Paul McCartney optimistically seized the COVID-19 quarantine measures as an opportunity for a “Rockdown,”1 which led to the creation of his solo album McCartney III (2020). This album followed in the tradition of its self-titled predecessors, McCartney (1970) and McCartney II (1980), by being almost entirely self-produced. With a strategic marketing campaign conducted under strict lockdown measures, McCartney III had one of the most successful vinyl album rollouts of all time.

McCartney’s team deployed a series of gamification tactics to promote the album, with a specific focus on vinyl sales. Gamification refers to strategies that “influence, engage, and motivate individuals, groups, and communities to drive behaviors or generate the desired effect.”2 For McCartney III, these methods were directed toward his online fan base through a series of hints that were dropped to generate interest in the new album. McCartney’s grand marketing tactics are not new; yet the specific set of circumstances surrounding the pandemic meant that each gesture had to be effective in the virtual and socially distanced realms. This essay will focus on the lucrative surge in vinyl sales for McCartney III created by the use of covert clues, special edition vinyl, and the “#12DaysofPaul” music murals.

In order to analyze the successful vinyl campaign, it is essential to consider the gamification strategies that hooked the consumers into the then-forthcoming product. In October 2020, dice emojis were added to McCartney’s usernames on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Animated teasers were also added to McCartney’s Spotify tracks; they depicted a die rolling over the top of a McCartney album cover, landing on the number three. He then posted a series of three photos at 33 minutes past the hour: three mushrooms, a McCartney Rose, and three sprigs of lavender. These clues generated fan discussion through the channels of social media on the symbolic importance of each hint. Therefore, the implementation of McCartney’s digital “Easter egg hunt” effectively engaged his online fan base by creating a sense of community and expectation.

The official announcement of McCartney III was issued by the label releasing the first of the album’s several vinyl editions, Jack White’s Third Man Records, which extended the opportunity to pre-order the 333 Edition, “limited to 333 copies on yellow-with-black-dots vinyl created using 33 recycled vinyl copies of McCartney and McCartney II.”3 Since the album’s overall existence was confirmed by the independent record label handling one of its vinyl releases, rather than by McCartney himself, there was a clear prioritization of vinyl sales. This 333 Edition was the most exclusive version, and it sold out almost immediately. Then followed a string of multicolored vinyl issues, from uDiscover’s orange edition to Newbury Comics’ pink edition. There were 11 variations in total, one color for each track on the album, and most were limited to 3,000 copies. Spotify even released a #SpotifyFansFirst Coke-bottle-clear edition, an interesting contribution to the physical music market from a digital streaming service. The increased number of vinyl options at limited quantities created a game among McCartney fans. Some bought their favorite color, and others attempted to collect them all.

Avid vinyl collector and McCartney mega-fan Marvin John managed to purchase every color variation except for the 333 Edition. When asked why he decided to collect them all, he stated, “My motivation was how beautiful the colored vinyl looked, and because they are limited to a certain number of copies.”4 His answer is key to understanding gamification and its effect on the vinyl collection process. In addition to John’s being a fan of the music, the aesthetic value and exclusivity of each item enhances his entire experience of the album, from purchasing the vinyl to displaying the collection. These factors prompt the consumer to engage in the game and attempt to collect each color, through the impulse of competition, incentivizing, and aesthetic fulfillment. According to a 2007 case study, “Traditional record collections of CDs and vinyl seem to be associated with the relationship between the consumer and the artist.”5 Therefore, the gamification process enhanced the relationship between McCartney and his fans, and fundamentally bolstered the vinyl sales.

When asked why there were so many color variations, Marvin John speculated, “Many vinyl collectors (myself included) love to collect colored vinyl. Also, if they released only a CD and a black vinyl, the album wouldn’t have sold as many copies.”6 His answer reflects the McCartney team’s understanding of the fan base. Even more interesting, his emphasis on physical music sales suggests an understanding of the importance of such sales to chart performance. Billboard uses two tiers of “album equivalent units” to measure chart performance: “TIER 1: paid subscription audio streams (equating 1,250 streams to 1 album unit) and TIER 2: ad-supported audio streams (equating 3,750 streams to 1 album unit).”7 This definitively shows that pushing physical album sales is the most efficient way to debut an album at the top of the charts. The vinyl rollout for McCartney III was so successful that, according to Billboard, it sold about “32,000 copies in its first week—the third-largest sales week for a vinyl album since Nielsen Music/MRC Data began electronically tracking music sales in 1991.”8

As part of the promotion of multi-colored vinyl variations, each track was announced through sheet-music murals painted in major cities across the globe. During lockdown, this was an effective way to maintain social distancing while encouraging musicians to participate in the release of McCartney III. Each mural had a snippet of sheet music and a QR code to download the full version. Using the hashtag #12DaysofPaul, artists uploaded videos of themselves performing the songs solely based on the sheet music, without having ever heard McCartney’s version. Each video served as publicity for the artist playing the song, while simultaneously promoting McCartney III. Recognition from McCartney himself became the ultimate reward in this game, with his official accounts sharing covers found in the hashtag.

