Under the Influence

Marketing Hit Songs

Just in time for the Grammy Awards, we look at how hit songs are marketed. With music sales in decline, recording artists are turning to surprising and inventive marketing ideas to sell their albums - from the first 24-hour music video to hiding handwritten lyrics in library books around the world.

Just in time for the Grammy Awards, we look at how artists are relying more and more on inventive marketing to sell their music.

Alton Glenn Miller was born in 1904 in Iowa.


Glenn, as he would be called, was given a mandolin by his father when he was a young boy. He later traded it for a horn, and went on to play trombone for his high school band.

In his college years, he would play in a succession of musical groups, but found success in 1938 when his new Glenn Miller Orchestra got their first engagement at a local casino.

The Glenn Miller Orchestra actually had over 70 top ten hits in just a few years. (pbworks.com)

It only took Glenn Miller one more year to hit the big time. Between 1939 and 1942, his orchestra scored an astounding 70 top ten hits.

A feat contemporary artists could only dream of.

With the onset of WW2, Glenn Miller left his musical success behind to serve his country. While in the Air Force, he organized the Glenn Miller Air Force Band, and entertained troops across Europe.

When Glenn Miller was in the service, he conducted the Glenn Miller Air Force Band. (hsac45.com)

One night, on a flight to Paris in 1944, his plane mysteriously disappeared over the English Channel. The plane, and Glenn Miller, were never seen again.

There are two headstones for Glenn Miller - one in Connecticut, and another at the Arlington National Cemetery . (findagrave.com)

The man who had brought a unique swing to big bands was gone at the age of 40.

But three years before his untimely death, the Glenn Miller Orchestra had made their first motion picture.

The movie the Glenn Miller Orchestra made just before he went into the Air Force, co-starring Milton Berle. (doctormacro.com)

The film was called Sun Valley Serenade, and it featured this song:

Chattanooga Choo Choo would become a famous for several reasons.

First, it sold over 1.2 million copies. And second, that milestone prompted RCA Victor to award Glenn Miller with the first ever Gold Record.

Selling one million records was no easy feat back then. But Miller's accomplishment and the Gold Record designation set a new standard that all artists would try to emulate from that point on.

To this day, the music industry still uses one million sales as the sign of a bonafide mega-hit. These days, it's an increasingly difficult feat to accomplish - and last year, only one artist managed to do it.

With the music industry in distress and record sales in a freefall, artists are relying more and more on innovative marketing to sell their music.

From a historic 24-hour music video, to hiding lyrics in libraries, to a band that only released one single copy of their new record – the marketing of hit songs has never had more interesting notes…

Forbes Magazine asked an interesting question last October.

It wondered if 2014 would be the first year in modern history where no recording artist would sell more than a million albums in the U.S.

It looked like that prediction might come true.

Then, sneaking in under the wire before the end of the year, came this record:

Taylor Swift's album entitled "1989" debuted at #1, and sold 1.28 million albums in its first week.

Taylor Swift's record "1989" was the only album to sell over a million copies in 2014. (musictimes.com)

Certifying it as 2014's only million-selling album.

The Recording Industry Association of America, changed its designations in 1976. That year, it stated that sales of 500,000 would receive a Gold Record, and sales of one million would now receive a Platinum Record.

In 2013, only five albums went Platinum.

In 2014, only Taylor Swift reached that mark.

And the number of Platinum singles was down almost 28%.

At the time of this writing, overall digital track sales fell over 12% in 2014. That signals a trend, as 2013 was the first year digital sales had ever seen a decline.

When you look at genre sales, every category was down. From Pop and Rock straight through to Hip Hop.

Clearly, the music business is an industry in trouble.

But just as times of war lead to incredible innovations, the decline of the music business has led to some very interesting marketing ideas.

The biggest hit single of 2014 was Happy by Pharrell Williams.

It went multi-platinum. Which made the music industry very happy.

