The Album Release Cycle And The Band That Proved The Power Of Digital 7 Years Ago
This article offers a breakdown of the album release cycle explaining why, in the digital age, the conventional timeline for releasing and promoting an album is riddled with inefficiencies and examines how one metalcore band figured out the right way of doing it way back in 2008.
Guest Post by Dan Wagster on LinkedIn Pulse
In my previous article The Job That Steve Didn’t Finish I said Steve Jobs left a part of the disruption of the music business unfinished. By launching iTunes in 2003 with songs for download he succeeded in disrupting the Album Distribution System, cutting in half the cost to distribute new music and freeing singles from their captivity in the album.
And most of the red ink you’ve been hearing about since then was from the logistics divisions of the Music Majors, as half of their volume shifted over to a cheaper and better value distribution channel. So don’t be too taken in by the music industry’s screaming foul. Imagine if drones become the delivery method for diapers, how sympathetic will you be when Proctor and Gamble starts writing-off Pampers distribution warehouses? It’s the same thing.
The part Steve left undisrupted was the Album Release Cycle, which provides a continuous supply of fresh music product for distribution and the spending on promotion to pull it through. It is the label divisions of the Music Majors along with the independent labels who perform this, signing bands to multi-album contracts and using a codified series of steps to produce and promote each album.
For a band to complete each Album Release Cycle takes about 18 months:
Writing and Recording - the band produces a master recording of enough songs to fill a 10-song album, which can take months to complete all 10. Bands exit this stage only when all the songs for the album are done and a release date for the album has been set. Since bands are in competition with other bands for a release date they are often stuck in this stage for months after completing the album.
Pre-release – With a date set for release, promotion planning begins around this single-day launch event. Spending commitments are made for radio play, advertising and in-store shelf placements. This mass media approach is really expensive because it isn’t efficient and that’s what’s behind the single-day launch event strategy. The belief is that spending around a single event caps the total amount and concentrates its effect.
Album release –On the day of the album release the promotion spend begins and it peaks very quickly over a few week period. The majority of sales are pulled into the first several months, and word-of-mouth continues to produce sales for another 6 or 9 months.
Touring – The band’s prior album successes factor large in the size of the tours they are booked on, as does early results of their new release which is used by tour promoters to forecast ticket sales. Bands go on tour with new songs to freshen their set list, increasing crowds and the number of performances because they can return to venues they’ve played recently.
But the Album Release Cycle and its codex of practices foster inefficiencies that look senseless.
With a goal of only maximizing album sales using a single-day event, look how little of the 18 month cycle is spent actually doing promotion.
While embargoing 10 finished songs for months may be needed to smooth workload for label staff, it doesn’t feel like it's in the best interest of bands or fans.
Others are just due to realities of the analog era. Word-of-mouth is too slow to play a leading role in driving demand, which leaves promotion spending to carry the load. And by not knowing who each fan is the only option is to spend on expensive broadcast media to cast a wide net… and hope.
The Really Early Adopter
If you’re a metalcore fan you’ll know this band – We Came As Romans. Back in 2008 they were small but already proving themselves musically with a growing number of fans. They had not yet signed with a record label so they looked at the release of the new 4-song EP absent any industry conventions. Their genius was in understanding the changes that had already taken place…
- Fans were now digitally connected to their friends causing word-of-mouth to happen exponentially fast
- What fans like most to share with their friends is new music (not new but really important)
- The band didn’t know each individual fan, but they could reach them through the internet
- Songs in digital format can be downloaded by anyone at zero cost
Seen today these facts look pedantic, but they were not widely understood then. Nor did anyone see that they would make the analog era’s codex for album releases obsolete. But We Came As Romans did know something, because in December 2008 they posted their Dreams EP for download… for free. In a few months fans downloaded 90,000 copies of Dreams.
Right after posting the Dreams EP for download the band signed with independent record label Equal Vision. A year later in December 2009 Equal Vision used the conventional codified steps to release the band’s first full length album To Plant A Seed. In the next 12 months it had sales of 950,000 equivalent songs.
Six months after To Plant A Seed’s album release, bassist Andy Glass said,”Releasing that EP for free was like the best thing we ever did. Just from it being online, we have so much recognition from it and then from it being on Pure Volume, kids would download it and then it would be on torrent sites. It just spread so far, there were just under 90,000 total downloads.”
Equal Vision says To Plant A Seed “was their most successful first-release of all time.” Sure, but it had nothing to do with them. The seeds for success were planted in December 2008 before Equal Vision had entered the picture, but they still got to enjoy the bountiful harvest.
Maybe this was not the very first, but it was early proof that new digital forces could make band income grow faster. Taking just the lessons learned from the free download, look at how it changes the thinking about the Album Release Cycle.
Three things really stand out:
- When you can grow new fans exponentially fast it makes going for album sales look short-sided
- Digitally connected fans now have super powers for promoting bands
- New songs have a new role… promotion to rapidly grow new fans
The most important thing that early adopters like We Came As Romans proved is fans who are digitally connected to their networks of friends can accelerate the growth of new fans incredibly fast. Look at what happens when a band goes from doubling their fans to tripling them each year.
A band starting with 50,000 Facebook fans and ending each year with 2 times the number of fans, will in 3 years have… 400,000 fans.
A band starting with 50,000 Facebook fans and ending each year with 3 times the number of fans, will in 3 years have… 1,350,000 fans.
This is the digital era’s incredible gift to all bands. My company has built a new promotion platform called Band & Me that harnesses new digital forces to do just one job… grow your fans exponentially fast. Next month in October our band customers will begin using our admin panel to deliver personalized messages directly to each fan’s Band & Me app. We have already proven fans respond to these personalized messages by sharing passionately with their friends, which in turn grows new fans. We're going to find out how best to leverage this feature as our learning goes vertical.
If you're a band or managing one who is touring and making new music you should hear about Band & Me. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dan Wagster, President
Perhaps one reason this approach worked at the time was the novelty; now that countless artists put out music for free, does this approach still work?
If anything, I suspect that this method creates a “race to the bottom”, and “teaches” listeners that music is free, has no financial value, and that musicians either do not deserve to make a living from their music, or have to make it by some other means, like selling t-shirts.
P.S. I like the album release cycle. I don’t need constant new content from an artist. Rather, I want time to live with and digest and listen deeply to their work. If it merits that serious attention, that is.
A great album – great music or art in general – typically takes time to incubate and develop. Does our new model of continuous non-stop “product” and social media provide the necessary framework?
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