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