Prior to Happy, Pharrell Williams was a very successful songwriter and producer. Together with friend Chad Hugo, the duo produced hits for the likes of Britney Spears, Nelly and Snoop Dog. At one point in 2003, it was reported the duo was responsible for one-third of the Billboard 100, and a whopping 43% of the songs played on U.S. radio.

Suddenly… the hits dried up. They didn't have one Top 40 song from 2006 to 2012.

Then, in 2013, two songs Pharrell Williams co-wrote did a little business:

Blurred Lines sold over 5 million copies in just 22 weeks, faster than any other song in digital sales history. Then, he got lucky again.

Get Lucky would stay at #1 for 13 weeks.

Williams also began composing music for movies. He wrote Happy for the Despicable Me 2 film, but the song was just cut number four on the soundtrack.

Pharrell then decided to release Happy as a single from his upcoming solo album, but it got NO airplay. So he figured the track needed a smart marketing idea.

That's when he did something that had never been done before.

He created a 24-hour music video.

Pharrell William's video for "Happy" was the first-ever 24-hour video. (arabia.style.com)

Here is a link to the music video: http://24hoursofhappy.com

It was a hugely ambitious project. First, his team recruited dozens of real people - and some celebrity friends - to dance to the track. Next, they secured permits for multiple locations. And because a 24-hour video had never been done before, the planning had to be meticulous to stay within budget.

When filming started, everybody only got one take, no re-do's. Over the course of the 24-hour video, the 4-minute song played about 360 times.

The video also contained an ingenious interactive clock, so you could click on any specific time of day to see what was happening.

For example, at 5:36am, you can watch Magic Johnson dancing inside his mansion.

At 5:08pm, you can watch actor Steve Carell hilariously singing the song on a school bus.

At 11pm, Pharrell has a great moment dancing with an eleven year old girl at a bowling alley.

The result:

A song that couldn't get any airplay ended up being the first to sell over 4 million copies in 2014. It would go on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide, topping the charts in over 20 countries.

The world's first 24-hour music video has been viewed over 11 million times, and a 4-minute cut-down has been over half-a-billion views, making it one of the most watched of all time.

Proving that a catchy tune supported by some clever marketing can put a song on the map.

When U2 was ready to release its new album, Songs of Innocence, it struck an unprecedented deal.

The new U2 album was marketed with the help of Apple. (wyep.org)

Apple installed U2's album directly into the libraries of 500 million iTunes subscribers.

"Songs of Innocence" was automatically installed into 500 million iTunes libraries. Not everyone was happy about that. (imore.com)

It made sense to U2 – the number of fans willing to pay for music was dwindling, but the band could use this free download as a promotion for their upcoming world tour.

The Apple deal promised more than $100 million dollars worth of worldwide marketing and promotion.

A press release called it the largest album release ever.

But the free album provoked a divided reaction from the iTunes audience.

While many loved the free download, just as many were offended, calling it forced spam. People who weren't fans of U2 resented the fact that they now had U2 in their iTunes libraries.

Others were just shocked by the fact Apple seemed to be acting as a publicist for U2.

Still others complained the download took up valuable storage space on their computers.

Record retailers complained the free download devalued music and hurt their businesses.

Not long after, the band answered fan questions during a filmed interview on Facebook. When one fan asked Bono to never again release an album with an automatic download on iTunes - because it was rude - Bono answered:

For a week after the initial download, nobody could delete the songs. Apple then issued special instructions on how to remove the album.

Apple had to send out special instructions on how to remove the U2 album. (gannett-cdn.com)

But was the marketing idea behind the free download a success?

Apple said a record-breaking 38 million people accessed the album – far more than would have bought or heard the album normally.

There is no doubt the band took some collateral damage with the download. Their next concert tour will determine whether it was worth it.

But it showed the fragile nature of unorthodox marketing ideas. They come embedded with great potential, and great risk. Some of that risk can be mitigated, but damage to a reputation often heals into a permanent scar.

Hip Hop group Wu Tang Clan took a decidedly different approach than U2 when it came to marketing their new album.

