From flash drives in public toilets to sucking the blood out of Coldplay, these are the record drops worth remembering
At the end of January, the US East Coast was hit by a blanket of snow. As people crowded into bus shelters and subways to get out of the blizzard, a handful of shivering commuters spotted a flyer advertising practical dating advice:
“Nervous about making the first move? Call (804) 409-4451 for kissing lessons…”
Of the few that read it, fewer still actually tore off a strip and dialled the number. Whatever they might have been hoping to hear, the message on the end of the line was a rolling recording of Lucy Dacus’ new single, ‘Kissing Lessons’ – a slice of viral marketing so covert that only a few brave/bored/lovesick New Yorkers ever got to hear it.
Unsurprisingly, it worked. Within hours, the stunt had been picked up by the world’s music press and the buzz for the new track was louder than ever. It’s not the first time something like this has been tried either – with conventional album releases looking positively boring next to some of the wilder drops that have caught us off guard over the years. Here we round up the best, the boldest and the most unusual album releases in history…
The time Nine Inch Nails left their album in a public toilet
If you found a USB flash drive in a toilet at a gig, would you pick it up? If you picked it up, would you plug it into your computer? Betting that at least one of his fans wouldn’t care about hygiene or malware, Trent Reznor recorded an MP3 of ‘My Violent Heart’ and left it in the men’s room stalls at a show in Lisbon – doing the same thing with other tracks at other gigs until the rest of Year Zero, err, trickled out. Expanding the album onto viral websites, alt-reality video games and pre-recorded phone messages (all teased separately through audio static messages that needed to be decoded with a spectrogram), Reznor went all out on Year Zero, never going back to conventional album drops ever since.
The time the Flaming Lips baked an album into a human heart
Not sure what to buy for Valentine’s Day? You can’t go wrong with chocolate. Or a mix tape. Or maybe something with a heart on it. Even better, why not combine all three with the Flaming Lips’ 2013 EP Love Songs, released exclusively on a USB flash drive that was cooked into the middle of a human heart made out of 72% South American chocolate. If they’re not into that, you could always gift the band’s infamous Gummy Song Fetus that was put out on another USB drive inside a life-sized edible unborn jelly baby, or Gummy Song Skull, that was encased in a jelly brain inside a jelly human skull (or maybe save those for Christmas…).
The time the Flaming Lips made a record out of Coldplay’s blood
When you’ve already released an album as an edible baby, you really need to think outside the box for your follow-up. Wanting something special for Record Day 2015, Wayne Coyne collaborated with all his favourite artists on The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends, and he asked them all to donate samples of their own blood so he could bake their DNA into the vinyl itself. If you had a spare $2,500 at the time, you could buy a hand-delivered copy of a record that contained actual bits of Nick Cave, Ke$ha, Erykah Badu or Chris Martin.
The time Radiohead broke the music industry with an honesty box
“Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days…” If you were a Radiohead fan back in 2007, it was the news you’d been waiting to hear since 2003’s In Rainbows. If you worked at EMI, probably not so much. Publicly feuding with the record label for years, Radiohead celebrated the end of their contract by self-publishing In Rainbows on their own website, inviting fans to download it for whatever they thought it was worth. Some paid nothing. Some paid a single penny. A few even paid thousands. While a furious music industry quickly called the experiment a failure, the band claimed that presales (and their 100% profits…) made it one of their most successful albums to date.
The time U2 hacked everyone’s iPhone
On September 9, 2014, 500 million people suddenly owned U2’s new album, Songs Of Innocence. Unveiled as part of the new iPhone 6 launch during an Apple industry event, the album was automatically added to everyone’s iTunes account for free – provoking joy, anger and a lot of confusion around the world. It wasn’t “free” exactly, since Apple CEO Tim Cooke paid the band a ton of money for the exclusive rights to hand it out to anyone and everyone for a few weeks, but the stunt still felt like Christmas morning for U2 fans. Non U2-fans, of course, have been trying to figure out how to remove it from their phones ever since…
The time Aphex Twin leaked his own album on the dark web
It all started so well. Bigging up his new album, Syro, in 2014 – Aphex Twin did all the usual marketing stunts that PRs love, including graffitiing a cryptic logo outside New York landmarks and flying a big blimp over London. And then he put a link to the new track listing on the dark web. Posting a Tor link that no one with a mildly respectable search history wanted to go anywhere near, Aphex Twin left his album launch in the hands of the pirates. To make things worse, he then started “leaking” his new tracks all over SoundCloud, claiming that he’d been hacked. We still don’t for sure if he was telling the truth or not…
The time Prince started selling The Daily Mail
Starting his own record company in 1994, Prince put out a whopping 32 albums on his NPR label – including several that didn’t have a distributor. How do you get your album to as many people as possible without any help? You stick it on the front of a newspaper of course, with 2007’s Planet Earth included as a covermount on The Daily Mail in the UK, and 2010’s 20Ten going out in the Daily Mirror. Anyone expecting to collect their next Mail voucher for a free copy of the new Catherine Cookson must have been thrilled.
The time Jack White released a load of balloons
Jack White hates the internet. Obsessed with recording his albums on the most analogue equipment he can find, and still prone to sending out press copies on vinyl, White decided to release ‘Freedom At 21’ the old-fashioned way – tying phonograph records to a 1000 helium balloons and letting them loose over Nashville. In case you’re worried about the environmental impact, Third Man Records included a handy postcard with the balloons so that anyone who caught one could report the find. Unfortunately, only about 10% were ever found – leaving around 900 copies of the Blunderbuss opener still tangled up in bird’s nests on Tennessee rooftops.
The time Mos Def wore his own album
Everyone knows musicians make their money from the merchandise, but Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) went a step further in 2009 by releasing The Ecstatic as a T-shirt. Sticking the album artwork on the front, the track listing on the back, and a tag with a downloadable MP3 code on the collar, Mos Def literally let his fans wear his new record – leading to enough merch stand sales that Billboard had to factor in the clothes sales as album units on their official charts. Ten years later, Bey went even more abstract for the release of Negus, deciding to let the album stand as a moving museum sound installation that will never get a physical or digital release.
Catch Lucy Dacus live in March 2022, with dates throughout the UK available here.