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Should bands bother promoting albums?

Cassette tape - accompanies article about album promotion

by Chris Singleton

The music industry is in a constant state of flux. Streaming is taking over from downloads. Vinyl is making a comeback. Hi-res audio is on the way. Live promoters are becoming record labels. Record companies want to sell t-shirts. To quote a certain AOR band from 2004, everything’s changing. And yet despite all this change, one thing seems to stay the same: the notion that the album is the be all and end all. 

Yes, despite the fact that people are consuming music in all manner of ways, on all manner of devices, and often in some sort of shuffle mode, we musicians seem wedded to the idea that at some point we should get 12 songs together, stick them on a shiny piece of plastic, assign a ‘release date’ to said piece of plastic, issue a press release about it and hope that people buy it when it hits the shelves (or not: finding a record shop to stock anything in is a devilishly hard business these days).

In some ways, this obsession with and emphasis on the long-player is perfectly understandable. The album has proven itself to be a great format; and wonderful things can happen when you place twelve songs by a great band in a row. The LP has a proud history (though not as long as some imagine – it’s really only since the mid to late sixties that the LP really became the art form that it is considered today).

The main problem I see with the album doesn’t really concern the format though: rather, it’s the way that the album seems to be the only thing that musicians think is worth promoting. With a lot of new bands I encounter, virtually all of their promotional activities are exclusively centred on an album and take place only at the time at which that album comes out; this is fine if you are Coldplay or U2, with a truckload of existing fans ready to obligingly buy a full LP’s worth of material – but not so good if you are a brand new band starting out. There’s generally no fanbase at all there to buy your album, even if it’s great, and shouting about the fact that there’s a record with 12 songs on it out on Date X is not really going to do you much good. There are an awful lot of other people doing that.

The problem is that by leaving your music promotion until the point at which your album comes out, you have possibly left things too late. By all means release a full album, but try to create a promotion schedule that starts well in advance of its release date – maybe up to a year in advance. Here are a few things that you could consider doing as part of this:

  • Rather than putting an embargo on your album tracks, and insisting, PinkFloyd-style, that they can only be listened to as part of a full album, release them (ideally with accompanying videos) online regularly – and approach blogs and music sites about your band every time you do.
  • Use Facebook ads and other social media tactics to build up your following and email mailing list so that both are as large as possible well before the record comes out.
  • Don’t leave it until the album comes out to start gigging – get out there now and start developing a live following.
  • Approach managers, publishers, agents and labels with individual songs that might pique their interest; don’t necessarily wait until your album is 100% written, mixed and mastered to do so (you never know – an individual song might convince them to put some budget into an album project).

The other thing to remember is that you might be a singles band, not an albums band. Your album might be an incoherent mess but it might have 3 killer singles on it. If so, focus on your strong point – and place the emphasis on (and plough your budget into) promoting singles over and above an album.

But to answer the main question posed by this post - should bands bother promoting their albums? - the answer is actually a resounding yes. It’s just a case of starting way earlier than you might think is necessary. A promo strategy which kicks in way before an LP comes out is crucial to giving you the fanbase (and media support) that you need in order to sell some copies of that LP (or see bums on seats at the accompanying tour). It’s simple: if your album is your big musical statement, make sure you have a big following to hear it - BEFORE it comes out.

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Let’s get physical: why musicians shouldn’t forget about cds, tapes and records

Record store

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have picked up on the fact that much of the advice that has been imparted relates to digital aspects of music industry – whether that’s to do with recording, distribution, PR or marketing. And for good reason really: to misquote Madonna, we are living in a digital age, and we are all digital girls. Actually at Prescription PR you’ll find nearly all fellas, except at the weekend perhaps, but you get the drift.

Anyway, slipping quickly out of drag, and back into a manly blogger’s outfit (whatever the hell that looks like that), I thought  I’d devote a bit of time this week to underlining something important: that although the digital revolution has in general made the likes of CDs, tapes, minidiscs and records look very obscure, and cheap as chips, paradoxically it has also – in certain contexts - made them look very hip and a potential source of lots of moolah.

I’ll explain why in a minute – and outline the potential benefits of your band ‘getting physical’ – but let’s stay in the digital domain for a moment. Cheap digital recording gear and worldwide digital distribution via the internet have led to an explosion in the number of bands producing and distributing albums. What this digital revolution hasn’t provided for these bands, however, is the kind of fanbase-generating marketing budget that would have accompanied a traditional album release. The upshot is that the industry has arguably changed from being one where there is a tiny number of bands with huge followings to one where there is a huge number of bands with tiny followings.

I’m guessing that if you are reading this post, you or your band fall into the latter category, and question is how – and sorry if this sounds a little bit mercenary – to make as much money as possible from that tiny following. By tiny, I mean that perhaps a you have few hundred dedicated fans rather than a few hundred thousand. But the key word here is ‘dedicated’: if the aforementioned group are really into you, then they may be prepared to pay a premium for your music. But given how easy it is for them to listen to you for free, only if you make it really worth their while.

And here’s where physical music products come in: if you can create a physical offering that is perceived as unique and of special value by your fans, you may find that instead of them paying £6.99 to download your album on iTunes, they may be prepared to pay a lot more for the same music.

So, here are some simple ideas on how to get physical.

  • Number your CDs by hand and sign them. Instead of charging £8.99 etc., charge £15.00. This is a really simple way to increase the income you generate from any stock you manufacture, and you'll always find at least some listeners prepared to pay a bit extra for a signed CD.
  • Put together a little package comprising a bunch of funky, limited-edition items. For example, charge £25 for a package that includes a signed CD, handwritten lyrics, a poster and two signed photos.
  • Accompany a CD sale with merchandise – bundle a CD, t-shirt and mug together for £20.
  • Do a limited run of cassettes / mix tapes and charge £17 per signed cassette album.
  • Do a combined vinyl/CD release and charge £30 per copy sold.
  • A bit of a physical/digital mash-up this, but you could issue your album on a designer USB memory stick – there are a range of mad designs you can get now (rainforest-friendly USB stick anyone?). Include high-resolution versions of your tracks on the USB (WAVS rather than MP3s) and other exclusive content like videos, alternate takes and so on.

These are just some examples of limited-edition physical releases – I’m sure you can use your imagination to come up with funkier examples of how to get physical. In fact, I’d be interested in hearing some more ideas; do leave a comment if you have any clever suggestions.

Whatever you eventually decide upon for a physical release, the key thing really is to think like a business and work out:

  1. how many of your fans will realistically buy a physical product
  2. how much they will be prepared to pay for it
  3. how much it will cost you – not just in terms of money, but time too – to make your physical offering.

Ultimately, if you are smart about things, do the right sums and  keep costs down, you may find that oddly, in this digital era there is more to be made from an innovative physical release than a bog-standard digital one. If you have 100 fans prepared to pay £30 for a really great physical package that costs £10 to produce, that’s a profit of £2,000 (and seriously, making any money, let alone £2k from music, is getting extremely difficult these days). Conversely, if all your 100 fans bought your album on iTunes, you’d have made at most £490 (£6.99 x 100, minus Apples 30% or so cut); possibly less if a distributor or indie label is taking a cut. Indeed, a cool physical product that fans might even view as an investment may make the difference between them parting with cash at all or just hitting play on Spotify or clicking on that torrent link.

Finally, there is another big advantage to funky physical releases: they make you look cool. Drop the fact that your music is out on limited-edition vinyl or a cassette casually into a conversation, and skinny-jeaned hipsters from Hackney will come out of the woodwork, start drooling and think your music is much better than it actually is.

Which of course in this business is all that counts really.

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