Instead of distributing 500 million copies of their record entitled, The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, the band decided to only make and sell only one copy.

You heard right – Wu Tang only made one single copy of their new album.

Of course, it was no run-of-the-mill album design. The group hired an renowned artist to handcraft a beautiful, engraved silver and nickel box. It took three months to make.

Wu Tang Clan hired an artist to create an intricate box out of nickel and silver. (go.com)

The band wanted to treat their release as a piece of art. Like the work of a famous painter – the album will be a one-of-a-kind collector's item.

The intricate box took three months to make. (eurweb.com)

And like a Van Gogh or a Warhol, the price tag will be in the millions.

When Wu Tang announced their single-copy album, it garnered a lot of attention from the press.

The plan was to take the album on a "tour" of museums, galleries and festivals. And charge a $30-$50 admission price.

Visitors would go through heavy security to ensure no recording devices were present, and then would be given headphones to listen to the album's 31 new songs.

And there was one more beat to the story: The album would eventually be auctioned off, and the purchaser could choose to keep the music secret, or release it to the public. If the owner did release it, he or she would only have to pay royalties to the band – not the record company, publisher or producer.

And if the album was bootlegged, Wu Tang would have the name and address of the person with the only known copy.

Part of the band's motive for making one copy was to make a statement – that the digital world and streaming has devalued music – and they wanted people to view songs as art again.

The first goal of all marketing is to pull in attention, and the one-copy album created significant buzz. It also apparently attracted an anonymous, private bid of $5 million to purchase the album after its museum tour.

So - was it a good marketing idea? Well, all that press attention also paved the way for the band's newest album, called A Better Tomorrow. It debuted at #29 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Wu Tang Clan's newest album caught an updraft from the single-copy media buzz of the previous record. (stereogum.com)

And a band that was not on my personal radar, suddenly was.

One of my favourite music marketing ideas of 2014 came from Coldplay.

Coldplay's marketing campaign for "Ghost Stories" was brilliant and simple. (blastmagazine.com)

The band was promoting its new album, entitled Ghost Stories.

Coldplay's "Ghost Stories" album cover. (calvin.edu)

And it came up with an ingenious way to market the launch by creating… a worldwide scavenger hunt.

Coldplay decided to hide Chris Martin's handwritten lyric sheets in libraries in nine countries around the world.

The lyrics were tucked into books that all had a similar theme – ghost stories.

An example of Chris Martin's handwritten lyrics for the new song, "A Sky Full Of Stars" that was found in a library book. (adweek.com)

And one of those envelopes contained a Golden Ticket, giving a fan a free trip to London to see the band perform.

Coldplay then gave out clues on Twitter using the hashtag #lyricshunt.


It didn't take long for smart fans to figure out that MX was Mexico. The "capital idea" suggested the capital Mexico City. The "megalibrary" could only be the huge Vasconcelos Library. "Charlie D" was Charles Dickens, and his "festive spirits" was the book A Christmas Carol which contained ghosts of Christmas past – and the handwritten lyrics.

Another Twitter clue said:

In less than 45 minutes, fans had figured out the "the library where ghosts were famously busted" was the main branch of the New York Public Library, where Ghostbusters was filmed. The book turned out to be Who's Haunting The White House, by Jeff Belanger. And there, hidden in its pages, were the lyrics to a new Coldplay song.

The ninth and very last clue ended up with a unforeseen speed-bump. The clue said:


South African fans instantly knew JHB stood for Johannesburg and a library there that was called Rosebank. But when fans raced to the library, they found the doors locked. It was a public holiday.

So the next day, fans race back to  the library when it opened, and one lucky fan found a book entitled A Treasury of Ghost Stories by Kenneth Ireland, with the Coldplay lyrics tucked inside.

The Golden Ticket, by the way, was found by a fan in a ghost book in Barcelona.

The Golden Ticket was found by a fan in Spain. (Twitter)

It was an ingenious marketing idea, generating a lot of press, and it set Coldplay fans in a tizzy trying to quickly figure out the city, the library location and the book to claim the highly-prized handwritten lyrics and Twitter bragging rights.

