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‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ Early Release – Error or Tactic?

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As we discuss in other posts, an instant modern Hip Hop classic dropped last week in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Though it had been set for a March 23rd release date, fans everywhere were surprised when at midnight Sunday the 15th the album became available on iTunes and Spotify. Presently it’s still unclear whether this early release was an intended “surprise” tactic, in line with Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled album, or some kind of error on the part of someone at Interscope Records. The record company wants us all to believe that it was completely intentional, that it was a stunt rather than a mistake. But in following the Twitter feeds of that Sunday night, it didn’t necessarily seem that way. Anthony Tiffith aka “Top”, CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, the label to which Lamar is signed, reacted with surprise and anger with the above tweet that has since been deleted.  This was about 20 minutes after the clean version’s release and 40 mins before the explicit copy was made available.  In response to Top’s anger there was even a wave of support from fans saying they wouldn’t buy the album until its “intended” release date on the 23rd . The story gets stranger as we go back a few hours into March 15th, when at around 6 pm Tiffith tweets:

This post had a string of replies which eventually turned to confusion once the “leak” had been realized. At 12:33 am he tweeted that “This is the kraziest shit ever” and an hour later there were a host of fans having problems with the iTunes pre-order. By morning, though, Top’s twitter feed was filled with messages from fans and fellow musicians, praising the work as an instant classic.

Given the less-than-seamless rollout and Top’s lengthy expression of surprise, the argument for it being an error would seem reasonable. But K. Dot’s own underused Twitter account also adds some cloudiness to the picture.

At 11:22 pm on the 15th he tweeted

referring to Tupac’s landmark album Me Against the World, released that day in 1995. In the replies we can begin to see the first few fans that have noticed the clean version of the album’s iTunes availability and a half hour later Kendrick tweets

This is all before the stroke of midnight and seemingly before Top knows anything is going on. As the CEO gets Twitter-turned up over the next couple hours, the emcee’s only public response is a 12:52 am tweet to

Is it possible that Kendrick made the decision to go early on the album for its connection to an important date in the career of one of his biggest idols? Could he have done so and surprised even the head of his own label? Though it makes for an interesting image of the quiet genius artist truly with his “finger on the button”, saying little but short cryptic texts but making the biggest actual moves, this seems the least likely scenario to me. I obviously know nothing of the working relationship between TDE’s CEO and its flagship artist but it’s hard to imagine Lamar with the desire or the ability to step over Tiffith.  The other two possibilities are more feasible and I’m still unsure which way I think it went down. The sloppiness of the release, with the clean version premiering first, problems with pre-orders and it being removed from iTunes for a period the following morning lends credence to the mistake theory. If the label and record company had been in fact preparing for the early release these would seem unlikely missteps. However, if the clean version’s iTunes drop was the actual error one can imagine TDE and Interscope electing to simply roll out the full release, encountering unforeseen problems such as pre-orders whose date hadn’t been changed.

The other argument, obviously, is that this was a promotional tactic, aimed at capitalizing on some of the biggest hype there will be for a 2015 album. Writer, artist and social activist Banksy is well convinced the rollout was all planned, aimed at both boosting first week sales numbers and making a pre-emptive strike at the villainous online leak. What Banksy believes TDE did so well, both with the early release and the album’s lead-up, was control the flow of information:

K.Dot’s team impeccably teased the one resource that public craves and they knew they had in abundance: information. All they released was the date and the fact that Lamar had an album. That was it. The conjecture began immediately, and continued until the clean version of Butterfly “leaked.” This wasn’t a “surprise” album per se, but it was hardly an “informed” release. Mystery shrouded the entire process and for Lamar and co. that mystery is gold.

Tactic or not, the early release certainly worked to raise the level of hype with both the name of the emcee and the album trending worldwide on Monday morning. They also set a new record for the most single day streams for a new release with 9.6 million, surpassing the record of 6.8 million set by Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late earlier this year. First week sales numbers were published yesterday and without including streams TPAB sold 318,988, landing it at a strong #1 spot on the albums chart.

With a half dozen of these “surprise releases” now having hit the public (Earl Sweatshirt surprise dropped his I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside this week), do they seem to be working to increase sales numbers? Drake’s IYRTITL certainly supports the theory, with the decisions to forgo physical copies altogether and to deliver the album to the label only a week before its release effectively eliminating the capacity for a leak.  It would sell over 500k in its first week.  Beyonce’s 2013 surprise release which was also half videos, sold 617,000 in its first three days ultimately going platinum in less than three weeks.  Is the surprise tactic to credit for these stunning opening sales?  Partially I suppose, but I think there is another element more at work here, one of secrecy and mystery. As the news of a surprise release breaks across social media platforms, there is an excitement to being part of a select group, those in on the secret first. It’s an impulse buy mentality, aimed at the artist’s core fans. With that comes a second excitement in experiencing a new product untainted by the forces of critique and review, an experience that was once far more common. In our instant-information modernity, overbaked analysis often precedes the audience’s consumption, inevitably leading to a lower level of response.  Put another way, each of these releases is truly exciting especially to their core fans, unaware of what musical experience they’re about to undertake, and it is during that anticipation that purchase desire is highest.  With a surprise release an unfiltered, direct-to-consumer line is created, changing from detriment to advantage a resource that, as Banksy put it, “the public craves and they know they ha[ve] in abundance: information.”

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