Art in the Rollout: One Size Doesn't Fit All
The way fans are consuming music in the streaming era is constantly changing and because of that, artists are constantly changing how they deliver music. Some are using shorter songs, using meme titles for songs, and some are focusing on extremely long projects. Meanwhile, others are opting for short projects, some are skipping projects and focusing just on singles, and some are doing stealth releases with no marketing.
Oftentimes, it’s younger or less established artists opting to focus on singles, for good reason. Releasing singles allows them to test the market to see what audiences are responding to. It lets them build up their following on streaming platforms. It allows them to get on playlists and reach new audiences. Singles are a low barrier to entry and investment for a person who is just finding the artist and isn’t yet sure if they’ll like their music when there’s a ton of other music and content competing for their eyes and ears. Finally, it can be easier and more cost-effective to promote singles rather than a full project. A&Rs (Artist and Repertoire) and executives seem to agree that in the current landscape, singles help “keep things flowing” and “allow an artist to build a foundation.” Some A&Rs recommend that an artist starting have four or five singles working at a time before shifting focus to capitalize off a particular song or moving toward an album. For a while, several articles claimed albums were dead, due to heavy focus on singles and the shortness of consumer attention spans. In many cases, singles are more effective in achieving the goal of cultural impact that drives momentum for an artist’s career as they’re turned into memes on TikTok, shared throughout social media, added to playlists, played in commercials and other media, and often serve as in introduction to an artist’s music.
Yet, there’s something special about a full piece of work that tells a story and is an immersive experience for the listener. Singles are often an important strategic piece in the equation of releasing a rolling out a full album. On the other hand, there are artists releasing projects with minimal to no lead-up, but even this tactic that’s been popular for the last few years is being used less and less. For the surprise release, the caliber and status of the artist play a significant role in this, but it’s also a part of a greater strategy. While albums similarly to singles have a goal of creating a cultural moment and using that momentum to drive an artist’s career, each album carries a different weight. Albums are what build an artist’s library that allows for fans to delve deep into and connect with an artist, builds prestige, and is a critical building block in career longevity. Beyond that, it gives the artist a chance to paint a full picture of where they are as an artist, communicate a full idea, and bring fans into their world.
With that being the case, how do artists get people to listen to a full project in an era of shortened attention spans, an overwhelming amount of music being released each Friday that needs to be immediately listened to so it can be discussed, and a plethora of non-music news and content to compete with? For an upper tier, established artist, no promotion may be necessary. A surprise drop or an announcement a couple of days or weeks before can help keep people’s attention better than an extended rollout. On the other end of the spectrum, a well-executed rollout, over an extended period can also build anticipation and improve reception. Regardless of whether a short rollout or long one is used, there are other factors that drive the experience and listener interest that happen before the album comes out, during the listening experience, and during the album marketing. All these elements come together to create a cohesive and captivating experience.
The rollout and the post-release marketing happen when the experience starts for the audience as artists set the narrative and begin building the world with marketing content and activities framing the project and priming the audience. “Framing theory suggests that how something is presented to the audience (called ‘the frame’) influences the choices people make about how to process that information. Frames are abstractions that work to organize or structure message meaning.” So, the words, images, situations, and settings that are represented in the music will affect the audience on whether or not they listen to the album, how they listen to it, and set the stage for the experience. In addition to framing, artists should also be trying to prime the audience. Priming is “how ideas prompt other ideas later on without an individual’s conscious awareness.” Doing this will allow artists to have more control over how their music is interpreted, and it also further shapes the listener’s experience. Visuals, lyrics, production, and songs connect how a listener consumes it and changes based on how it is all consumed, creating a much more engaging experience.
So, how do artists begin framing and priming, and what else can be done to boost engagement? Framing and priming can start in tandem. Let’s look at Billie Eilish’s project from earlier this year. With the knowledge that Eilish envisioned the album being a “whole piece of art,” her team released multiple singles throughout the year, each one sounding fairly distinct. This begins setting some expectations for the sounds on the album and letting people know that listening to a few songs won’t paint a clear picture of an album that will have sonic variety. Going further than that, Eilish has some songs reference each other in an effort to make the whole project “feel like a moment.” This has the added effect of boosting engagement during listening, to hit rewind or go back to the song referenced to make sure you fully understand it and are part of the same moment and experience. The visuals built on the theme, representing phobias, while the entire project itself represented dreams, good or bad, is up to the listener. Then, going further, she created an exhibit for fans to attend and be immersed in the experience of the album in a new way to touch all of their senses. The desire to build these layers was inspired by Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet project. I’ve written about the masterful rollout and marketing of the project before, so rather than focusing on that, let’s look at Tyler, the Creator’s release of Igor, which took a much different direction but also had great results.