It was also a big idea where Coldplay didn't outspend the competition, they simply outsmarted them.

The cost of writing nine lyric pages, inserting them into nine library books in nine cities, and giving out clues on Twitter - was absolutely minimal.

When Coldplay's album Ghost Stories launched, it debuted at #1 in Canada, the UK and the U.S.

As of this writing, it had sold over 750,000 copies in North America, and over two million units worldwide.

Making it one of the biggest hits of 2014.

One of the most recent and ambitious music marketing ideas was employed by Foo Fighters.

David Letterman once introduced the band as a group who has taken care of that nasty Foo problem. (consequenceofsound.com)

The band decided to travel to - and record  - a new song in eight different recording studios in eight different cities.

Foo frontman Dave Grohl also directed an eight-part HBO documentary called Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. The theme of the series was that the city, the recording studio and even the weather in a town influences the way songs are recorded.

The ambitious Dave Grohl-directed HBO TV series "Sonic Highways." (soniaunleashed.com)

In each instalment, Grohl interviewed the seminal musicians from each city, and told the story of the most fabled studio in that town. Then, at the end of each episode, Foo Fighters recorded a new song in that studio.

On top of that, the lyrics to each new song had lines and words taken from Grohl's interviews.

Foo Fighters also played a very rare one-week stand on the David Letterman Show. Letterman happily promoted the new songs and the HBO special. But that only made sense – the production company behind Sonic Highways was WorldWide Pants – owned by David Letterman.

The term "Foo Fighters" is actually an unidentified flying object of a kind reported by US pilots during World War II, usually described as a bright light or ball of fire. (consequenceofsound.com)

The HBO series promoted the album, the album promoted the TV series.

As a result of this marketing idea – which took more than a year to complete – Sonic Highways debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, it was voted the #1 favourite album of the year by Rolling Stone readers, and tickets are selling briskly for Foo Fighters' 2015 concert tour.

Then, in an industry where sales are falling and high-profile marketing is critical to a successful launch, Beyoncé released a new album on iTunes with no advance warning.

No pre-promotion, no advertising, no teaser videos, no award show appearances, no interviews, no marketing - nothing.

What was even more amazing in this age of 24-hour information, there were no leaks of the upcoming release whatsoever.

But on December 13th, 2013, Beyoncé simply announced the new album by saying "Surprise!" on Instagram.

Beyoncé's marketing campaign consisted of one word: "Surprise." (thedrum.com)

In no time, there were over 1.2 million mentions of the new album on Twitter. It sold 80,000 copies in the first three hours, becoming the fastest-selling record in iTunes history.

Not only did the self-titled 14-song album drop out of nowhere, but 17 music videos were also launched simultaneously.

The Beyoncé album went to #1 in 104 countries, and sold 1.3 million copies in its first 17 days in North America

In a world of over-saturation and a data-smog of marketing, Beyoncé marketed her new album… by not marketing.

Someone recently wrote that while millions of fans will always remember the Beatles' Abbey Road, or Springsteen's Born To Run, or Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, no one remembers the marketing campaigns.

So very true. A good marketing campaign is like rocket fuel – it propels an album into the stratosphere - only to be completely burned up and never seen again.

But that liftoff is so critically important.

In an industry that seems to be shrinking daily, all the artists we discussed today used innovative marketing ideas to get massive attention.

Pharrell Williams took a song that was getting NO airplay and catapulted it into becoming the song of 2014.

While U2 suffered the wrath of fans when their new album was downloaded onto 500 million iTunes accounts, Wu Tang generated a ton of publicity by making one, single copy of their new album.

Foo Fighters travelled to eight cities and shot an expensive eight-part documentary series, while Coldplay excited their fan base by simply inserting nine lyric sheets into nine library books in nine cities around the world. Total cost: About nine bucks.

It proves that big marketing ideas come in two prices.

Expensive or Beyoncé…

…when you're under the influence.