The paranoid voice inside my head is saying that you might be reading this thinking “why am I giving up the valuable time of my day to read anything titled silliness like Redfoot’s Reason,” and that might just be a fair thought.
My guess is that I simply like the alliteration (definitely just googled that word) using a double R, even if it’s not as premium as Rolls Royce. But, a small pocket of people that became my earliest music business relationships coined me as ‘Redfoot,’ given that every intern back then was required to carry a nickname until further notice — there was already a ‘redhead’ (THE Redhead Kingpin!) at the studio, and my nickname eventually stuck with pride after the fact — plus, I’m just a nerd who is excited to utilize the self-publishing articles feature to explain theories within music business that tickle my fancy. So here you have it; Redfoot’s Reason.
I smirk on the outside as I maybe cry a bit internally when I reference the fact that I currently have no platinum plaques hanging from my walls, so I humbly do like to say that this opinion is really just that, an opinion. It’s not right versus wrong, and these articles are not be meant to be Stone Cold Steve Austin moments in which “that’s the bottom line because I said so.” That’s simply not the case. With that out of the way, I have officially been learning something new about the music business every day for the past, let’s say 8 years on the safe side, which it’s important to acknowledge in music industry experience does not necessarily place me in a veteran’s range — but — knowing 2,920 music biz tidbits — give or take — is definitely greater than zero, and as mentioned, each article theme that I give a go to will be accompanied by some reason, plus some research. Let’s just get into it…
These types of things usually need thesis statements, right? Okay, well here’s my first ‘Redfoot’s Reason’ pitch for you:
It’s cringe-worthy to see new or emerging artists not get the ears and eyes on their music that they envisioned simply because our old friend stubbornness paid a visit & said, “this is a project, it’s meant to be dropped as an album in full, and that’s the way we are going to do it.”
No. It’s now 2021, and unless you are an established superstar in music, artists should cater to today’s climate and landscape, that is of course if getting your music out to the masses matters to you. For some, the goal of a release is more-so a moment for freedom of expression as the number one priority. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, as music is about the art first and foremost and I honestly couldn’t respect that more, but let’s please not define this as a music business mindset, versus a moment of clarity. The cadence in which your music rolls out is crucial, and dare I say the framework to be a deciding factor for the result. My hope for the artist, manager, publicist, agent, consultant, entertainment attorney, etc. to get out of reading this particular piece I’m writing here, is that if you believe in the music that you are working on, then your music matters, be thoughtful in the way you strategize your roll-out, and cater to the cadence.
Every artist is unique. Every project is different. Therefore it’s never black and white, and everything should be tailor-made. The ‘Art of Storytelling’ is not only an incredible Outkast series of songs, or within lyricism itself, the artists’ management and marketing team(s) must be masters too in creating story arcs through roll-out strategies that speak to the artists’ brand and image that they are molding. Hence as mentioned, everything is tailor-made.
In the spirit of keeping the theme of cadence and framework going, let’s categorize this into three options and approaches for the sake of this article; the singles route, the album route, and the hybrid in which sits in-between the two.
Lastly, before we break this down, and this could slash should perhaps be an entirely different article, I believe no matter the approach you decide to craft as your own, it’s important to have as fully loaded of a backlog in completed and polished content as you possibly can have, before pressing ‘go’ at all. Timing is everything, and if you aren’t far ahead in terms of 100 percent finalized assets (music, visuals, and perhaps most importantly, resources) then expect to be far behind in catching up on gaining the momentum you need to breakthrough. Play patience, don’t play catch up.
We can agree that repetition breeds muscle memory. That’s science, right? (Yes, I crack myself up). The way a professional basketball player trains by putting up however many foul shots a day to land that impressive free throw percentage in totality, you can train your fan base to participate with your releases in the same way. Consistency is the key term here. The artist who doesn’t go away and puts their name and brand in front of audiences, new and existing, continuously, creates fans who establish an algorithmic flow that equates to a foundation in which can be sustainable over time to create a demand for more. This is a bit of what a singles approach can do for you.
Every streaming platform comes with its own set of built-in audiences with their specific voices to amplify your activity. Apple Music, YouTube Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, Soundcloud, etc. they are all impactful in terms of custom approaches; but if I was asked to use one single and specific metric to measure a new and/or emerging artist’s success (or lack thereof); I would tell you to keep your eye, always, on your Spotify monthly listener number.
