Beyoncé rewrote the music industry’s rules when she dropped her eponymous 2013 album out of the blue—with zero promotion and in December, generally deemed a no-fly zone for new releases. In one fell, counterintuitive swoop, hers became the only record that mattered. A year and a half later, pop stars and their marketing teams are still struggling to come up with ways to capture the public’s ear quite so thoroughly.
The list of artists subsequently said to have “pulled a Beyoncé,” as such stealth releases have been called, includes Coldplay, *NSYNC, Bruce Springsteen, Kid Cudi, Neil Young, Madonna, Lorde, the Arctic Monkeys, D’Angelo, Drake, and—most recently—Kendrick Lamar. Taylor Swift stuck to a traditional release schedule for her 1989, but she broke the mold in different ways, inviting fans to listening sessions at her home and serving as New York City’s semi-official tourism ambassador. (That down-home image helped her to become the top-selling artist of 2014.)
Still, the ante has been upped, and with album sales continuing their long, steady decline, every conceivable attention-getting gimmick is now fair game in the quest to win pop fans’ hearts and minds, if not their wallets. (The rise of streaming, meanwhile, has enshrined the album format for at least a little while longer.) The electronic dance music guru Skrillex hid his debut, Recess, as a bonus level in a free video game. Aphex Twin floated a blimp over London to announce his unexpected comeback, Syro. And U2, with a little help from Apple, snuck Songs of Innocence into our iPhones as we slept. Whoever pulls the next truly successful Beyoncé (and it may well be Beyoncé), one thing is for sure: We won’t see it coming.