This “#12DaysofPaul” musical event ultimately inspired McCartney to curate a follow-up album, McCartney III Imagined (2021): “an A-List assortment of friends, fans, and brand new acquaintances, each covering and/or reimagining their favorite McCartney III moments in their own signature styles.”9 The “Limited Edition Exclusive Splatter” vinyl sold out during its pre-order, with more color variations being announced at the time this was written. By including an array of modern artists, such as St. Vincent and Phoebe Bridgers, they encouraged sales from not only McCartney fans, but also the dedicated fan bases of each artist included in the compilation. This exposed younger generations to the convention of purchasing vinyl. In Richard Mills’ The Beatles and Fandom (2019), he analyzes the Beatles’ world through the concept of “progressive nostalgia: fans appropriat[ing] the Beatles phenomenon into new hybrid forms which mix the past and present together to create a Beatles future.”10 McCartney himself is participating in “progressive nostalgia” by reimagining his half-century tradition of McCartney albums with vinyl as a fundamental constant. While creating a bricolage of modernity through contemporary artists, he maintains use of vinyl as a traditional medium to successfully distribute his work.

The gamification strategies used in the marketing of McCartney III led to his most successful album in the past three decades, while establishing a model for growing fan engagement and amplifying vinyl sales.11 In an increasingly digital world, the vinyl-centered marketing campaign for McCartney III proves the resilience of the physical record as a way to consume music, and as a collectable piece of artwork. Capitol Records’ vice president of marketing, Arjun Pulijal, told Billboard that McCartney always says, “Let’s keep it interesting for the audience, let’s try to have some fun and enjoy it so that it doesn’t feel like work.”12 In this case, every detail of the album rollout was carefully calculated by the McCartney team to create a sense of interaction between McCartney and his fans. McCartney has used gamification and hint-dropping since the late 1960s, when fans speculated that he might be dead. The cryptic lyrical insinuations and album-cover clues created a level of participation between artist and fan that is still at play today. While some may think vinyl is a dead musical medium in our current streaming age, just like Paul McCartney, it is very much alive.

1.

McCartney III (Los Angeles: Capitol, 2020), liner notes.

2.

Yang Yang, Yousra Asaad, Yogesh Dwivedi, “Examining the impact of gamification on intention of engagement and brand attitude in the marketing context,” in Computers in Human Behavior, 73, (2017): 5, DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.03.066.

4.

Marvin John, interview by Stephanie Hernandez, 17 April 2021.

5.

David Giles, Stephen Pietrzykowski, Kathryn Clark, “The psychological meaning of personal record collections and the impact of changing technological forms,” Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, (2007): 441, DOI:10.1016/j.joep.2006.08.002.

6.

Marvin John, interview by Stephanie Hernandez, 17 April 2021.

7.

“Billboard Finalizes Changes to How Streams Are Weighted for Billboard Hot 100 & Billboard 200,” Billboard, 1 May 2018, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8427967/billboard-changes-streaming-weighting-hot-100-billboard-200.

8.

Keith Caulfield, “Paul McCartney’s ‘McCartney III’ Debuts at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales Chart,” Billboard, 28 December 2020, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/9504857/mccartney-iii-debuts-top-album-sales-chart/.

9.

McCartney III Imagined (Los Angeles: Capitol, 2021), liner notes.

10.

Richard Mills, The Beatles and Fandom (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 5.

11.

Andre Paine, “LadBaby land third Christmas No.1 with fastest-selling single of 2020,” MusicWeek, 25 December 2020, https://www.musicweek.com/talent/read/ladbaby-land-third-christmas-no-1-with-fastest-selling-single-of-2020/082294.

12.

Taylor Mims, “Paul McCartney’s Team Talks ‘Whirlwind’ Marketing Strategy for ‘Egypt Station’,” Billboard, 22 October 2018, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8480996/paul-mccartney-egypt-station-marketing-strategy.

Billboard Finalizes Changes to How Streams Are Weighted for Billboard Hot 100 & Billboard 200
.”
Billboard
,
1
May
2018
, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8427967/billboard-changes-streaming-weighting-hot-100-billboard-200.
Caulfield
,
Keith
. “
Paul McCartney’s ‘McCartney III’ Debuts at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales Chart
.”
Billboard
,
28
December
2020
, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/chart-beat/9504857/mccartney-iii-debuts-top-album-sales-chart/.
Giles
,
David C
.,
Stephen
Pietrzykowski
, and
Kathryn
E
.
Clark “The psychological meaning of personal record collections and the impact of changing technological forms
.”
Journal of Economic Psychology
,
28
, (
2007
):
429
43
,
DOI:10.1016/j.joep.2006.08.002
.
John
,
Marvin
.
Interview by Stephanie Hernandez
.
17
April
2021
.
McCartney III
.
Los Angeles
:
Capitol
,
2020
.
Liner notes
.
McCartney III Imagined
.
Los Angeles
:
Capitol
,
2021
.
Liner notes
.
Mills
,
Richard
.
The Beatles and Fandom: Sex, Death, and Progressive Nostalgia
.
London
:
Bloomsbury Academic
,
2019
.
Mims
,
Taylor
. “
Paul McCartney’s Team Talks ‘Whirlwind’ Marketing Strategy for ‘Egypt Station’
.”
Billboard
,
22
October
2018
, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8480996/paul-mccartney-egypt-station-marketing-strategy.
Paine
,
Andre
. “
LadBaby land third Christmas No.1 with fastest-selling single of 2020
.”
MusicWeek
,
25
December
2020
, https://www.musicweek.com/talent/read/ladbaby-land-third-christmas-no-1-with-fastest-selling-single-of-2020/082294.
Yang
,
Yang
,
Yousra
Asaad
, and
Yogesh
Dwivedi
. “
Examining the impact of gamification on intention of engagement and brand attitude in the marketing context
.”
Computers in Human Behavior
,
73
, (
2017
):
459
69
, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.03.066.