The Album Release Re-Imagined In A Time Of Atomic Consumption
Guest Post by Cherie Hu on Synchblog
We are consuming media more atomically than ever. More of us prefer to consume content piece by isolated piece, as opposed to a single, large backdrop like a Facebook newsfeed. There are as many as 60 clickable pieces of information on a Facebook homepage at any given time; soon, groomed by the latest mobile platforms like Snapchat and Vine, our digital habits may no longer have the patience for this all-at-once layout.
What does this mean for the future of music marketing? While these “atomic” apps seem to reduce the immediate real estate available for promoting an album, they actually give artists more freedom, allowing them to amplify their individual personalities in real time by providing insight into their creative process beyond cookie-cutter marketing campaigns. Moreover, such apps enable celebrities to engage in two-directional conversations with their followers, allowing both content and their creators to live more fluidly across their networks.
In a noisy world, artists and labels are racing to differentiate themselves and build hype around their work in a way that stands out. While the latest technological trends upend traditional understandings of the album—and even of music itself—they also enable artists and labels to achieve their own goals even more effectively. Below are just four ways that the music industry can reimagine and revamp its own marketing by leveraging the rise of atomic consumption:
1) Instead of becoming static products, albums can now grow and evolve.
Kanye West recently gained notoriety for making frequent changes to his album The Life of Pablo on streaming services, adding new tracks and changing the duration of existing ones. In response, TechCrunch called TLOP “the first SaaS album,” Fortune commented that West was “patching his music like software,” and NYMag suggested that the rapper was “treating art like an app.”
What these headlines are getting at is that West used technology as a creative storytelling tool, rather than as just another static marketing and distribution channel. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies are cashing in on this trend of dynamic social storytelling. Instagram recently joined Snapchat on the Stories bandwagon, while Twitter is opening up its Moments feature to more creators and influencers.
Features like Stories and Moments can enable artists to create more multidimensional narratives around their albums, and on their own terms. For instance, singers could preview certain tracks or melodies from their upcoming albums in 10-second chunks on Snapchat and Vine, or give live performances of an unreleased track on Periscope, broadcasting the evolution of their music to their entire fan community.
In fact, many celebrities have already capitalized on these tools. Britney Spears teased part of her upcoming album on Instagram Stories; Erykah Badu filmed a music video live via Periscope; DJ Khaled, perhaps the most notorious Snapchat celebrity, turned his musings on the app into a loose backbone for his latest album, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
2) Forget surprise album releases – in turning more “atomic,” album marketing can settle into predictable routines that solidify current fan bases and lure in new ones.
Why are so many YouTube creators earning millions of dollars and lucrative brand endorsements? Because these personalities have mastered the power of habit. Michelle Phan, Pewdiepie and the like upload content on a routine basis, in a way that is predictable for their subscribers. Many channels even emblazon their banner artwork with phrases like “New Programming Every M/W/F,” instructing their audience to tune in on a set schedule.
In a similar vein, Spotify’s aggressive playlisting strategy uses behavioral psychology to build habits around music consumption. The streaming service’s Discover Weekly and Release Radar playlists create what Bas Grasmayer calls “the perfect habit loop,” consisting of a regular routine, cue and reward. “Loss prevention is one of the strongest motivators,” Grasmayer points out, alluding not just to the strong rewards of listening to the playlists, but also to the quasi-punishment for not tuning in regularly.
YouTube creators’ regular, open publishing cadence and Spotify’s habit-forming talents seem completely antithetical to the recent trend of exclusive and/or “surprise” album releases. Indeed, the music industry tends to bank on extreme levels of mystery and intrigue; while this mindset may translate to increased social media activity in the short term, it’s arguably not for the betterment of fans, nor of labels’ bottom lines.
In contrast, artists like West and Ryan Leslie have incorporated routine into their marketing strategy, and have seen fruitful results. Leading up to The Life of Pablo as well as his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West ran “GOOD Fridays,” a popular weekly music giveaway series on SoundCloud. Leslie is currently in the process of building a “lifetime concept album,” where he releases one single a month to paying members of his fan club for the rest of his life (or at least until he decides to turn around his strategy). In order to retain as loyal of a following as possible, artists should follow suit and create their own special routines, striking the right balance between predictable chronology and ultimately unpredictable content.
3) Artists can engage in two-way conversations with fans, through channels that were previously locked to them.
One of the biggest questions in album and artist marketing: how do you scale one-on-one conversations with your fans, without sacrificing authenticity? Several artists have attempted to solve this problem by launching separate apps around their albums, only to abandon development after lackluster activity and sales. Most music listeners, already bombarded with information overload, do not want to go through the hassle of learning a brand new mobile interface.
In recent months, developers and investors have shown particular enthusiasm for bots as the next big wave in scalable, personalizable communication. Artists like Hardwell and Bastille have already jumped on the bandwagon, launching their own Facebook Messenger bots that allow hardcore fans to access information instantly about tours, upcoming releases and merchandise. Launching on a pre-existing platform like Messenger, rather than building an entirely new app, increases one’s potential audience from thousands to millions of people.
Leslie has also channeled a similar mindset through his company Disruptive Multimedia, whose flagship product, the SuperPhone, allows artists to text and segment as many as 50,000 phone numbers at once. The goal is to reach fans where they are already interacting with each other, and to give artists transparent data; indeed, the app operates using SMS, which is already native to everyone’s mobile phones. Access to the artist is also transparent and simple—Leslie makes his phone number publicly available (try texting him: 1-646-887-6978).
4) Deliver more value by involving your fans in your creative process.
In 2012, Beck released Song Reader, a collection of 20 songs published not in a standard recorded album format, but rather as a book of sheet music. In releasing the backbone of his music without any recordings for guidance, it was up to his fans and other musicians to interpret the album for themselves. It was not until Beck went on tour in late 2013 that audiences could finally hear how the album was intended to sound.
While Beck used the centuries-old “technology” of paper to involve his fans in the creative process, he pointed to a larger technological trend in the music industry not just of global distribution, but also of global collaboration and feedback. Not only can two artists from opposite ends of the world work on a track together, but now experienced artists and novice fans can stand on a level playing field and exchange feedback and expertise with each other, further pushing music’s democratization.
The electronic music community has already been taking advantage of platforms like Splice and Blend to share projects in the cloud and invite fans to remix their works in a supportive, mutually beneficial environment. Even apps like Vine and Musical.ly give fans the opportunity to instill atomic excerpts of music with new visual meaning, thereby increasing an artist’s virality.
At the end of the day, just like any business would, artists need to communicate their value proposition to their fans—whether that value comes in the form of a reliable publishing schedule, deep involvement in the creative process, or an exciting challenge of traditional marketing campaigns. Technology is quickly changing our consumption habits, and the music industry needs to think quickly on its feet and readjust accordingly.
Cherie Hu is a music-tech thinker, researcher and writer, passionate about combining a data-driven business acumen with superior storytelling skills to propel innovation in the music industry. She covers trends at the intersection of technology and the music business as a contributor for Forbes, and her writings have also appeared in Music Ally and the Harvard Political Review.