The way artists release their music has changed significantly over the last few years. In the past, artists would tease an album with the release of a single several months before, followed by a second single released simultaneously with the album -- and then wait a year or more before releasing anything else.
Today’s world is very different. Artists release as frequently as possible. Part of this is to stay top of mind with consumers who are inundated with thousands of things demanding their attention. It’s also a direct response to the rise of Spotify and the “playlist culture”.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how the industry has changed, and we’ll share three tested release strategies our Artist & Label Relations Managers use to successfully release new music in today’s market.
The older, slower way
For much of the 20th Century, the release cycle was driven by time. Because everything was analog, it took time to record, mix, and master. It took time to press the vinyl, tape, or CD. And it took time to print the album artwork -- not to mention the time required to ship all these physical products. These limitations made it virtually impossible to do anything any faster.
With the rise of the digital era, time became almost obsolete. Now fully digital, music is recorded, mixed, and mastered “in the box.” No pressing, shipping, or printing time is needed, because physical items are no longer made. At the same time, the Internet gives consumers instant access -- 24/7 -- to millions of things, each fighting for limited attention.
How to break through the noise?
Traditionally, albums have been an artistic endeavor that musicians use to share their point of view, to make a statement, or share their masterpiece. For labels, an album was a way to make more money; a larger collection of songs means a higher price. But with so much content being created, how does a musician break through the noise?
Robbie Snow, SVP of Global Marketing for Hollywood records sums it up in a recent Rolling Stone article by saying, “Traditionally artists would go a long time between album projects, disappear and then come back as a big event. In this day and age, we try to keep things flowing so artists almost never go away. Fans want to be engaged constantly with artists that they like.”
A few years ago, the major labels started releasing multiple albums per artist a year. Each album meant a new reason for attention -- and money. In 2015, the Guardian noted this new release model, citing Drake’s release of both his semi-mixtape album “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” and “What a Time to Be Alive” as an example of the new approach to releasing.
But this didn’t take into account one important change in listening behavior: Fans aren’t buying albums; they are streaming tracks.
Rethinking the album paradigm
Part of being an artist, to some extent, is understanding your audience. Who are they? Where do they hang out? And how do they engage with your work?
When thinking about the new economy, we need to ask: What does the shift in fans’ listening behavior tell us about how they view the traditional album format?
The answer can be found in mumblings on forums and in blog posts that go back almost a decade. In fact, in this blog post from 2010, Barry Donegan, lead singer of Nashville post-hardcore band Look What I Did gets to the heart of it:
“I think albums should be viewed as a compilation of content from a particular period of a band’s history made for sale for collectors. Rather than using online content to sell albums, bands should, in my view, sell themselves as consistent providers of content and compile this into physical formats periodically for those fans that love owning a record, cassette, CD, or other form of physical merchandise. Let’s face it – these formats are for collectors now, not the average consumer.”
While an album may still have the same weight to the artist, rethinking the value of an album is crucial to understanding how to make money as a musician in the new economy.
In 2006, long before Donegan shared his enlightened view of the state of the industry, a young upstart from Sweden had already started building the foundation of a new platform that would reflect and shape the change in consumer habits. A disrupter, Spotify’s thinking didn’t focus on the artist or the album. Rather, its platform was built on the playlist, a modern day mixtape through which users could listen to an infinite selection of songs algorithmically compiled by genre, mood, or activity. Much to the chagrin of the album obsessed labels, tracks were the building blocks of this new model.
This track-focused, playlist-based thinking permeates every element of Spotify’s business. It’s how musicians are paid. It’s how tracks are promoted. It also means that a lifetime’s worth of music is uploaded every month. At first, it may seem harder as a musician to stand out, but because Spotify’s playlist-based thinking is highly focused on listeners’ habits and preferences, it actually gives musicians more options to be heard and discovered. And getting featured in a Spotify playlist, giving artists access to potentially millions of fans who are aching to find and stream new music.
