Sipping on soda and munching on fries, Lorde released the much-anticipated dates for the release of her new song when a cryptic 15-second ad aired on TV on Monday night. And while it set off a frenzy of speculation on what the mysterious M*******A on the accompanying website could mean (Metallica? Macadamia? An ode to the Devonport shores of Minnehaha?), it’s interesting to note that the ad was broadcast on the somewhat surprising medium of prime time New Zealand television.
In between Shortland Street's soap opera scandals and 7pm's post-news hour song and dance, the now-20-year-old singer-songwriter’s ad was noticed by more than a few attentive observers as it later made the rounds online.
Dropping cryptic video teasers might be pretty run of the mill nowadays, but doing it on TV can be a little less unorthodox. Back in 2015, Adele deployed a similar tactic when a 30-second trailer from the song 'Hello' was played during a commercial break for X Factor UK. In 2013, Daft Punk did a similar thing, hyping up fans with a short clip from 'Random Access Memories' during an episode of Saturday Night Live.
"It was the antidote to the complexity of modern music marketing," said Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst commenting on the Adele teaser at the time "They said 'we're not going with something fancy - no bombastic video or things like that'."
Bombastic is certainly far from what we're seeing from Lorde so far. After all, the 20-year old's appeal rests heavily on differentiating herself from the shiny perfectionism of other musicians her age. When Miley Cyrus swings from a wrecking ball or Ariana Grande fights off intergalactic aliens, Lorde sings about being "kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air" instead.
James Hurman wrote in StopPress back in 2013 that one of the impacts of the internet on the music industry is to reduce the dominance of top-down, marketing-driven hits. He wrote that when Lorde's first EP was released for free online, it was "deft recognition that...any brand needs first to prove its legitimacy to a consumer who is wholly sceptical". By making 'The Love Club' available on Spotify for no cost at all, it bypassed the traditional commercial model which Lorde—who's been signed to Universal Music since age 13—had more than readily available at her disposal.
Now, she's taking a markedly different approach with this TV teaser, which in turn begs the question—what's changed since then? Once a little-known musician branded with cliches like 'a breath of fresh air' and 'a rising star', Lorde's mythological status has gone beyond such quaint descriptions. Now, she's a Grammy-award winning artist, partying with Taylor Swift and co., collaborating on her own make-up lines and basking in the glory of her 4.6 million Instagram followers. It's been almost four years since she released 'Pure Heroine', and her name's more or less become a household name beyond the classrooms of Takapuna Grammar.
It might be why this time Lorde's ditching her under-the-radar tactics and taking a page out of Adele's marketing playbook instead. After all, there are similarities: both musicians started nurturing their talents from a young age (Lorde by Universal and Adele by BRIT School), both debuted songs in their late teens ('Royals' at 16 and 'Hometown Glory' at 19), both differentiate themselves from the rest of the pop star crowd (a cool whimsy from Lorde and an emotional earnestness from Adele), and both have released albums taking three or four years in the making.
With so much anticipation already leveraging any potential release, artists like Adele and Lorde realise that even the slightest snippet of any new work—wherever it might turn up—would put them squarely back into the centre of conversation. It's minimalist marketing at its finest, and all Lorde really had to do was eat food in a car.
While many were surprised Lorde would launch her first teaser on TV (let alone in New Zealand with Mike Hosking on one channel, Jesse Mulligan one the other, and Chris 'Is-That-Your-Penis' Warner sandwiched in-between), it helps to look at the tactic as part of a wider, multichannel strategy. After all, the success behind Adele has largely hinged on the way fans in the mainstream audience have been reached out to in a variety of ways, ranging from her Facebook post to the mysterious commercial to an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
If the tactics sound familiar, it's because we're virtually reliving the exact experience this week. After the cryptic teaser aired on TV, Lorde tweeted out a link to her millions of followers to a website featuring the same video from TV (the website later featured two more mysterious teasers which were only aired online). On Wednesday night, Lorde (or more accurately, her Universal marketing team) ran an impromptu experiential campaign in the heart of Auckland city to announce the name of her first single. And to top it off, Lorde is set to make an appearance later in the month on—surprise, surprise—Saturday Night Live.
auckland thank you so much for coming out last night.. pic.twitter.com/2AYtggOpGc— Lorde (@lorde) March 1, 2017
But if Lorde has so far followed the same marketing trajectory as Adele, where does this leave the Spotify question? Adele, along with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, is a self-confessed streaming sceptic who's fallen in and out of love with the company over the last few years. She initially withheld '21' and '25' from streaming on the platform, with the albums only becoming available months after they were first released. Taylor Swift did a similar thing a few years ago when she pulled her catalogue from Spotify and convinced Apple to pay royalties during trials of its streaming service.
However, the idea of Lorde restricting access to her songs on Spotify seems highly unlikely. After all, her rise to Billboard fame was largely boosted by the fact Sean Parker (aka Napster co-founder and former Facebook president) added 'Royals' to his influential Spotify playlist called 'Hipster International'. Six days after it was added, the song debuted on the Spotify Viral Chart, eventually crawling up to the number one spot. And while the appeal of both Lorde and Adele spans numerous demographic groups, Lorde boasts a core group of millennial fans since she is, after all, eight years younger with songs that touch on a distinctly teenage nihilism. And as the most streamed Kiwi artist and fourth most streamed artist in the the whole country, this last move seems somewhat unlikely.
Ultimately, both Lorde's debut and comeback are awash with the same sense of mysterious intrigue. Her first releases came out with no clue as to her age, where she came from and what her real name was. The three teasers throughout the week and pop music runaround in Herne Bay last night have slowly built up the arsenal to Universal's best weapon in stock, with 'Green Light' finally debuting on Friday. And if the music career doesn't work out in the long run, at least she's got a future in marketing—she's even got the ad awards to back her up.