While much has been said about the radical differences between how we consume music now vs how we did fifteen years ago, there has been just as much upheaval in how that music is presented to the consumer.
For a long time the formula for advanced album promotion stuck closely to the same template: One single (and video, once MTV became a thing) ahead of the album for radio and promotional purposes followed by a mass physical release into the waiting ears and hands of consumers. But now that music is essentially a digital product there has been massive customization from artists on how they want their music to be received and purchased, both in advance of an album and when it’s released.
The fiscal ramifications from the music industry being turned upside down are terrifying but artists having more creative control in this vital step of their business is one of its few silver linings. There are countless strategic variations but here are ten of the most interesting and most common.
#1. The Surprise Release
Dropping an entire album completely unannounced. Made most famous by Beyoncé and since copied by many others.
Pros: No pre-conceived notions of what the album will be. This strategy can provide a percentage of the publicity and interest an artist would’ve generated with months long advanced support if not the entire amount, with far less work required for everyone involved aside from issuing tons of NDA’s.
Cons: A lack of advanced promotion makes an album a shooting star in orbit. It had better be noticed and immediately successful or it will burn out and be forgotten as quickly as it appeared.
#2 The Waves
AKA The John Mayer. For his most recent album The Search For Everything Mayer released two “waves” that had four songs each from the album before it was later released (with four additional songs) in its entirety.
Pros: Mayer’s idea here was that modern audiences often can’t sit through an entire album but if given only four songs they will be more willing to listen as it requires significantly less time.
Cons: Not really sure what the point was in Mayer releasing a proper LP (other than contractual obligations) after previously releasing 2/3rds of the album in “waves.” Perhaps the general public at large finds this strategy confusing, at least for now?
#3 The Trial By Fire
Playing songs live before they’ve been released. Artists have been doing this forever but with the creation of YouTube and phones with video recording people now have tangible copies.
Pros: Instant feedback from fans in person and on the internet about new material. If an artist plays a new song regularly on a tour there’s a good chance by the fourth or fifth time they’ve played it that the audience is familiar with it despite it being unreleased.
Cons: If the songs as played live aren’t like the studio recording it runs the risk of giving people the wrong impression. Bootlegging is also quite the double edged sword. Pink Floyd once played The Dark Side of the Moon a year before it was released and a well recorded bootleg sold 120,000 copies.
#4 The Spread-The-Wealth
Releasing songs ahead of the album through various websites and services. One of the best examples is “Weird” Al Yankovic who put out 8 videos over 8 days across several platforms to much success, helping to propel his 2014 album Mandatory Fun to #1 on the Billboard charts.
Pros: Sites want content and artists want publicity. This is a win-win for both. By giving a song to various websites to promote to their own audience, there’s potential to reach a huge cross section of people.
Cons: Only speaking for myself here but this can get tiring and confusing as hell. If I want to share a song with someone but several have been released I often’t can’t remember which site had the song I wanted to share on it. Also if an artists get too greedy and spread too thin people will have heard all or most of your album before it’s actually released.
#5 The Gradual Release
Several songs being properly put out to radio/music stores/streaming services before the album comes out. This is the closest relative to the “old fashioned way.” Recent examples include Ed Sheeran simultaneously releasing two songs ahead of Divide.
Pros: When executed correctly, this makes each song its own mini event and enhances advanced promotion for an album. Unlike the “Spread-the-Wealth” approach, this release strategy is directly through avenues that can be profitable for the artist.
Cons: If gone overboard this makes the release of the actual album a non event. The amount of people who care about this continues to decline but as long as record contracts are primarily album based I’d imagine this will matter to some extent.
#6 The Pre-Single Single
First releasing an album track (usually accompanied by a video) before releasing a more radio-friendly single ahead of an album. Examples include Coldplay’s Ghost Stories album (“Midnight,” followed closely by “Magic”) and Fall Out Boy’s Mania album (“Young and Menance” followed by “Champion”).
Pros – This is a fabulous idea from an artistic point of view. Using the hype surrounding an upcoming album release to give exposure to a deep cut that likely would’ve been passed over by the masses.
Cons – An artist is playing with fire in the dangerous vacuum of instant analysis that is the internet. In the case of Coldplay and Fall Out Boy neither “pre-single single” ended up being indicative of the overall tone of the album but that didn’t stop a lot of people from swearing them off anyway.
#7 The Kanye West
Super reluctant to give someone as egotistical as Kanye West his own category but there’s no denying that the “live art” approach to his most recent album The Life of Pablo was groundbreaking. West made numerous additions and changes to the tracks after its official release.
Pros: This is the no different than the now common practice of video games releasing DLC to supplement the stand alone disc, which is a major cash cow for that medium. Keeps the audience engaged with far less work involved than an entirely new album project would be.
Cons: One of the hardest parts of any creative process is knowing when it’s finished and to walk away. Endless revisions aren’t necessarily for the better and often reach a point of diminishing returns.
#8 The Exclusivity
An album only being available on one specific streaming service or holding it off streaming services (temporarily, usually) so people will buy the album. Recently applied by the likes of Frank Ocean, Adele, and Taylor Swift.
Pros – To put it simply, $$$$$$$$$$. In a day and age where album sales are constantly dwindling this is a sure fire way for the artists to see some cash.
Cons – If an artist has achieved the level of success where they can pull this off, they are not hurting for money to begin with. So it’s seen by some as greedy.
#9 The Album-As-A-Throw-In
Including a copy of an album alongside another purchase for that artist, usually a concert ticket. Paul Simon and Barenaked Ladies are recent examples of artists who have done this.
Pros: The consumer is already putting an amount of money in the artist’s pocket that likely far exceeds the cost of an album so this is an in-good-faith gesture. For the artist it’s an easy (and arguably, corrupt) way to boost sales numbers.
Cons: As someone who’s a big believer in albums as the almighty form of musical expression it pains me to see them as an add on. Financially how does this impact an artist? Are people more or less likely to listen to an album when it’s packaged this way?
#10 The Target
Incentivizing people to buy the physical CD by including some kind of swag (posters, other collectables) and/or bonus tracks only available on a CD in a specific place. I’m sure this happens elsewhere, but I’m calling it “The Target” because they do it the most often. Countless examples in recent years.
Pros: One of the last great white hopes (along with the resurgence of vinyl and The Exclusivity) for people to physically buy albums.
Cons: Bonus tracks are a hilarious concept. Pay more money to get these songs that were deemed not good enough for the album. With that said, if it’s one of my favorite artists I am absolutely paying an extra $4 to hear the bonus tracks.
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