Owl City is releasing new music this fall and unironically, with my whole heart, I am thrilled. When Adam Young, the creator and lead singer of Owl City, announced via Instagram on June 23 that “new music, a new tour, and new merchandise” would soon be dropping, I was immediately anticipating further announcements.
I should have known better.
Owl City’s next Instagram post was as cryptic as it can get: Set on a beach, a black case that contains a sonar system is scanning and flashing the letters x and y along with an obscure math equation. The opening line of the post is “Want to play a game?” which, to be honest, I don’t. I want an album — still want one, because we’re still waiting — and I want it served on a silver platter. I want an email or a Tweet that says “Hey, here’s the album!” but no. Instead, I was forced to relearn math and start solving puzzles. In fact, I’ve had to solve a lot of puzzles in recent years because musicians seem increasingly bent on making me toil for their albums, and I just really, really need to figure out why.
Let’s start with the basics: What is an ARG? I’m glad you asked. ARG is the acronym for “alternate reality game.” These games are interactive narratives spread over various plot threads that are ultimately completed by several players or participants, and they are discovered and told using various platforms, mediums and modern digital technology. They typically employ puzzles, coding and secrecy to keep players engaged and create communities surrounding them. Additionally, ARGs don’t usually present or identify themselves as games — when the point is immersion and reality is used as a medium, ARGs don’t want to be too obvious with their intentions. They’re historically free of cost and used to promote other products: see “Find 815” in relation to “Lost,” “I Love Bees” for “Halo 2” or, y’know, the ARGs that support albums.
In 2007, American rock band Nine Inch Nails worked with ARG studio 42 Entertainment to produce a promotional ARG for the album Year Zero. The ARG, also titled “Year Zero,” was released in February 2007, and the album followed in April. The game takes place in “a future in which a fundamentalist American government causes the end of the world.” A resistance group in the game sends government information to Nine Inch Nails fans in the past to help them save the future. The narrative was advanced using websites, codes and even information given out at live Nine Inch Nails events. The band was among the first to employ this promotional tool for music, and fans continued to interact with the ARG years after “Year Zero”’s release. Most of the game’s elements are now obsolete in their age, but their use proved the cultural impact and longevity of ARG marketing.
ARGs are still used today; Alternative rock band Twenty One Pilots is no stranger to ARG marketing, which they’ve executed with outstanding popularity and publicity. In 2018, the duo began posting cryptic images, URLs and letters on their various platforms. Reddit user jakedello first discovered this URL on the Twenty One Pilots store bearing a strange warning to keep the site and message secret. Codes and URLs continued to pop up, introducing characters and places such as Clancy and Dema as fans unfolded more of the ARG. This was ultimately a teaser and narrative for their fifth studio album Trench (released in 2018), but the ARG continued into 2020 with a cryptic live stream that would become the catalyst for the ARG surrounding their single “Level of Concern” and ensuing album, Scaled and Icy. The narrative was still active as recently as March 2022, and manages to make waves among the band’s fans as entire Reddit threads, Discord channels and research documents have been devoted to solving the narrative and anticipating new music.
So, Twenty One Pilots and Nine Inch Nails used ARGs pretty successfully. I’m sure that there are plenty of other examples of ARG music marketing that I’m unaware of, but my editors have to limit my word count. Still, it would be rude of me to tease you with Owl City at the beginning and not deliver. When the news of the new album and ARG broke, I, like any decent journalist, jumped on Discord. I knew I wouldn’t have the time or skills to follow the narrative myself, so I joined an Owl City ARG server to keep up with the narrative as best I could.
As far as this article goes, I’m not as concerned with the particulars of the ARG as I am with its impact and following. The Discord server itself has been visited by thousands of people, based on the emoji reactions to posts in the “rules” channel, and as of writing this, the original Instagram announcement boasts over 16,000 likes. While these aren’t astronomical numbers in the modern social media landscape, they are substantial enough to hint at the fact that there is some engagement success to be found in ARG marketing.
But that still doesn’t answer my initial question: Why am I suddenly seeing an uptick in this publicity tactic? You don’t need me to tell you about traditional marketing strategies. It’s billboards, radio broadcasting, print advertisements and events. You also probably don’t need me to tell you about digital marketing tactics, either. It’s emails, social media, apps and online engagement. And if there’s one thing we’ve discussed today, it’s engagement. It’s fair to say that most people, especially young people who are more likely to be fans of artists like Twenty One Pilots and Owl City, use online platforms such as Instagram, Twitter or Reddit to some extent. Interacting with a brand’s — or musician’s — social media posts boosts their visibility both inside and outside their following. They quite literally force audiences to engage by sending them on code-cracking, mystery-solving adventures that require a hands-on approach if one wishes to be the smartest, most dedicated fan.
This engagement, though, is usually part of a larger, social media-focused plot to increase awareness around new releases. And who could blame the musicians? In a world where online presence and virality are increasingly important to real-world success, especially in the music industry, I get it. I understand the mad dash for audience engagement that seems essential to the success of an album or single. Building hype — cringe — is necessary in our fast-paced digital world of endless scrolling and consumption, and it seems musicians have just found a new way to do it.
My annoyance with the use of ARGs has certainly ebbed because, even as I write this, I’m wondering how this article will do in terms of engagement and how I might promote it even if I don’t know how to design an entire video game. I don’t mind my favorite bands’ attempts to increase their success, and from an artist’s perspective, I also understand the desire to broaden one’s horizons and do something new and exciting rather than use the boring promotional tools of the past. Because, honestly, ARGs are cool, man.
I’m fascinated by their use and how immersive they can be but, with the immediacy of the modern world, I find myself wanting albums and wanting them now. I recognize ARGs as valuable art, but I struggle to undertake the task the artist demands of me for something as major as an album because I’m used to having art at my fingertips. Or, maybe I’m just not big enough of an Owl City fan. Still, if they’re going to string out a marketing campaign, I applaud them for making it interactive and so meticulously crafted. What I do mind is not having a new Owl City album yet. Adam, if you’re reading this, you announced new music in June. Cinematic came out in 2018. It’s been four long years, Adam, please, for the love of God, release something.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.