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Project plans

How to plan an album release — on a post it note

Post it notes - image accompanying an article about planning an album release

If we’re honest about it, band members and artists aren’t always the most organised people around. This is a problem, because (1) today’s music industry places a huge emphasis on musicians organising about 90% of all their admin themselves; and (2) releasing music in a way that will ensure anybody listens to it is a surprisingly complex task, with loads of pre-planning and multiple stakeholders involved.

So a bit of organisation goes a long way, and in this post I thought I’d share a low-tech but very effective way to plan an album release — and one which, incidentally, involves a lot of post-it notes.

For this exercise you will need:

  • Several packs of post-it notes

  • 1 roll of brown paper

  • 1 marker pen

  • 1 laptop

  • Everybody involved in your album release

Step 1: Get everyone together

Easier said than done, but try to get the band, your designers, manager, live agent, distributors, PR people, radio pluggers, CD manufacturer and the guy who’s making the tea all in the same room at the same time. (If you can’t achieve this monumental feat of diarisation then get as many of your team as possible in there). These are your project ‘stakeholders’, and you need their help to create a strong project plan.

Step 2: Create a timeline

Unfurl your roll of brown paper and pin it up on the wall. Then, mark out the first Monday of every week for about 4 months on the roll of brown paper, so that you have a timeline which stretches out for about 16-20 weeks in front of all your collaborators. If you are really organised, you might want to prepare this in advance of your meeting.

Your timeline should look something like this (but containing more weeks and columns):

bp1-example.jpg

Step 3: Identify tasks

Write ‘ALBUM RELEASE’ in big letters on a post-it note and place it on the timeline on the date that you think the album should come out.

Then, give a bunch of post-it notes to all the stakeholders in the room. Ask them to work backwards from this date and write all the tasks relevant to their work on individual post-it notes.

For example, a PR task would be to mail copies of your CD to long lead magazines; a designer’s task would be to produce the album cover and so on. Make sure each post-it note lists not only the task but the person responsible for completing it.

Step 4: Add tasks to the timeline

When everybody has identified their tasks, ask each stakeholder to approach the timeline with their post-it notes and place them on the timeline at an appropriate point in time before the release. Ask contributors to be realistic and logical about their deadlines.

At this point, you should have a roll of brown paper that looks somewhat like the below example (but containing a LOT more tasks):

bp-example2.jpg

Step 5: Jiggle the timeline

As more and more tasks get added, you’ll find that some of the deadlines on your roll of brown paper are quite frankly ridiculous: you’ll probably find that the radio plugger has said he’s going to send the album to radio after the record has come out, or that the artwork won’t be ready until after the CD is printed.

At this point, it is time to move all the post-its around so that all the task deadlines make sense. You may even find that your release date was far too early / ambitious, and needs to be pushed back to accommodate everybody’s lead times.

Ideally, your manager or somebody very organised should arbitrate this process so that it’s not a complete free-for-all.

Step 6: capture the timeline into a spreadsheet

Once all the task timings have been agreed upon, it’s time to capture the timeline onto your laptop.

Each task should be assigned an ‘owner’ (i.e., radio plugger, press officer, live agent etc.) on a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet should contain the following columns:

  • Task

  • Owner

  • Deadline

  • Completed? (Yes/No)

It’s a good idea to use a cloud-based spreadsheet if possible for this — i.e., using G Suite or Office 365, because that way, all your stakeholders can access a ‘live’ version of the document which, as your album release project progresses, shows in real time what’s been done and who needs to be chased to do something.

Step 7: implement the plan

Now you have your plan all laid out neatly in a spreadsheet, it’s time to implement it.

Again, it’s helpful if you have a manager (or project planning enthusiast) to do this, but regardless of who ends up ‘owning’ the spreadsheet, you need to ensure that the spreadsheet is constantly referred to and updated in the run up to the release and that everybody involved in the project is regularly reminded to ensure they meet their deadlines.

What if people can’t make the meeting?

If there are stakeholders who can’t make the brown paper meeting, then just try to capture as many tasks as possible with the people who can attend, and liaise with other stakeholders immediately after the meeting to get their tasks entered onto the timeline too.

