Play to Win

Site-specific music promos re-enchant digital music by pitting fans against each other

Early on a Wednesday morning this February, disco balls appeared on the streets of nearly two dozen major cities. They were unremarkable, as far as marooned disco balls go, except that each was firmly chained to a nearby bench or fence and had a headphone jack embedded in its surface. If you plugged in a pair of headphones, you would hear a teaser edit of Katy Perry’s then-unreleased single “Chained to the Rhythm,” playing on loop.

Perry directed fans to these ad hoc mp3 players with an imperative tweet: “Leave your bubble (and bring your headphones),” she commanded, linking her followers to a map that indicated each disco ball’s approximate location. Most were clustered in North America and Western Europe; two made it to Oceania, and one each appeared in Asia and South America. (Fans in Africa and the Middle East would presumably have to stay in their bubble.) Near each disco ball was a sign with a hashtag encouraging fans to tweet their findings, though when people plugged external speakers into the disco balls, as inevitably they would, and shared video in which you could hear the song, Twitter swiftly took the clips down in the name of copyright. The audio was gone, leaving only the hype — nearly 48 hours before anyone could play the song on YouTube.

These promotional techniques, which ask listeners to travel or complete a puzzle, play on the idea that there is something more authentic about augmenting fandom with real-life adventure

This sort of participatory music promotion, which asks listeners to travel to a location or complete a puzzle to uncover information about an upcoming release, is nearly as old as the social internet itself. In 2007, to hype the album Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails left clues for players online and at concerts over several months, exploiting the alternate reality gaming phenomenon popularized by The Beast and I Love Bees, which were developed to promote the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Halo 2, respectively. In 2013, Boards of Canada hid strings of numbers on surprise Record Store Day LPs, kicking off a puzzle that culminated with the announcement of the album Tomorrow’s Harvest. A month later, Kanye West directed fans to 66 street corners and rolled in projectors to screen a close-up video of himself lip-synching “New Slaves” — the first snippet released from Yeezus, to be disseminated by fans via YouTube and Vine.

This year, the trend has resurfaced among major label pop stars. In March, Lorde teased her hiatus-breaking “Green Light” with three installations in Auckland, New Zealand, that played short clips of music and revealed handwritten lyrics on glowing screens, encouraging documentation by phones. Less than a month later, Halsey sent fans to specific locations in cities around the world to unearth gun-shaped USB drives that contained cover art to her forthcoming album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, telling fans to tweet #findmeinthekingdom. 

These promotional techniques ostensibly aim to get fans off the internet and into the world — “out of their bubbles.” They play on the idea that there is something more authentic about augmenting fandom with real-life adventure, rather than passively consuming music online. This seems especially urgent given how cheap and abundant digital music has become, which has made it easy to merely take for granted. IRL installations that tease otherwise unreleased music foreground how they break the flatness of the screen, inviting listeners to engage actively with the experience of discovering music, to dig into the city’s 3-D richness and enjoy the physical presence of their fellow fans. In an Instagram post shared after her scavenger hunt had concluded, Halsey emphasized the excitement, collaboration, and communion her challenge enabled: Today I sent fans worldwide in nine different territories on a hunt … All over the world fans worked together to collect the pieces and reveal the album art. I am so excited for what the future holds and there are many more adventures coming your way.”

But these promotions are not merely about creating an interesting experience for fans. The point seems to be to differentiate individual songs from radio chatter as it becomes more difficult to make any kind of content stand out in endlessly scrolling social streams. New mp3s and dispatches from war zones — or close friends — appear in the same feed, are consumed on the same devices, and compete for what appears to be the same sort of attention.

At the same time, the scavenger hunts attempt to exploit fans’ desire to command some attention of their own. They offer an opportunity to share something exclusive and scarce, something that might attract feedback, shares, and likes. While these promotions try to give fans a rare and engaging experience above and beyond the music, they are also designed to incentivize fans to perform free promotional labor, funneling the aura of the “real” back online to re-enchant the dematerialized music product for sale.

Since the mp3 was devised, there has been nothing to stop a song from approaching infinity. Video, too, can flow, as David Bowie once prophesized, like water or electricity. But for a few hours, Katy Perry’s new song was in 23 disco balls; there were only 23 copies of the song, in the cities selected to host them.

Most people don’t live in cities — 11 New Yorks could fit into Katy Perry’s nearly 100 million Twitter followers. But cities do offer a romantic backdrop that boosts the appeal of whatever product they’re being used to advertise. Katy Perry’s disco balls literally reflected the urban landscape, and while Trent Reznor’s USB drives were unearthed in concert hall bathrooms. Halsey hid hers near the picturesque Romeo and Juliet statue in Central Park. The urban environments into which the artifacts are woven add a veneer of cosmopolitan immediacy to the songs they tease. Finding one means living in an Instagrammable, expensive, and preferably Western city — to hear one means being somewhere.

