Recently, a friend and I were having a conversation on album cohesion. It may or may not be an often discussed topic by music fans, but it’s something I think about when listening to albums. Actually, I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Part of this is because I love stories and immersive experiences. Another part is that I like to think of things holistically, so on the first few listens of any project, I start at track one and play it all the way through, as long as there’s no song so unbearable that I have to hit skip. While the songs play, I think about whether or not the song is good, but I also think about song placement in the overall sequence and how it fits into the whole project thematically, why it was placed there, and various other factors.
On the other hand, when my friend listens to a project for the first time, he clicks around listening to tracks out of order, just picking ones that have titles that catch his interest, then later on he’ll go back and listen to the full thing.
Then there’s my brother, who will start an album from the beginning like myself. However, he only gives a song 15 to 45 seconds to convince him if it’s good. If in that time it doesn’t capture him, then he’ll skip it and quickly make a determination on the quality of a project.
Before we go any further, let’s make it clear that a project does not need absolute cohesion to be good. Sporadic projects or projects that seem to be just a compilation of great songs can indeed be classics, but a common theme or thread that glues a project together can change the listener experience and take it to another level when done right. It’s not easy though because if the story or theme is crafted poorly, it can make for a boring project that puts fans to sleep.
Billboard wrote an article about how sequencing an album is important in the era of internet streaming. They mentioned how:
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.
Makes sense for a casual listener, who starts listening, gets distracted by something else, and then starts the album over. Then they repeat this process until they finally listen to the whole project. With so many easily accessible, digital distractions draining at our mental energy and capacity, I’m in no way surprised by this.
....But what about non-casual listeners? The article continues with the perspective of music industry execs and how they may or may not carefully listen to an overall project:
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?'
With this information, how important is it to craft a cohesive album? Can you just put together an album full of dope tracks and not worry about balance, flow, or anything like that?
That is one way to structure a project. Pick your best songs and balance the singles throughout. But even with that approach you can still create a cohesive album.
Let’s dig into a specific example. What really sparked the discussion between my friend and I was Big Sean’s latest studio album, I Decided. In an interview, I’d heard Sean’s explanation of the theme for the album so I asked my friend if that’s what he got from it. Big Sean intended to center the album around the concept of rebirth, with a focus on exposing his own definitive decision to grow from the man he used to be to the person he is / is working on becoming. As an artist, this is a great concept and responsibility, to bare your heart and personal growth as an example for the people who look up to you, your fans. Deep right?
Basically my friend vibed out to some solid tracks on the album, but not once did he pick up on a general theme. From what I understood, listening to his interpretation, was that the project had sonic cohesion, but little lyrical cohesion that tied back to the overall theme.
So, what’s my point? It goes back to what Fenster said, the most important factors are quality and if a project is interesting. Although quality and sonic cohesion are essential, I still think lyrical and content cohesion can add quality to a project and create layers of intrigue. But I don’t think it’s the end all be all by any means. There are so many factors in what makes a quality project, but I think a sense of cohesiveness can elevate a project to another level as it goes a long way in sucking listeners in. We’re in a world of distractions, fighting for attention, looking for an edge. So a cohesive project just adds a layer to the musical experience which is what fans are seeking, an experience.
Additionally, a layered and cohesive album, will continue to surprise listeners, years later, with gems and insights they missed the first time around. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z have consistently woven in lyrical easter eggs that people have been deciphering and even teaching in lectures for years.
As a marketing strategist, I also believe that if you create a cohesive project, you can carry that cohesion into your marketing to help capture listener’s attention and drive anticipation before they even hear a song. Promote the theme of an album visually with your instagram post. Display the message and experience you’re creating sonically in the form of merchandise at shows. Furthermore, if you craft a theme that’s so sonically clear, then listeners will be able to almost visualize the picture you’re painting as they experience your project. The benefit of this is that it can be easily transfer over to ideas for music videos, which are essential to your content marketing plan and your overall brand as an artist.
How to Structure a Cohesive Album
When thinking about cohesion you can think about sonic cohesion - how one song flows to the next; how the beats and production match; and how the tone of the sounds mesh together. You can think of lyrical cohesion as a story being told throughout the tracks and the lyrics tie it all together. True cohesion, for me, is combination of the two. There’s even thematic cohesion, where the tracks don’t necessarily relate to each other, but there’s an overarching theme to the project.