I know, it isn’t rock and roll…

All this seems like a very dry, not-at-all-rock-and-roll process. But at the end of it you should have a much clearer idea of the work that putting out an album really entails, and you will have given your record the best chance of being successfully released (and heard).

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Leather pants, rock gods, groupies and er, project planning?

Project planning - essential for a music release

OK, so you’ve spent 4 years recording your opus. And you’re getting ready to whack it up on iTunes and Spotify, thereby putting it within reach of a global audience of music lovers, who will, if there is any justice in this world, buy it in their droves and propel your act into the league of leather-panted rock gods.

The problem is that you are in the same boat as Lord-knows-how-many thousands of musicians all across the world, who, just like you, all aspire to wear the leather rock pants (or lycra hot pants; take your pick). The digital revolution has made it ridiculously easy to distribute your music to a global audience, but the flipside of this is that quite frankly, everybody else is doing it. You are competing with an enormous pool of ruthless, fame-hungry musicians who would sell their granny’s false teeth, or even the granny in question herself, if it meant a whiff of success.

So how can you put yourself ahead of this pack of mean, granny-selling musos? One option, of course, is to find yourself a nice sugar daddy or mommy with a shedload of cash that they are willing to plough into your career; but even then, you will probably not be home and dry. 

Although it helps enormously, cash on its own will not buy you success. It’s quite likely that your talent won’t help much either; record companies get sent fantastic music all the time – which could chart easily if given the right push – that remains completely unheard by the masses (often because the lead singer has a bad haircut, but that's another blog post).

In a nutshell – and you probably know this already – rock and roll success is one of the most difficult things to achieve, and if cash or talent alone can’t secure it, then what will? Well, it’s our view that one of the most single important things that can help give artists an edge in the quest for success, but gets repeatedly overlooked, is this: a plan.

Here’s a classic example of what we mean: a band spends thousands of pounds on an album; hires a designer to create a beautiful album cover; manufactures digipacks made of gold; hires dwarves to serve cocaine at gigs…and then sets a release date for the record that completely ignores the fact that the music press generally demand to receive an album three months in advance of its release (the ‘long lead time’). Cue no press hype, no interest from radio as a result of great reviews and finally, no sales and no leather pants and screaming teenage groupies.

There are a multitude of other examples of this kind of thing – for example, bands manufacturing CDs without ISRC codes (making it significantly harder to generate royalty income from airplay); press releases being issued without release dates; the radio plugger not being made aware of a four star Q review before talking to the head of Radio 1; barcodes not being added to CDs; artist websites not being updated with new material in time for the release and so on. All of these basic mistakes make that elusive rock success even more elusive, and generally they all stem from poor planning. Although “project management” may seem like a boring term when you put it in the same sentence as “rock stardom”, the two go hand in hand; and regardless of your budget or the quality of your material, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

So, here are 4 key tips which we think can help independent or unsigned artists plan for an effective promotional campaign.

1. Assign roles and responsibilities clearly: most serious album release projects will require a music PR company, a radio plugger, a website designer, a print designer, a distributor (and perhaps a publisher or TV plugger too). Ensure everybody is clear who is doing what, even if you are taking a DIY approach and doing a lot of the legwork yourself.

2. If at all possible, try to get one competent, organised individual to oversee the release – to act as the project manager. This person should liaise constantly with all the above stakeholders and ensure that each key project task is completed on time.

3. Get all your stakeholders in the same room and draw up a release timeline that works for everybody. Discuss press lead times, manufacturing turnaround, distribution deadlines, barcodes, ISRC codes and so on. Come out of that meeting with a project plan that contains key tasks and realistic milestones for the project.

4. Don’t ignore that project plan that you spent hours creating! Your project manager should now use it as his/her reference point throughout the entire release and tick off each task as they are completed.

Obviously, these four tips won’t guarantee rock stardom; a few little things like a serious marketing spend, a lot of good luck and that good haircut come in handy too, but hopefully having a clear, simple plan will take you a step closer to the land of the rock pants, or at least give you the best chance possible of getting there, regardless of your budget or musical prowess.

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