The discrete location helps frame the music as desirable and rare. And the desire for something unobtainable outranks the desire for songs that can be immediately clicked on and streamed, or worse, added to a queue of readily available and readily ignored tracks. Installation-based promotion, then, is not so much about collective fan experience but the lack thereof: It’s meant to stoke a fear of missing out.

Generating envy is a basic promotional strategy to fight market oversaturation

Now that fandom circulates through social platforms like Facebook and Twitter instead of physical locations like record stores, music’s power as an identity anchor tends to fade in light of the millions of other products clamoring to lay claim to our limited attention. Sharing a photo of a physical experience, like attending a concert or listening to a site-specific disco ball, makes for a stronger expression of identity than sharing a screenshot of a Spotify track that anyone can stream. Instead of choosing which song to click, fans choose to move geographically, to allocate time and effort to the expression of fandom — and inspire envy among fans who feel similarly passionate but lack the resources or proximity to do the same.

Generating envy is a basic promotional strategy to fight market oversaturation. “As fans, it’s difficult to focus, engage and actually savor the music that’s already out there when there’s always something shiny to absorb,” Annie Zaleski wrote in a 2016 essay for Salon. While most album release dates are announced well in advance, a months-long album campaign runs the risks of leaks, distraction, and ultimately exhaustion among fans. So artists like Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé tried the route of surprise releases, creating events more momentous than even a strong campaign could have produced. For a while, as Zaleski noted, “manufacturing instant urgency around an impending release became a preferred marketing tool and a way to grab the attention of the hyper-speed online news cycle.” Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled LP came from nowhere at midnight on a weekend near the winter holidays, immediately displacing all other considerations on the timeline; for a moment, she approximated monoculture. With Lemonade in 2016, she was even able to repeat the trick.

For top-tier artists like Beyoncé, it’s not enough for an album to sell well. It must drown out all other music in the moment of its release, kicking off the product cycle that begins with 50 minutes or so of music and ends with merchandise and concert tickets. An album is no longer just an album; it’s a gateway to a sequence of lifestyle purchases for fans who define themselves by their consumption of specific marquee artists. More than artists, major label musicians must be fully fledged brands if they’re to sell clothing lines, TV channels, and VIP packages, making up profits for the record companies that used to rely on the sale of physical albums.

As Zaleski pointed out, “listener whiplash,” combined with listening fatigue, makes it that much harder to catch that kind of sustained attention with audio alone. Exclusive in-person experiences, cheap to stage, add social value to unreleased songs. These promotions are designed to cater to the fans who can drop everything to make a pilgrimage to a disco ball, and can in turn broadcast their activities to those who can’t experience them in the flesh. The hashtags associated with each installation make it easy for fans to share photos of their findings in real time, in the hopes that dutifully run fan accounts — or the stars themselves — will amplify their excitement. Perry eagerly retweeted fans’ self-portraits with fashion headphones plugged into her disco balls, encouraging more and more photos to roll in under the hashtag.

By sharing their findings online, urban fans engineer a brand-specific FOMO for those who can’t reach the objects physically. And nothing seems as irresistible as the opportunity to induce FOMO, to be on the inside of an experience perceived as valuable to others looking in on their phone screens. An envy-inducing Instagram feed offers social capital and can secure material benefits for users over time. In what might be the ultimate expression of hype over substance, the organizers of the infamous Fyre Festival paid their Instagram influencers to lure attendees to a nonexistent photogenic island; though the event was billed as a music festival, they neglected to even pay their bands.

Established festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza operate on a similar mechanism. Each fest’s primary purpose is to advertise the next year’s fest; Lollapalooza sells out before its lineup is revealed. People buy tickets to alleviate anxiety about missing it and because relieving that fear of being on the outside looking in on a screen has become as valuable as witnessing any musical performance. 

A destination music event is easy to sell; the music itself is more difficult. By situating song releases in photogenic locations, promoters aim to refine the mechanism of the music festival to sell a single song inside an experience. Installation-based promotion can claim to “release” social media users from the grip of their screens, offering rare, exclusive spectacles more immersive than the experience of hearing a song from one’s laptop would seem to provide. The strategy hints at spontaneity, urgency, and most of all, fun — turning consumption into a competitive form of play. Snapping a photo of a disco ball mp3 player satisfies the same urge screencapping a rare Pokémon once did. The object of consumption is ephemeral, but it can only be consumed at a specific point on the globe.

Amplifying the aura of a song, like any other social media sharing, is valuable promotional labor that fans perform eagerly and for free. Participants don’t only add value to their chosen social platform with their posts; they also add value to the unheard music, which floats as a desired idea before it can be heard and judged. But these tactics leverage the sociality of Western, urban fans against listeners with less geographic priority, splitting fanbases into two tiers: those who can participate in direct events and those who must settle for watching the Instagram stories of the direct participants. The division creates the illusion of scarcity, and the illusion of scarcity seeds the illusion of value. There’s no glamor in giving listeners something they can have. But give a few of them half of what they want, and the rest will want it all.

Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, an analysis of queerness and gender nonconformity in the past century of popular music. Their writing attends to the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology, and has been published in Artforum, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Boston, they now live in Colorado.