The unannounced album
The title of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is poetic.
Though it was an unannounced mixtape (as stated in the handwritten credits), it qualified as an album in his contract with Cash Money Records due to its appearance on iTunes. He fulfilled his four album contract with them and released himself from their financial control. This allows Views From the 6, the official album that fans anticipated Drake would release this year, to now be completed under his own label with Cash Money unable to do anything about him leaving.
The speculation is that this could be personal. Label partner and long-time friend Lil Wayne continues to be engaged with Cash Money co-founder Bryan “Birdman” Williams in a public feud that includes a $51 million lawsuit. This is related to a lack of compensation for previous albums and the label’s refusal to release Tha Carter V. A sudden release was the best way to prevent resistance to Drake’s efforts to leave. The ransom art style of the album cover and credits could be a reference to Lil Wayne stating that he felt like a “prisoner” on the label. No one related to Cash Money Records studio is mentioned in the mixtape’s credits. Releasing it for free on Drake’s OVO label Soundcloud for a period of time is also telling of its intent.
While this mixtape in particular is an engaging case study individually, the act of suddenly releasing an album with minimal anticipation has become increasingly more popular throughout the industry. Drake’s instance appears to be far more politically and personally focused than the norm. It is worth noting that the mixtape still debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart by selling 535,000 units in three days. This is in spite of it being a mixtape instead of an album, only being available digitally, being available for free for a period of time, without notice or direct marketing.
This trend of releasing entire albums or mixtapes without notice can be traced to when Death Grips released No Love Deep Web back in October of 2012. A website was set up to which their Twitter and Soundcloud linked to. It was also distributed through BitTorrent. Coincidentally parallel to Cash Money’s situation with Tha Carter V, the album was in protest of the unwillingness of their label, Epic Records, to release the No Love Deep Web for another year.
The group’s next sudden release, Government Plates on Nov. 13, 2013, did not have any clear reasoning behind its motive. Beyoncé released her eponymous album a month later with a nearly identical plan of no prior announcement or promotion and with videos for every track. Variations of this have been done since, and particularly within the last few months for various reasons. D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years was released with three days between the announcement of a release date and it coming out. Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes and Ratking’s 700 Fill were also surprise releases through BitTorrent. Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü was released and performed in the middle of their continuous 24-hour online DJ set. Kanye West has already stated that his album for 2015, So Help Me God, will have a surprise release date.
Artists are willing to embrace this mainly to prevent leaks. In Drake’s case, letting others know about the mixtape would have ruined any personal intention with its release, and most likely would have been met with resistance from Cash Money. In more conventional cases, this is a topic of piracy and money.
The typical announced album has to adjust after the fact either by ignoring them, releasing the album early, or through album streams. Björk’s 2015 album Vulnicura was an extreme example of this in that the album was officially released two months earlier than scheduled in response to an early leak. Early album streams, most popular on NPR’s “First Listen” series, allow artists to gain publicity while embracing the effects of potential leaks by allowing access to the music in advance of release. None of these options are optimal.
This also prevents marketing fatigue. Views From the 6 had been speculated about for a long time, but the addition of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’s surprise factor aided in its release. The difficulty of maintaining anticipation and marketing for an album over the course of months cannot be understated. It is even harder to embrace with the threat of leaks ruining it. Different sites, media sources, and fans will provide the publicity for an artist anyway for a surprise drop.
While If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is not an original way to release an album anymore, it provides evidence for and represents how effective surprise releasing an album is. Artists are unlikely to be as personally motivated as Drake’s situation with Cash Money Records. That does not mean a lack of personal beef will prevent this newer form of album release from continuing to gain traction and becoming more popular in all genres of music. This method makes sense both in artist-related preferences and in financial terms for the label. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is only a small piece of a much larger industry change.