14 October 2019, Paulista metro station, São Paulo, Brazil. A metro media install crew stand back and admire their work with pride, having just put the finishing touches on an early-morning poster install that would soon form part of a top-secret co-ordinated global teaser campaign. All was well, it seemed, with the cryptic 1910s vintage-styled image sitting in perfect contrast to the modern station's backdrop.
Coldplay's 'November 22, 1919' teaser poster was found at the Paulista metro station in São Paulo.... On the Yellow line.... ?? pic.twitter.com/9spbYKx4pd— ColdplayXtra (@coldplayxtra) October 15, 2019
The only trouble is – they are two days early. Despite being removed within the day, there was still enough time for fan sites, social media and journalists around the globe to pick up on the mysterious teaser campaign. News of Coldplay’s forthcoming album was out. By the time similar images had appeared across the world in cities such as Berlin, Hong Kong, Madrid and Sydney a few days later, theories and speculation had already taken flight and were spiralling. It seems the "accidental" early reveal hadn’t hurt one bit.
Today, Coldplay release their much-anticipated eighth studio album, Everyday Life, following a teaser campaign reminiscent of a time we thought was long gone in music-industry marketing – and maybe that's the point.
The breadcrumb and Easter-egg-filled campaign has seen the band leverage the best of what both digital and analogue channels have to offer, with social media teasers making mainstream news and traditional media moments quickly going viral.
But does this ambitious world-building signal a return to the epic and ambitious album launches of the late 1980s and early 1990s? Or suggest a direct response to the disposable nature of "surprise Spotify album drop" culture? Or does it simply represent another example of culture (and marketing) coming full circle, recognising that digital is at its most powerful when it has tangible analogue experiences to feed it?
It's all so easy now
We get it – times and culture have changed. Mostly in amazing and interesting ways. But no-one can, hand on heart, say that an Instagram post of an album sleeve with a caption saying "Stream my new album now on Spotify" represents evolution in what was once one of the most inspiring and creative corners of marketing.
At our most optimistic, we could look to the joined-up and user-centric experience of seeing the news on your feed as you go into the Underground on your Friday commute, opening Spotify, grabbing a scarce bit of Wi-Fi on your journey and being three songs into a new release by the time you emerge from your destination station.
It could also be perceived as an almost audacious show of strength on the part of some artists to see how easily they can bend global audiences to their will with a single "OUT NOW" social post. Who could blame them when, for the select few, the marketing ROI on one social post has proven to be a number one record in multiple countries?
Music, like much of culture, has become a transient and disposable game with even "flavour of the month" being replaced by "flavour of the moment". You only need to look to the fact that the past 12 weeks have seen 12 different albums top the UK chart to see this at play. Why? Because artists are increasingly driven to play to "opening weekend" rules, with little incentive to "work" the project before or beyond its release.
This is why the efforts of global music brands such as Coldplay, Kanye West and Harry Styles to invest in world-building around their releases while still tapping into the immediacy and scale offered by digital represent a marathon mentality that, in the case of West and Coldplay, has seen them enjoy a rarified level of success for almost 20 years.
When you’ve played every stadium, pub, arena and student union in the world, collaborated with the biggest artists of your generation, gone to places and done things you never thought possible, there is something inherently impactful in going back to basics.
Car boot sales and cryptic clues
With Coldplay’s decision to announce their album tracklist via a series of local newspaper ads across the UK, they knew that it would take only a couple of superfans to carry news of the imminent release's details from the North Wales Daily Post to an awaiting global audience.
When Styles' teaser campaign went live on billboards around the world in October, with the simple message "DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE" and no mention of his name, it equally took no time for the global rumour mill to start turning of his return to music. How did he amplify this? An understated yet very intentional move – tweeting the word "DO" – passively confirming what avid fans had already sussed out, thereby causing a frenzy.
Do— Harry Styles. (@Harry_Styles) October 5, 2019
Democratisation of music distribution in the past 10 years has had a twofold effect; the lower barrier to entry has led to increasingly higher weekly release volumes, with a reported 40,000-plus new tracks being released on Spotify daily. More significantly, a dual economy of artists now exists, separating those who rely on the platform's promotional support for success and those who can afford to create success by driving people to platforms via the scale of their own marketing efforts.
The question is, with this level of influence at their fingertips, what’s the incentive for major artists to invest in world-building? Could it be that, just like any other brand, artists and their teams are too busy balancing real meaning and the evolving needs of audiences who favour convenience and instant gratification to creatively think long term?
Even among the biggest and most prominent artists, a version of the golden rule still applies. You have to be seen to be popular, and popular to be seen, otherwise you risk your newest project being yesterday’s news before even being noticed. Bands such as Coldplay are now seasoned players in this game and seem to have fun playing it.
This year, the recorded music industry is set to continue into a fifth year of growth, following more than a decade of decline. If this, combined with increased competition, leads to a new wave of inspired creativity and storytelling in music marketing as a side effect, long may it continue.
Mike Dowuona is managing director of Crush