I'm tired of the gimmicks that surround music releases today. True, they aren't entirely new, but they are for some reason feeling particularly worn out lately.
“Tweet this and it unlocks this; that leads to a stream of the new song,” etc.
I feel as though each marketing plan starts with "insert novel new technology here" and then defaults to the same old marketing plan as usual. Some of these plans can be clever — involving puzzles, prizes, and such — but they are all basically messaging the same thing: “Band finished album a few months ago and it's time to get you, the consumers, to buy it with this series of teases."
As I see it, every artist or band hits fans and consumers with the same three basic messages: “Pre-order my album. Buy my album. Have you bought my album?” (Here the word album could be replaced by single, EP, tickets, etc.)
This is how it works, right? Every week we see a marketing campaign based around selling this same story play out in front of us on repeat. The bands are salesmen and women selling you something that happened often months or even years ago. Often something that was dreamed up by others and that, when executed well, grabs eyeballs. But let's face it, the message still has always looked like: “Pre-order my album. Buy my album. Have you bought my album?”
Then things got social. Suddenly, with little or no effort, artists could tell fans when they were in the studio. "We're working on new songs," the press would gleefully re-post, blog, tweet, or report. Facebook would showcase photos of the band at work; glimpses of a process hidden from them would emerge months, if not years in advance and, as a matter of course, these would lead up to the message: “Pre-order my album. Buy my album. Have you bought my album?”
It's all leading to the big reveal, right? But here's the question: What is actually being revealed? We live in a world where things are instantly accessible, where music fans feel they have the right to access what they want when they want it. Why should I pre-order anything when I can just stream it when it's out? Why pre-order what I can access instantly for free? What are you selling me?
Add to this the fact that the message is not even coming from the artist who has been Tweeting or Instagraming from the studio; it's coming from iTunes or the band’s label or the retailer or, in the worst case, from an artist whose creative process was over the moment the album was finished months before all the hype began.
How many times have you seen a bored-looking band shill something they made to a radio station or retailer? They often do ads for products they don't even use just to sell a few more singles whose creative lives ended months or years ago.
Behind the Music
But what if this could change? What if fans could participate in albums as they were being made?
If you work in the music industry, you know the excitement of getting new demos from an artist you work with. There's a tingle. It's a true reveal that comes with the anticipation of something great – of something unknown. It's the feeling a new track used to evoke within you before you worked with artists. It's also exciting because, when you get that demo or are in the studio with that artist, they’re just that: an artist, doing what they do best, making the magic happen. Once that's over, it's over. Then the dynamic changes.
Every record has so many stages, so many marketing points that carry an excitement beyond what a traditional release could ever hold.
To be clear here, I am not describing a consumer experience. This is a fan experience, which leads to my other point: Artists should sell to fans and labels to consumers. We have seen the most success across our platform, PledgeMusic, when artists bring their fans along for the ride, when fans get to feel that same sense of excitement you feel within the music industry when you get to hear things as they happen rather than after they happen.
Artists and marketing teams can now create a plot line that unfolds in real-time, a "Behind the Music" as it's actually happening. We call them “Pledgers-Only” updates, and the price of entry is a pre-order of the album. Artists don’t share these updates with everyone because they aren’t meant to be for everyone. These are the fan experiences that we have seen to be the most financially beneficial to the artists we work with.
The artists also give the hardcore fans things to share for months in advance of releases. Ironically, most artists scratch the surface when they post Instagram pictures from the studio or Facebook or Twitter posts, but it's worth recalling that these are still just consumer experiences. These are for everyone. These weren't created exclusively for the fans. They are a broadcast to anyone who will listen. If you want to buy the record there and then before it's finished, you can't.
A Pledgers-Only update, however, is designed for those who want to buy into the entire experience. It's not a broadcast so much as an invite to something that, by design, isn’t for everyone. If you want to belong – to be a fan – you can. And if you want the same as everyone else – the consumer experience? Well, that's fine too. You can just wait for the record to come out and buy it from the label.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three key moments when artists put albums out: 1) Announcing the pre-order or the album. 2) Announcing that the album is available on iTunes and Amazon, etc. 3) Reminding fans that it’s still available on iTunes and Amazon, etc. The most difficult moment for many artists is when they realize they can’t keep broadcasting the same message again and again.
How many times is it appropriate to solicit your fans to buy in advance? Once a week? Once every two weeks? Once a month? If so, what should your lead-time look like? If artists or their labels, or both, share the process of the making of the album – the whole amazing, weird, fascinating, and terrifying thing – then fans can share in all those emotions and experiences as well. Delays in production become chances to talk about why quality matters, or why things took a turn in a particular direction.
One of PledgeMusic’s most successful campaigns ran for just under a year. Not only did it make the album profitable before it hit retail, but it also got this artist their highest chart position to date. Fans were treated as equals and included in the entire creation process. And if fans have a cool experience with an artist they love, it changes everything. What I'm proposing is that fans should have thirty to forty amazing experiences with their favorite artist as they release their album.
Fan or Consumer
I'm a fan of music. I have zero interest in the consumer experience most artists offer me. I'm the guy who will spend for vinyl, signed vinyl, posters, T-shirts, gig tickets, lyric sheets, house concerts, and test pressings, but most importantly for access. I am not just a consumer. If you offer me the consumer experience and confine me to just the standard pre-order, buy now/have you bought $9.99 experience, you are simply leaving money on the table.
When Ian Ball from Gomez uploaded a new track from his forthcoming album for his Pledgers, I not only immediately downloaded it, but I shared that I had with my personal networks. In fact, I auto-shared that the song was there along with all of his other Pledgers-Only updates. Plus, my friends knew that I was listening to it. I did this from both Facebook and Twitter, and this was months in advance of the album even coming out. I do the same for multiple artists I love, simply because I can, and I Pledge an average of $50 like hundreds of thousands of others do, too, simply because I can. Before a record is even fully recorded, I am validating it to all my friends and acquaintances simply because I can.
If you make or release music, you will offer a consumer experience at some point. It's inevitable. The question, however, is this: Are you going to offer a fan experience as well? Not just a few bundles to upsell the fans but a true fan experience? By doing one and not the other, you leave money, fans, and the ability to share on the table. If you narrow your pre-release window to weeks instead of months, you’re just giving yourself less time to promote. Isn't that a bad thing?
There will always be outliers in the game, but I think it's time for artists and their managers and labels to realize that this fan experience is now part of the process and not just an add-on. When artists sell to fans and labels sell to consumers, everybody wins.
Ask yourself, which is a better value for the money: a download, CD, stream, or bundle of the album when it comes out with promotional gimmicks and toys surrounding it, or all of the above plus access to the process? Remember the process includes the details of how, and more importantly, why the album was made unfolding before you in real-time over the life of the project, with unreleased tracks, exclusive access to the music and artwork, and a glimpse into the entire journey.
Ultimately, you will choose to define yourself as either a fan or a consumer. But at least certain artists are now allowing you the freedom to have that choice.