Now more than ever, musicians are faced with the task of making their music accessible to fans in a way that is both relevant and interesting. The best release strategies of today embrace new platforms and technologies, and use them to add context, and of course hype, to their art. However, one thing remains as true now as it always has been: if the quality of the music isn’t there, no app, visual artwork, or multi-million dollar television deal is going to fool the fans. Even if a clever deal earns you a pretty penny at the time, behind a release with any true longevity there is always a fantastic record.
The following case studies bring to light the vital importance of embracing technology, and demonstrate how a little out-of-the-box thinking can go a long way.
1. METRONOMY – I’M AQUARIUS (via The Night Sky app)
In November, the UK’s Metronomy announced that a new album would be released in March 2014 with teaser single ‘I’m Aquarius’. The band looped a snippet of the track on their website, but made a stream of the full track available to those that could locate the constellation Aquarius using an astronomy app called ‘The Night Sky’. As yet, it’s unclear whether this quirky little arrangement was of any significant financial benefit to the band. With the app priced at 99p, it is possible that they could have seen a cut of the profit. However, this is Metronomy we’re talking about; a band who’s modus operandi has always been governed by creative vision rather than financial gain. Regardless of their motive, this is a brilliantly creative way to engage fans and create a buzz around their music.
2. KANYE WEST – NEW SLAVES (via Buildings worldwide)
2013 saw the release of Kanye West’s proposterously grandiose masterpiece ‘Yeezus’, for which Kanye began turning the wheels of his promotional machine with a single tweet: ‘June 18’. Mr. West then sent fans into a frenzy by projecting a video for ‘New Slaves’ on the sides of sixty six buildings across the globe. As a publicity stunt, the projections must be admired for their ingenuity and sheer ambition, but they are more than that. Visual art has long accompanied music in the form of videos and album sleeves, but to take that art and use buildings as your canvas is a stroke of pure genius. Once news and a few shaky videos of the projections hit the internet, the sheer volume of traffic crashed kanyewest.com, as fans desperately tried to piece together what it all meant. In true Kanye style, the promotion (and the album, in my opinion) will go down in history as one of the most daring, innovative, and boundary-pushing of all time.
3. JAY Z – MAGNA CARTA HOLY GRAIL (via Samsung)
At a time when music can be released and purchased in more ways than ever, the industry is still catching up. To shake things up (and of course, make a ton of money), Jay Z released ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ exclusively through Samsung’s app. The deal entailed that Samsung paid $5 for every app download, meaning that after one million downloads the album had already gone platinum (earning Hov $5m before the official release date). Unable to account for this, the RIAA were forced to change their ruling on certification, accomodating MCHG’s unconventional sales. #NewRules indeed. Unfortunately, the album will always be remembered for this deal (albeit game-changing), rather than for the album itself, which was largely uninspiring.
4. ARCADE FIRE – REFLEKTOR
In terms of generating intrigue, the release of Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’ had it all. To kick things off, cryptic, Haitian-inspired street art began to appear scrawled on buildings all over the US. The band then performed secret gigs under as ‘The Reflektors’, and released various album teasers to boot. The first single, ‘Reflektor’, was accompanied by an interactive video that starred the viewer themselves as a ‘reflector’. As far as audience interaction goes, this campaign had fans drawn in from the get-go, and just didn’t stop.
And the best thing about it all – after all the hype had been created and sustained, the album turned out to be indisputeably fantastic. Thanks to some seriously clever marketing and a truly great record, 2013 saw Arcade Fire become “a small band that’s punching above their weight” (Scott Rodger, Manager), well done them.
5. EMINEM – MMLP2 (via Call Of Duty/Beats By Dre/ESPN)
Regardless of what you thought of MMLP2 (and let’s face it, it was an utter let-down), the marketing behind it was an absolute masterclass in how to identify and engage your target audience. Activision’s chief marketing officer Tim Ellis told Billboard that the two “brands” have a lot of overlap in terms of fan base – who knew! From there, MMLP2’s promotion was essentially a straightforward piggy-back campaign: the first release ‘Survival’ contained gameplay footage of the new Call Of Duty, the trailer for which featured the track. Copies of COD bought from Game Stop also contained a download code for deluxe version of MMLP2. On top of all this, the album’s second release ‘Berzerk’ was used by both Beats by Dre (premiered during the MTV VMAs) AND was used as the official song for ESPN’s ‘Saturday Night Football’ on ABC. How’s that for exposure?
6. CHILDISH GAMBINO – BECAUSE THE INTERNET
In many ways, the release of Childish Gambino’s sophomore effort ‘Because The Internet‘ is the antithesis to the release of Em’s MMLP2. While the latter had several carefully selected marketing deals, the former had no such thing, but was released in the way it was simply as an artistic endeavour. The album formed an integral part of CG’s screenplay, for which his short film ‘Clapping For The Wrong Reason’ served as a prelude. The screenplay was made available at http://www.becausetheinter.net for fans to interact with, playing tracks from the album as well as short videos to complement the text. The screenplay brought together not only the album’ tracks, but also the artist’s videos, clothing choices, and cryptic notes and tweets. Regardless of it’s artistic or monetary success, releasing an album as part of an interactive screenplay, and creating what some are calling an ‘Album World’ is an incredibly innovative way to really engage fans.
Clearly, the digital age has led to some fantastically innovative new ways of marketing and releasing records, and the future looks bright for ever more new and exciting release strategies. But, as ever, a great campaign without a great record is merely a husk, an un-filled PR shell, and unfortunately, the likes of Eminem and Jay Z have proved that these shells can be unimagineably profitable for well-established artists. The good news is that when filled with something great, these husks can propel smaller bands towards real commercial success. Let’s hope that 2014 brings us more Arcade Fire success stories, as artists and their management prepare to embrace the digital age.