In an increasingly single-driven culture, it’s no secret that artists often have to think out of the box just to get people to listen to their music, much less buy it.
John Mayer is the latest in a list of artists to try to burst that box open by releasing his music in an unconventional way, releasing parts of his seventh studio album, The Search for Everything in two, four-song “waves” from the album in January and February.
At first glance, Mayer’s release strategy hardly seems noteworthy, especially compared to flashier approaches like the unexpected dropping of Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth studio album in 2013—one of the first “surprise” album releases. We’re also not super eager to heap praise upon Mr. Mayer, as he’s made super problematic statements in the past that can’t be taken back despite claims that he’s changed his prejudicial, womanizing ways. But the fact is that while Mayer’s album release method might not be extravagant, it’s super effective.
First, let’s take a look at the exposure Mayer’s gotten for his new album. After an artist releases an album, that album is usually widely and frequently talked about for a month or so. at most (varying based on the popularity of the artist). But by releasing his album in parts, it’s as if Mayer released separate, full-length albums—he’s gotten tons of coverage and was invited to perform his new songs on shows like Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen each time he released a new wave.
More Creative Freedom
Releasing the album in sections also gave Mayer the chance to explore different lyrical and musical themes in each of those sections. Although few of us take the time to sit down and listen to entire albums all the way through anymore, some artists—especially the big ones—are often still expected to release albums that are cohesive. Take a record like Lady Gaga’s Joanne—from the cover art to Gaga’s recent public appearances to the songs themselves, fans immediately know what Joanne is supposed to represent, even though the stripped-down “Million Reasons” doesn’t sound anything like the upbeat, frustration-fueled “Perfect Illusion.”
Not to forget Queen Bey (and really, who can?), the same can be said about Lemonade (which was also released unconventionally, via music streaming service Tidal). On a granular, music-only level, “Sandcastles” and “Don’t Hurt Yourself” sound like they could be on different albums altogether, but those two songs as well as all of Lemonade’s other tunes are lyrically and thematically parallel.
The songs on The Search for Everything aren’t nearly as interconnected as the songs on either Joanne or Lemonade, but by releasing the album in chunks, Mayer gave himself more freedom to experiment—Wave One is largely driven by mellow piano melodies while Wave Two is bluesy, guitar-heavy and upbeat. The waves may sound disjointed when put together, but they both sound relatively cohesive on their own.
Future recently did something similar on a slightly larger scale—by dropping two separate and very different releases, FUTURE and Hndrxx a week apart. Future proved that artists don’t necessarily have to tackle just one “type” of music at a time.
And Kanye West, the master of pushing the envelope, challenged the idea that albums have to be standardized and unchanging when he kept tweaking and releasing updated different versions of last year’s The Life of Pablo, referring to the record as a “living breathing changing creative expression” on Twitter.
By dropping four songs at a time instead of 12 or 13, Mayer helped ensure that his fans will hopefully actually listen to The Search for Everything in its entirety. Admit it—even if it’s an artist you adore, there are always a few songs you skip when you decide to listen to one of their albums. Four songs seem a lot less intimidating than a dozen (or two dozen—we’re looking at you, Drake). Would I have listened to “Roll it on Home” more than once if I had 11 other songs to choose from? Probably not. But because of Mayer’s strategy, even I, a staunch country hater, have listened to the twangy tune over and over again.
Sure, The Search for Everything isn’t blowing any chart records out of the water. But I don’t think Mayer’s goal was ever to sell millions of records—despite his oft-dishevelled appearance, I sincerely doubt that the guy responsible for smash hits like “Daughters” and “Your Body Is A Wonderland” is desperate for cash. And based on how genuine and introspective Mayer’s sounded when talking about Search songs in the press, right now he cares more about his music being heard, not sold. “I want to leave the Earth as a writer,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to stoke the fire of abstraction and just start punching hard.”
If other, poppier artists adopted Mayer’s strategy, the possibilities could be endless. Bebe Rexha clearly sees the upside of releasing an album in parts, as she dropped the six-track All Your Fault: Pt. 1 in February and is set to release Pt. 2 in April. And the multi-segment release could have even been applied to albums that already had creative releases; what if The Life of Pablo had been released section-by-section? Or U2’s Songs of Innocence? Or Frank Ocean’s Endless?
Even though Mayer has said some seriously questionable things in the past, we’ve got to give credit where credit is due. The strategies Kanye and co. adopted captured people’s attentions, but The Search for Everything suggests that the best way to get fans to actually listen is to break it all up, and leave listeners wanting more.