Capital Ideas Blog

How to drop an album in the digital age

By Pradeep K. Chintagunta
July 24, 2013

From: Blog


This post originally appeared on the Kilts Center Faculty Blog.

In the movie Walk the Line, Johnny Cash (played by Joaquin Phoenix) tells June Carter (played by Reese Witherspoon), “Now I’ve asked you forty different ways and it’s time you come up with a fresh answer.” While the context there was related to matrimony, the sentiment is a relevant one for marketers. How does one make one’s product or service stand out and be heard in the marketplace?

The question is of particular relevance for the music industry, which puts out a steady stream of albums on digital and other media, and which has to compete with itself due to the prevalence of piracy.
If recent releases by Jay Z and Kanye West are any evidence, it appears that the industry is constantly thinking of ways to satisfy the needs of its audience (the listening “customer”) while at the same time making the effort worthwhile for the artist.

A typical album release is accompanied by advertising, which includes television show appearances, air play of singles on the radio, etc.

While one of the tracks from Mr. West’s new album Yeezus proclaims “I am God,” omnipresence was not a strategy that Mr. West or his studio used to promote the album. As Mr. West himself stated, “With this album, we ain’t drop no single to radio. We ain’t got no NBA campaign, nothing like that. Shit, we ain’t even got no cover. We just made some real music." Rather, Mr. West used the combination of minimum exposure with maximum leverage to promote the album.

Specifically, while there were performances on programs like Saturday Night Live, the public’s exposure to the album prior to release was in the form of videos, short ones and of performances at various locations, that were then leaked online. The album then depended on the multiplier effect on social media, which generated more buzz for the album.

What set the campaign for Yeezus apart, however, were the projections of Mr. West rapping the lyrics to his song “New Slaves” on several buildings across the US as well as in other countries (see this clip for a projection at the University of Chicago’s Goodspeed Hall). These larger-than-life projections at strategic locations helped to reach the desired target audience, created buzz for the album, and generated online conversations about both the campaign as well as the album and its songs. Again, the multiplier effect kicked in when the videos of these projections were widely available on social media. So rather than spend money advertising the album, Mr. West seems to have generated pre-release awareness and interest via an alternative approach.

Mr. Shawn Carter (better known as Jay Z) on the other hand unveiled a $5 million deal with Samsung Electronics, in which the firm purchased 1 million copies of the album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, and released it a few days prior to the official release on an exclusive app. The maneuver inspired the recording industry’s trade group, the RIAA, to alter its rules for platinum certification, which allowed Mr. Carter’s album to go platinum before its release. Essentially, the Samsung deal and the platinum certification provided pre-release buzz for the album that spilled over into actual sales after release; the album sold 528,000 copies in the first week.

While the Samsung move was innovative, this was not the first instance of such a “bundling” strategy by a recording artist. Many years prior to Mr. Carter’s move, the artist formerly known as Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson) used a similar move when he bundled copies of his album Planet Earth with the Mail on Sunday, a UK newspaper, several weeks prior to the album’s official release. In exchange, the newspaper paid the artist an upfront lump sum, much like Samsung did with Mr. Carter. Indeed, Prince is well known for his innovations in album sales and distribution. He previously bundled the album Musicology with tickets to his live, sold-out shows, which boosted the album’s sales and helped it achieve platinum status. (Interestingly, the rules were subsequently changed to exclude such “sales” when classifying albums).

Prince was also one of the first to recognize the potential in the broadband age of online subscription services for music, and he launched a (now defunct) service for his music. Billy Sparks tells Prince in the movie Purple Rain, “your music make sense to no one… but yourself.” Prince has shown not only how his music makes sense but also how his moves make a lot of business sense.

Like all marketers then, musicians are looking for ways to reach their target audiences in the most effective and efficient manners. Purveyors of traditional products should take note of these innovations to see whether they can be of some use in the din of today’s advertising and promotion.

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