In the last 20 years, the music industry has transformed beyond imagination. The distribution model has collapsed to the point where anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can release an album.
This democratization of music has led to a boom in new artists and music. Now, every music fan with a streaming account has access to an almost unlimited catalog of songs. The downside, however, is that with all this choice, it’s harder than ever for artists, old and new, to break through all the noise. The currency is PR, and every album launch has one objective: get fans talking.
To ensure they drive as much buzz as possible, artists and labels have to think of new and innovative ways to market their music. Every album launch is obviously rooted in the music, but artists are recognizing they need to be about so much more.
Musicians have discovered brand marketing. Albums have become brand platforms, articulations of the artist’s point of view, that feed a holistic "brand" world of experiences and products. They are giving fans more entry points to the music, more ways to discover and engage in it, and more things to talk about.
At BBH LA, we work with artists and record labels. Through campaigns for Kacy Hill and Depeche Mode, we have identified interesting ways that artists are approaching album launches and creating brand worlds that go far beyond the music.
Have a message
Music isn’t released in a vacuum, it becomes part of, and adds to, the culture of the moment. Each album has a story that the artist wants to tell and a message they want to send. Even when that message is incredibly personal, it is often a common experience for different groups of people. Kacy Hill’s debut album, "Like a Woman," was inspired by her treatment as a model for American Apparel, but the digital experience she created has resonated with anyone who wants to feel free to explore their sexuality without judgement. More recently Jay Z released "Moonlight," a video that felt more like a thesis than a piece of music. Produced in collaboration with Alan Yang, "Moonlight" uses the hit show Friends and the recent Moonlight/La La Land Oscars debacle to make a deeper point about representation and whiteness in Hollywood. The music itself is used as an epilogue to this dialectic, a last thought to the bigger point.
Put the fans first
The adage that "it’s all about the fans" has never been truer. It’s the hardcore fans that drive cultural momentum in today’s social-media-fueled world. They are the ones who will tweet, share, post, and gram more than anyone, so give them more reasons to do so. No one has demonstrated this more powerfully than Depeche Mode, which has turned over its Facebook feed to a different fan each day. The creativity and dedication these fans have shown has fueled ticket sales of the band’s world tour, making it the fifth-highest-grossing tour of 2017. By energizing their most ardent fans, Depeche Mode has driven awareness of the tour far more than any ad campaign could. In the new streaming economy, this is more important than ever; the big money is now in merchandise and gig tickets. Committed audiences make artists viable and grow their brand, so engage them in as many ways as possible.
It’s fascinating to see how artists use physical spaces and products to drive buzz for their album launch. Kanye West started a trend with his pop up shop tour, and Kendrick Lamar is following suit as he travels around the country. The lines that snake out of these shops are crazy and have fed a wave of Instagram posts around the world, not to mention added revenue. Artists such as Frank Ocean and Kacy Hill have also created analog expressions of their music, giving fans novel ways to experience it through magazines and phone lines.
Think like a broadcaster
Whether it’s an HBO premiere of a visual video of your album or a YouTube Live stream, artists are thinking more about the form and shape content can take. For the launch of her album "Witness," Katy Perry embarked on a 72-hour live stream that she programmed from start to finish. There were guest appearances, live music performances, and deep discussions on race and sexuality. Fans flocked to get an intimate portrait of the person behind the artist and streams of "Witness" went through the roof. Beyonce took a different tack with the innovative release of "Lemonade." Obviously, the content and form of this video was world class. However, her decision to partner with HBO gave the film a broadcast platform unlike any other music video before it, and ensured that the world immediately stood up and took notice.
We are at a pivotal moment for the music industry in which artists are feeling liberated by their options to extend the reach of their music and play with how they express themselves. I have no doubt that we will continue to see artists challenging the traditional norms of album releases to gain a foothold in culture.
Hamish Cameron is strategy director at BBH LA.