21 March 2015
I am sitting in a small cafe in southern Alabama. The south’s reputation for friendliness is proving well founded, and quickly the barista has coaxed a significant amount of my life story out of me; probably more then I’ve told several people I would consider friends back in London. It’s quite disarming. It turns out that this place actually used to be a record store – there are gig posters littering the wood panel walls – but slowly more people started buying coffee and less people were buying records.
I’m sure this story had happened in more then a few places.
I mention that I work in music and the conversation turns to the new Bjork album, and how it leaked and the subsequent panic release. “How were we supposed to run a record store if people can download it weeks before we can sell it?” It’s a fair point, although not a new one.
The Bjork release seems worth highlighting but not dwelling on too much. For a large number of reasons, releasing it on iTunes over a month before the already announced full release because of a leak is a crazy thing to do. For a start, leaks don’t matter. They never really did – or at least, nowhere near as much as everyone made out – but now, with the rise of monetised streaming services (which people now get their free music from) coupled with far more developed monitoring and take down services they really, really don’t matter.
The worst thing caused by a leak is if you react to it in a panic, screw up your release plan and in the process tell all your fans (who almost certainly didn’t know) that the album is floating around out there, ready to be downloaded if you look hard enough.
What the Bjork record does highlight though is the growing amount of “surprise” releases. The canonical example is of course the last Beyoncé record, released on iTunes with no warning a couple of Decembers ago to vast acclaim and – more importantly, from an industry influence point of view – sales. You could make a case that actually the grandfather of all of this is In Rainbows, but I think the involvement of a major retailer like iTunes – rather then doing it yourself through your own website – is pretty important (and probably played a part in the Bjork incident as well).
There’s definitely the beginning of a trend here, particularly coming out of the US, for records to have very little traditional build up – a few weeks or less – and to come out digitally first, due to the short timescale, with CD and vinyl trailing behind as quickly as they can. This week sees the release of the new Kendrick Lemar record which follows exactly this pattern – it was announced a couple of weeks ago to come out in 3 weeks, and even then it was surprise released a week early. And again, it looks like it’s worked, and is set to be number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
If you ask me, this is exciting.
We are well over a decade into having a proper, legal digital music retail industry (so far in that we’ve almost got stuck into the next phase of it with streaming), and yet we’re only just getting to a point where it’s having a sustained change on how people are releasing and marketing albums. This year is already slated to have more releases coming out this way, from the mixtape Drake dropped in February, to a record by Earl Sweatshirt out next week and announced last week, to the next Kanye record which is inevitably going to come out this way.
You’ll notice though that all of these artists share a few things in common, and not just the style of music – they’re all American, and they all have substantial existing fanbases. The fanbase is an obvious point – if you are forgoing traditional media and retail to build a buzz around your record, you’ve got to be able to directly do it yourself – exactly the same as Radiohead in 2007.
America is interesting, and not just because a random stranger will strike up an in depth conversation with you, but because their media works very differently to many other parts of the world. The country is big. Really big. So big that recently I drove for 3,400 miles across 9 states – including Alabama – and didn’t even quite manage to see both coasts. What this size and scale means is that it takes so much longer for media coverage to filter through the ether and take hold across the country. Print press is virtually dead now, as if you thought it was hard to battle the free internet on a small island like the UK think how hard it would be if you had to scale up those problems 50 times.
Radio in the US is very much not dead, but works in such a different way to the UK and Europe that it’s taken me years to get my head around. There is no national radio – see the whole “really big” thing above – and hence instead there’s literally thousands of stations, which conform to an assortment of formats playing different styles of music. The upshot of this is that building a track at US radio, getting added to playlists at station after station, takes a long time. A cycle at radio in the UK typically takes around 8 weeks, maybe more maybe less depending on what stations you’re going after. In the US, 8 months is not unheard of.
This side of the pond when you’re releasing a record, with a couple of months of lead time you can make everything sync up nicely with a record hitting the shops – you have your monthly print features hitting at you have your radio plays peaking, all at the same time. In the US, you don’t need to worry about print, you’re never going to hit peak plays in a couple of months, and physical retail is a lot less relevant as – like the ex-record store cafe earlier – there’s not that much of it left. And that gives you a bit more room to manoeuvre.
It’ll be interesting to see other artists, who don’t fit into the conditions above, give non-traditional release patterns a go – maybe some of them can make it work. And maybe some of the traditional outlets – press and media – will start changing their attitudes to this sort of thing so that artists who do aren’t penalised. But, if you’re sitting there looking at the Kendrick record, the Bjork record, or the Beyonce record and thinking “I could do that” be careful.
It might be more difficult then you think.
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