Radiohead, Beyoncé and Other Pop Stars Tease Fans With Digital Crumbs

Thom Yorke of Radiohead. The English rockers have had unusual album releases for nearly a decade.CreditChad Batka for The New York Times

Radiohead erases its Internet presence. Beyoncé posts cryptic hints on her Instagram account, then schedules a mysterious hourlong HBO special. The electronic musician James Blake retweets photographs of billboardssuggesting the title of a coming project.

These are the signs and symbols that portend a new album in 2016. 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 bread crumbs that lead to a release.

Over the weekend, Radiohead joined the crowd, gradually removing all signs of its presence online, including its website and social media accounts, before releasing a new single, “Burn the Witch,” and accompanying video on Tuesday.

Catherine Moore, a clinical associate professor of music business at New York University and an expert in strategic music marketing, said the “bread crumbs” strategy was an example of fans’ enthusiastic participation in what used to be considered the business side of the industry.

“Harnessing the sharing, harnessing the excitement and enthusiasm of the first to see the next bread crumb is really exciting for fans,” Dr. Moore said.

“People talk about user-generated content — user-generated distribution is just as important,” she added.

Photo
Beyonce performed during the Formation world tour in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday.CreditDaniela Vesco/Invision for Parkwood Entertainment, via Associated Press

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 it had also taken before the release its past two albums. Additionally, in advance of Radiohead 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, though 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 days after the world was informed of its existence. Its 2011 album, “The King of Limbs,” was released on even shorter notice after it was announced.

Many major artists have diverged from the conventional cycles of album promotion and release over the past decade. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails released its album, “Ghosts I-IV” online with no warning. In December 2013, Beyoncé 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.” Beyoncé said in a news release at the time.

Dr. Moore said that the turn away from conventional marketing was inevitable after iTunes began to gain traction early in the previous decade, taking away control of retail distribution away from 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.

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Though many listeners now prefer streaming services over iTunes, the marketing experimentation persists.

The lead-up to the release of Beyoncé’s album “Lemonade” last month was comparable to that of the Radiohead single. She offered obsessive fan 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.

Marc Hogan, a journalist who covers the business for the music website Pitchfork, said that strategy could be seen as a way to reward fans’ attention and loyalty.

“Feeling like you’re in the know about your favorite band makes you feel closer to that band and makes you more excited to check out that record,” he said.

Frequently, hints about new albums come from artists’ collaborators rather than the artists themselves. Those who knew to keep track of the Twitter account of Mr. Blake’s collaborator, Dan Foat, were rewarded when he “liked” a tweet speculating about the artist’s new album

Dr. Moore and Mr. Hogan stressed that innovative release strategies, for the most part, were not an option for artists who have yet to develop the loyal fan bases of a Beyoncé or a Radiohead, or even a major independent artist like Mr. Blake.

“The people who can do these unconventional release strategies are people who have already succeeded the conventional way,” Mr. Hogan said.

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