Entertainment

Arcade Fire's Marketing Machine Rolls Out Reflektor


Arcade Fire performing on Saturday Night Live in September

Photograph by Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Arcade Fire performing on Saturday Night Live in September

If early rumblings are to be believed, Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor, due out on Oct. 29 via Merge Records, might become the band’s most successful release to date. That’s no small feat, considering that its most recent album, 2010′s The Suburbs, made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and won the band a Grammy for Best Album of the Year. Spin said Reflektor “sounds f—— amazing,” Pitchfork put the title track on its “Best New Music” shortlist, and Rolling Stone published a fawning review that compared the band to a slew of musical legends and called Reflektor one of the great “turning-point classics such as U2′s Achtung Baby and Radiohead’s Kid A.”

O.K., so Rolling Stone may be getting a little ahead of itself, but Arcade Fire is about as big as a rock band can get in today’s fractured musical landscape. With the group releasing an album that takes it in a new artistic direction and potentially makes it even bigger, it’s a little strange that such a hotly anticipated record is being promoted with secret shows and sidewalk chalk. In fact, the way the Montreal-based band is rolling out Reflektor says a lot about the way big-name albums are released today.

For years now, musicians and record companies have fretted over the best—and most secure—way to launch new material. Should they leak it? Should they not? More important, how can a band build anticipation for something that’s almost guaranteed to slip out of its grasp before the artists are ready to let it go? Arcade Fire may have an answer to that last question.

Reflektor’s roll-out started in early September, when chalk graffiti cropped up on walls in major cities around the world: London, Sydney, and Chicago, to name a few. Not many consumers could know what the cross-hatched diamond featuring the word “Reflektor” was supposed to mean until the graffito was followed by Arcade Fire posters with the same design. The band also released a 15-second music clip on Spotify and hosted a secret show in Montreal, to which people had to wear costumes or formal garb to get in. When the first single  was released online, no mention was made that some vocals were contributed by David Bowie.

A few weeks later, Arcade Fire performed new songs on Saturday Night Live. Immediately after the show, NBC (CMCSA) ran a 30-minute TV special, directed by Roman Coppola, that included live footage, inter-song vignettes hosted by Michael Cera, and brief cameos by James Franco, Ben Stiller, and Bono. This is the biggest, most traditional part of Reflektor’s campaign, although hiring Michael Cera—a Canadian actor who appeared on such indie hits as the film Juno and the TV series Arrested Development, is still a pretty niche maneuver. Recall that Michael Jackson floated a huge statue of himself down the Thames to promote his 1995 album HIStory.

Other Reflektor promos include teaser trailers and a choose-your-own-adventure style music video in which the viewer’s smartphone, when synced with a computer’s webcam and waved around, could change the way the video unfolded. Arcade Fire will also play a pair of secret shows in Brooklyn, N.Y., this week, again with the mysterious formal wear/costume requirements.

Not every hotly anticipated album has been accompanied by splashy promotions, of course. In 1992, U2 declined interviews and avoided over-promoting Achtung Baby; Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell merely boasted that it was “by far the best record U2 have ever made” before it was released. More recently, Daft Punk doled out bits of information about Random Access Memories, although the single Get Lucky was already dominating the Billboard magazine charts—and stuck in everyone’s head— before the full album release, which lessened some of the mystique.

Reflektor‘s eponymous first single has received nowhere near that airplay. In fact, it’s mired at No. 99 on the Billboard Hot 100, despite the fact that Billboard agrees with Spin and Pitchfork that the new album is “Arcade Fire’s boldest, most sonically adventurous album yet.”

The art of disguising mainstream publicity to look like guerrilla marketing has turned Arcade Fire into the Banksy of music. The roll-out seems casual and effortless (“Tag street corners around the world with our album’s title? Sure, why not!”) but Reflektor‘s music hasn’t yet leaked, which shows just how tightly Arcade Fire’s publicity ship is actually run. As frontman Win Butler recently wrote in a handwritten apology to a Slate writer who complained about a spray-painted Reflektor graffito, “It is sometimes hard to control all the tiny details when you’re doing something on such a large scale.” It’s even harder to do something so incredibly large but make it feel so personal and small. Then again, that’s what Arcade Fire’s music is like, too.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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