Pre-release strategies have never been so relevant. Discussions about how new releases are being presented to music markets have been in the press a lot within recent months as we head into the frantic Christmas release period. Creating something different around a release has seemingly become an integral way to create a buzz in the press and of course — let’s not forget — to go on to encourage sales!
In my previous role as trade marketing manager at Believe Digital, I was involved in the creation of retail promotions, including the initial discussions and implementation of the best strategies to be used for new releases. These discussions were always unique to each individual release and strategies deployed were dependent upon the status of an artist, the label’s views, and of course, the artist’s fanbase; with consideration for what calls to action those fans are likely to respond to upon the announcement of a new release. In ideal situations these pre-release retail discussions happened around six weeks prior to release, preferably more for larger releases. This timeframe allowed us to ascertain what promotional assets were available from the label. These could be free or exclusive tracks, artist interviews, competition prizes, or whether we could envisage a pre-stream or an exclusive early release with a particular partner.
This post considers two pre-release opportunities that have been in the music press recently, and the ways smaller indie labels can look to make the most of a pre-release period, in order to raise awareness of a new product.
In the build up to the raft of major label Christmas releases, there has been a lot of talk recently about new tracks that have climbed the iTunes chart and received radio airplay but haven’t been eligible for the official charts. This has been due to the pre-release promotional tool that is available on iTunes album pre-orders, called instant gratification, or instant grat for short. In layman’s terms, instant grat is available when an album is pre-ordered from iTunes and it automatically downloads a specified track from an album before the release date.
iTunes have recently enabled the ability for multi-instant grat. This allows for a number of tracks to be made available to fans over the course of the pre-order period. For example, one new track per week (over the pre-order period) will instantly become available in a fan’s iTunes account. The benefit of this promotion is that it is a great incentive for fans to pre-order an album, so they can get their hands on tracks early.
The feature has become very popular, and in recent months, as artists such as Lady Gaga and Eminem have had new albums available for pre-order, there has been a lot of confusion about why their new tracks that have gained radio airplay and already become favorites with fans, have not been eligible to enter the charts.
This ineligibility has been defined by the UK’s Official Charts Company [OCC] as such:
1. Only one ‘instant-grat’ track is eligible for the chart when an album is on pre-order, and this must be stipulated by the label
2. It is not yet possible to define where sales of tracks come from – for example: whether a download has occurred as an individual single sale or whether it was a part of an album pre-order.
Although confusing, the OCC define on their website that the strict ruling of instant grat is to ensure that the charts “always reflect active purchases and genuine demand for the single, not demand for the parent album”.
To explain this in more detail, here are some examples of the promotion in action recently:
Eminem – ‘The Marshall Mathers LP2’
There were four album tracks which were made available whilst the album was still on pre-order: ‘Rap God’, ‘Berzerk’, ‘Survival’, plus ‘The Monster’, featuring Rihanna. ‘Rap God’, ‘Berzerk’, ‘Survival’ had all been available to download as singles. ‘Monster’ was then made available as the instant grat track and the label nominated this to be the chart eligible track. Upon this decision ‘Rap God’, ‘Berzerk’, ‘Survival’ were all excluded from the charts. Ironically, a few weeks ago ‘The Monster’ denied One Direction’s ‘Story of My Life’ the Number 1 spot, which is currently the instant grat track available on their new album ‘Midnight Memories’.
Lady Gaga – ‘Artpop’
In the case of ‘Artpop’, the single which was chosen for chart eligibility was ‘Applause’; but Gaga’s collaboration with R Kelly, ‘Do What You Want’, quickly came to be in high demand with fans and on radio. But it remained ineligible for the chart until the album was released on November 11.
Where instant grat encourages digital sales, pre-streams of a new album encourage early listens and up-sells to album pre-orders. Again, on the lead-up to the busy Christmas release schedule, there have been some great examples of creative pre-stream exclusives. Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ was exclusively made available in the UK via O2 Tracks. You can read more about this over on Mark Mulligan’s blog.
Meanwhile, Arcade Fire exclusively streamed their new album ‘Reflektor’ in its entirety via YouTube one week before release. This was obviously a great strategy, as the video content could be monetised, along with visible pre-order links. The stream was only available on desktop and the audio did not work on mobiles. It is not clear whether or not this was intentional or just down to licensing restrictions, but was a great way to ensure that the pre-order links were seen.
For indie labels and artists, pre-streaming promotions, which require a large amount of demand for a new release, or even investment from a partner (Remember Jay-Z’s tie-in with Samsung for the ‘Holy Grail’ exclusive?) are just not the norm. Going back to iTunes, there has been a huge uptake of pre-streams taking place within their app, from David Bowie’s comeback album ‘The Next Day’ to both of Justin Timberlake’s 2013’s album releases. Although highly competitive, pre-streams via iTunes provide a convenient way for labels to gain attention for their up-coming releases, with a very obvious up-sell.
In my experience, a smaller scale and more manageable pre-release strategy would be for a label to negotiate a pre-stream with a media partner. Hosting this via a streaming service such as Spotify who offer embeddable widgets is essentially a way of doing a two-pronged promo attack. This is due to gaining promotional support, such as social media, via two additional outlets, both the media and streaming partner. In addition, streaming royalties are also accrued during this period. One of the pre-streams I worked on at Believe was the exclusive of the brilliant debut from One Little Indian’s The Computers. The label had managed to secure support from Rock Sound for a one-week exclusive, with the album stream itself hosted via the embeddable Spotify player.
Both instant grat and exclusive pre-streams show easy and cost-effective pre-release strategies, which can be secured by labels of any size. They do not need huge funding, but are great ways to build awareness of new releases and most importantly rally fans into downloading a release to get a single early, pre-stream a new album and also build a buzz online via link sharing. Whether you’re Lady Gaga or the new indie kid on the block!
Photo via Lady Gaga’s Facebook page.