Tyler’s rollout was expedient, only lasting a couple of weeks. First, he primed the audience, then he framed right before the drop. Before the project was released, he started sharing brief video snippets to set some expectations for the sound and visuals that were to come. Then, hours before the release, he put out a note telling people “don’t expect a rap album or any album,” and he also let people know the best first listening experience is “all the way through, no skips. Front to back.” Then, on release day, he did a 43-minute performance in a warehouse that was live-streamed on Apple Music that brought Igor to life for the first time for fans. A quick rollout meant no fan fatigue, no loss of attention, just a quick moment to coalesce around. It was targeted toward existing fans, and post-release efforts continued in the form of music videos that continued to bring Igor to life in new settings, bringing fans further into the world Tyler, the Creator developed. The uniqueness of it all — a new character, new aesthetics, a new sound, new themes — gave people plenty to talk about long past the short rollout, as well.
Tyler’s not unique in song previews or providing a note or directions to shape listening experiences. For Mike Posner’s past three projects, he suggests the best listening experience and requests fans listen in a certain way. For example, “This album is best listened to at night and alone,” or “This album is meant to be listened to in one sitting, straight through…If at this time you can’t listen with your undivided attention, I politely ask that you turn this off and return at a later time.” Prior to that message on his mixtape, The Layover, next to each track he had a suggested activity, such as “Drive in the dark to this”, “Think to this”, “Fall asleep to this”, “Pull a bad bitch to this”, and so on. These small cues can shape not only how fans consume your art, but also their experience and connection with it.
Another key consideration when releasing a project to maintain attention and shape reception is album sequencing. Like an audio intro giving listeners direction or notes in the track list, sequencing isn’t something fans will experience beforehand. Many people in the industry feel that “sequencing defines the relationship between each song. Without a good sequence, your album is just another playlist.” That can be very true. Song placement can break an experience, especially when trying to make a full, cohesive piece of work. A lull of too many similar songs can cause the audience to tune out. Drastic cuts and differences from one song to the next can be jarring. Furthermore, thoughts around sequencing are changing. Rivers Cuomo of Weezer feels that the best sequencing strategy, based on data, in what he calls the “shuffle era,” is to put the songs with the broadest appeal up front, and then it goes in descending order and the songs get progressively weirder as the album goes on. “Data suggests that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely a listener is to stream it. At the same time, a music consumer’s attention span may be even shorter than any artist wants to believe.” A casual fan or music consumer may start listening, get distracted by something else, and then start the album over. Then they repeat this process until they finally listen to the whole project or move on to something else. But what about non-casual listeners? A Billboard article states, “Warner Bros. executive VP of A&R Jeff Fenster echoes that long before a listener faces such time constraints, acts hoping to get signed would do well to realize that they have only so long to make a memorable first impression with label leaders whom they hope to impress. ‘If I get a demo and the act has got great songs at numbers six and seven on it, there’s a very good chance that I will never hear those,’ he says. Ultimately, Fenster says, while an album’s song sequence is key, it doesn’t trump the most important factor toward an artist attaining success: quality. ‘If something’s intriguing, then I might listen to 13 songs. A lot of it is just, ‘Does this make me want to listen to more or not?’”
This is why both the pre-release marketing process and the post-release marketing process are so important. People are going to find the project at different points: fans will know about it early and casual listeners may become aware after the project is released. Fans will follow and share the marketing before the project comes out, potentially bringing in new listeners. The marketing upon release needs to do two things: if the pre-release marketing was to set the stage and build immersion, the post-release marketing needs to reach fans that don’t know you and bring them into the experience. Get them to want to check out the album and delve into the materials to find out more about what you’ve created.
The story and consistent theme don’t end once the album release, it should continue in ads, flyers, posters, artwork, shows, merch, and more until the lifecycle of that album is over and you move forward artistically. The goal, as it’s been from the start, is creating an experience for your fans. It’s those experiences and moments that drive the connection and relationship with them. As I said in the beginning, there’s no-one-size-fits-all release strategy. We’re in a time where the past rules are all broken, especially in regard to releasing music, but the goal of the artist is the same: creating pieces of art with impact. That requires being heard and communicating your vision with a strong campaign from beginning to end — it’s what helps make it all possible.