But here’s the catch: only one track per release can be submitted to Spotify editors for consideration. That means that whether you put out a single or a 9-track album, you only get one chance to impress per release. This, combined with the change in the way fans consume music, have many musicians releasing singles as a way to build fans and grow their following before releasing an album or EP. That’s not to say that the artistic value of the album is compromised. Rather, the way in which it’s released has changed. Instead of an album being dropped all at once, it comes out in pieces. The album then becomes a compilation of previously released tracks, exactly like the situation Donegan proposed back in 2010.
3 successful music release strategies
The rise of the playlists means DIY musicians and independent record labels should develop new release strategies in order to stay relevant and profitable in the current market. To help, we sat down with our Artist and Label Managers to find out how they approach the modern release calendar. The end results are three proven strategies to maximize the power, profitability, and visibility of each release.
The EP Builder
"Releasing two singles plus an EP has become one of the new standards in the music industry,” explains Susann Weinelt, Head of Product-Marketing, former Manager for North America, Australia, and German-speaking countries. “It gives you three opportunities to pitch your songs to playlists and media. It also allows you to really focus on a few tracks that have the potential to be real hits. I call this the EP Builder."
Although the digital world moves at lightning speed, the print newscycle still has a long lead time. In fact, most magazines have a 3-month lead time. That means you need to send your larger releases like EPs and albums 3 months before the release. This also gives you three chances to have your music on a playlist. In the first month, send your EP, artwork, and press release to print publications. At the same time, release the first single. In month two, follow up with the print publications, including any playlists or press you received off the first single. In the third month, release the EP and claim your throne.
The “Spotify Strategy”: Single by Single
As mentioned above, the more frequently you release content on Spotify, the more chances you have to shine. For artists who aren’t ready to release an album or an EP, we recommend releasing a single a month to stay top of mind. This gives you a chance to hone your craft and find out what works with your audience. It also gives you a chance each month to submit a track for playlist consideration. An alternate version of this strategy is to release a single every two weeks.
“Let’s be honest, nowadays only true melomaniacs will listen to a full album without skipping between tracks,” says Luis Lacambra Guelbenzu, Ex-Manager for Latin America and Spain, “and even they need something that catches their attention. While you’re building your fan base, it’s best to release often so you show up on their radar and stay on it. By the time you’re ready to release an album, they’ll be hungry for it. It will also make them more eager to buy your vinyl or CD, if you decide to release physical copies.”
The Album Builder
For many musicians, the album is still a statement -- but there are ways to build up to a successful album launch that work with the new model. One way is to release a series of singles and EPs in the months leading up to the album release. Some musicians start the build up almost a year in advance, using each release as a chance for PR and playlist consideration.
“Don’t underestimate the power of the classic album release strategy. It’s worked for decades -- and still does -- with good reason,” states Cora Rodrigues, ex-Manager for the UK, Scandinavia, and Brazil. “By releasing several singles slowly over a couple of months, you not only set expectations, but you also take fans on a momentum-building journey that prepares them for the album release.”
“For each single release, you should create a PR, pitching, and promotion strategy that builds the album’s story over time,” she adds. “In fact, we have many artists who release up to 3 singles over a 6-month period to preview their upcoming album. This keeps you top of mind, and is a valuable tool to drive interest in live shows.”
Strategy For Labels
For labels juggling multiple artists, the strategies need to be more finely tuned to the needs of individual artists.
“As a label manager, you are working with artists of all levels. Each artist or band will need their own strategy,” explains Jordan Calvi, founder of KROD Records, and Head of Marketing. “You’ll need to experiment a little bit to find out what works best with each artist -- but don’t hesitate. In fact, my best advice is to try a strategy, see if it works or not, adjust, and quickly try again.” Jordan’s biggest piece of advice: “Don’t release three singles from artists on your label on the same day.”
Of course the strategies outlined here are just a handful of the many ways to approach a release schedule. The most important thing is to find out what works best for you and your audience. Now that you know a little bit about how new listening habits intersect with the current state of the industry, you’ll be better primed to create an approach that fits you. It might take a while, but don’t give up hope. As Jordan said, experiment, dust yourself off, and try again.
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