For example, lots of artists go for sonic cohesion, where the beats paint a picture and provide a feeling and all the beats feel like they fit together nicely. Some artists do it well, by finding a consistent sound that is varied enough in production and tempo to be entertaining and keep listeners engaged. I personally enjoy projects with songs that can lull you into a state of comfort, then slap you in the mouth unexpectedly, without missing a beat. Artist who understand how to seamlessly transition from mellow to hard in order to pace a project and add a dynamic always impress me.
Then there are projects where the beats are cohesive throughout in that they flow together or communicate the same feelings throughout, but lack variation and every song sounds the same, leading to a boring project. Other times, an artist will pick a few sonic themes such as having a distinct funk, soul, or gospel sound. From there the album is shaped around those sounds, hopefully without being repetitive. There are also many examples of when those two are combined. Finally, there are times where an artist will add sonic, thematic, and lyrical cohesion together into a concept album to tell a full story or a series of stories. So obviously, there’s no one way to structure your album, it’s all about executing correctly. Because the Internet by Childish Gambino or Yeezus by Kanye West are solid examples of concept albums that bring sonic, thematic, and lyrical cohesion.
A project you many never heard of that I’d consider cohesive and tells a full story, is El Dorado by Alxandr Nate. It is a 20 minute EP that is supposed to be the first in a series that will tell a much larger story. The story is about a young man who, while following the allure and a dream of fame and fortune, goes on a journey to El Dorado. Nate describes El Dorado as “the place in your mind you dream of reaching.” Sonically, the beats have a strong use of guitars and melodies that give it a lone cowboy western or Indiana Jones feeling. Kind of like a me against the world sound. The lead single “Noah’s Town, adds in energy with a trap bounce, following a slower song where he faces off against the story’s antagonist. The music and Nate’s voice convey the feeling of a raspy, raw, rugged man with straw in his mouth, chewing tobacco. It feels like the voice has been practiced and refined to perfectly portray the character and add another dynamic to telling the story, as it perfectly blends with the soundscape. Overall, he nails a very visualized experience, with clearly felt emotions, by cohesively crafting the project on all fronts.
With such a cohesive EP, Alxandr could have had endless opportunities to creatively market the project and engage an audience before they’ve even heard a song. However, I don’t believe any marketing was really done for this project, so this will be about possibilities rather than an analysis of marketing efforts that actually happened.
So, working with a great project, unique cover art for each track, and the fact that this is the first project and story in a greater series, we can develop ideas on how to build interest and buzz for a project that will increase anticipation and improve attention spans before anyone even hears a song.
One way to do this is to turn the release of your project into a developing story in and of itself. For example, let’s compare it to how movies are marketed. Early on, a studio might introduce audiences with a movie title and a cast list, not too different from an artist releasing a tracklist, with features and producers. In this sense, since the project is an overarching story, introduce the characters in that story. Who are the listeners going to be interacting with when listening? Introduce the setting. In this instance it’s El Dorado, but what is El Dorado to the artist or more important why do we want to get there?
Make use of the cover art for each song. That tells a story of it’s own. Set the songs as scenes or chapters, include a preview of each song attached to the cover art, and give a brief background on the story of that scene or chapter. The idea isn’t to give away the story, but to instead to draw people into the plot you’ll be presenting through your music. This will make the experience deeper and potentially inspire anticipation and an urge to learn more about your project. It’s like sitting in your favorite restaurant and anxiously waiting for food because you could smell the chef whipping it up a block away. Strategically market bits of your project’s story to stir up a smell that will fill fans up with anticipation.
That’s just one example of the numerous ways you can incorporate an album’s theme or concept into your marketing campaign. Don’t forget to be creative and as original as possible with both your cohesive themes, story and how you tie it all back into marketing. Your music and the marketing should be layered and build on top of each other, so that when the project arrives people are ravenous and want to dive straight in because the excitement, anticipation, and intrigue has been built to the max. In the end, you’ll get more ears, more attention, and create a deeper experience and connection.