Data varies across the internet and these numbers continue to grow, but as I write this piece, Spotify is the largest music streaming service in the world with a reported 286 million users overall, and nearing 130 million of which as paying subscribers. They own this metric against competitors by somewhat of a significant margin. Beyond just the numbers, in my opinion, the interface and technology that Spotify possesses creates the greatest platform landscape for artist discovery, yes with playlists franchises, but furthermore through algorithms, detailed artist profiles, and more. Spotify’s mission is to connect a million artists to a landscape of a billion fans. When specifically referencing the monthly listener metric as your tell-tale sign, I choose this in theory because, within this artist discovery landscape, it goes beyond song streams (while that’s important) to measure your consistency, growth, and fans streaming retention. This is the group of listeners that could be prompted via their ‘release radar’ when you drop something new, and your goal in an effort to emerge is to continue to see that singular metric move up, and to the right. If you are able to put out singles on as close to a monthly basis as possible, this should in theory continually trend in that direction.
According to Spotify for Artists FAQ:
Monthly listeners are unique listeners who play your music during a 28-day period. This stat updates every day. Tracking trends using your monthly listeners timeline can give you a good idea of how your music is performing over longer periods of time, and can also help you understand overall engagement and listening behavior after a new release.
One of the many things that fascinate me when it comes to the streaming landscape, is qualitatively how significant it has become from the production and strong-structure perspective for new artists to create songs that quickly capture and hold the dwindling attention span of today’s listener. I am certainly a certified product myself of ADHD, and sure I in some way contributed to the eye-opening stats of this 2018 Forbes Article, Spotify Song Skip Rates Tell Us A Lot About Our Attention Span, which concludes by stating “We’ve been given the ability to choose quickly from extremely large catalogs of product, and we’re not going to stop until we find something that captures our attention for at least 30 seconds.”
Catering to a singles market benefits you in terms of the ability to present a quickly digestible product, especially if your sound can excite a new listener early on into your recording. But also, in not jeopardizing the way in which you want your record to come across artistically speaking — simply, some songs are more ‘streamable’ than others.
Releasing singles provides you the ability to evaluate the performance of a song by leveraging the data available for you to decide when it’s appropriate to scale up and accelerate marketing towards any particular song and continue to pour resources into any given record, versus knowing you have more songs in the pipeline to share and to perhaps pivot to the next single. This also becomes more cost-efficient for your marketing. Lastly to this point, a cadence of single releases creates a (once again using the word) digestible, library feed of music for new listeners to deep-dive into once they like what they hear, and the longer back catalog of songs they have to stream, the more opportunity you have to leverage data to showcase how you’ve created superfans based on how deep of a dive they are taking with you post that initial capture via your latest release. Releasing full-length projects, in theory, can provide a similar deep library effect if marketed correctly — which we will touch on in a moment — but the difference here with a singles model is the ability to give each song release the time for some TLC while it’s still new & fresh.
Before we transition, two other quick yet important pros for continuous singles are worth mentioning. Simply, if you are releasing as close to one month as you can, you will have more releases than if you were to build up into one larger drop with a body of work. More releases mean these two things…for one, you have the opportunity now to work a bit more intimately with your target platforms. Give an exclusive for release ‘A’ to publication ‘X’, then give release ‘B’ a feature with platform ‘Y,’ and so on and so forth.
Lastly, more releases mean, are you ready for it? You get paychecks more often. This is something I like.
To me, the strongest advantage of focusing your release as an album is the ability to paint any particular picture you desire to via a cohesive and exaggerated theme and aesthetic. Think of your album as if you were releasing an intense graphic novel. When listeners enter into your project, they should feel as if you have created a whole new world for them. As mainstream as these examples are, with also all of the budget in the world, these few album campaigns immediately come to mind:
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, where each interlude, transition, or skit ties together to draw you back to the imagery of Kendrick’s family van on the cover.
Travis Scott’s Rodeo or Astroworld, which provides you unique experiences in themes as if you are kicking down the double-doors into a modern western, turnt-up saloon or going up on a theme park’s most terrifying rollercoaster. I love David Lachapelle’s beautiful cover photography & artwork on Astroworld, which certainly reels you into that particular setting. The red-head on the cover is probably me as a child!
Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR, which consistently comes across as the dreamiest, glossy yet gritty version of Napoleon Dynamite’s auditorium scene.
Being that we’re focusing on the new and emerging stage of artist development, I do understand where there might be limitations in terms of production value in comparison to the above. But, something I was taught early on is that it’s very important to hold yourself to as high of standards in terms of quality as possible. You should be comparing what you are planning to put out with what’s at the top of the charts and asking, is this competitive? Does this meet industry standards? & if it isn’t — I wouldn’t be too down on yourself. For artists, I believe it takes guts to ask yourself this question and answer it honestly. You can always go back to the drawing board to be strategic and carve out a niche for why your project is not just only just competitive in quality, but unique as well. That’s how you know you are ready to attack the market.
Re-visiting the idea above of the advantage created by an album release in now having a deep library feed of music for fans, new and existing, to consume; in my opinion, the best approach to an album campaign is to truly commit to consistently promoting the body of work over a long period of time, extensively. This is typically done in stages driven by single campaigns from within the overall project. You might run a single, two, or even three prior to the release of the project — followed by campaigning the album release itself — and then identifying, breathing new life into, and focusing your efforts towards additional singles at a time. How you do this beyond the standard music video release is an opportunity to showcase innovation (activations, remixes, brand partner syncs, etc.), but the idea is to shine a new light on deserving record(s). In determining which record(s) post-album release should be marketed as a single, the album release strategy does also provide an opportunity to leverage data. Which songs are over-indexing from an organic standpoint might be the best identifier. From a fan perspective, I think we’ve all had that feeling of loving a particular ‘B-Side’ song on an album and finding excitement when it gets its own push. In those cases, you called it!
Pre and post-pandemic times, it would be a total miss if I didn’t note the impact of touring your album. This is an opportunity to further paint your thematic picture in the way that you brand your tour, design your staging, etc. in how it ties back to your album’s setting. Going back to the point in regards to high-standards, independent budgets, and production value; this does not have to be grandiose. This is an awesome opportunity to work smart. For example, last year I saw The-Dream tour his Sextape projects, as a songwriter and artist who makes stripped-down music for the strip clubs; his tour staging was just him, his DJ, and one stripper on a pole with visuals in the back. Very simplistic, creative, and tasteful; and spoke to the sound he creates. If The-Dream can bring you into his world in a low-lift fashion yet showcase a unique approach, so can every independent artist if thought about creatively.
How you map your tour should also be totally thought about strategically. Yes, if you are in the position to be a support act to a major artist within your lane of the target demographic and play larger concert venues that are already filled to capture new quality fans, that’s fantastic and go out there and seize the moment. That is certainly a great opportunity to grow your fanbase. But for artists who are not able to execute that positioning quite yet, you can absolutely still get across the points we are discussing here of extending your world into a real-life experience through tour performance. The way that you frame and capture content digitally can go a long way over time to showcase the movement you are creating. Additionally, less is sometimes more in this element. You can perform just 3–5 singular dates and still call it a tour if it’s announced and branded together, there are no rules against this! I certainly rather have an artist play fewer shows and focus the team’s efforts on ensuring those rooms are filled with quality eyes and ears that can convert to real fans versus playing a heavy schedule of less impactful dates. There’s also something to be said here in creating an aura that fans want to be apart of, where a rising artist can only be experienced live only a handful of times, and fans can brag about how early into your career they saw you live at the most intimate of venues. Also, you can still obviously always play shows, even with our first discussed approach, the singles route, but touring tied back to an album allows a greater opportunity to showcase and integrate that overarching theme.
I would say the largest disadvantage to taking the album approach, especially early into your career, would be that in the streaming landscape — give or take — most music is consumed in just a week’s time. From one ‘New Music Friday’ to the next, you hope that you are able to win the attention of your fans in that given week before another one of their favorite artists drops in the following. It’s an on-going cycle and conflict that this Rolling Stone article ‘Why Your Favorite Artist Is Releasing More Singles Than Ever’ outlines well. My opinion is simply in today’s landscape, it’s putting a heavy amount up for chance to drop a longer length project and expect the replay value, unless it both has a legitimate machine behind the push and is brilliant, to carry from top to bottom for longer than a week to a month (which most independent playlist campaigns tend to run for). Even in the scenario where there is a stretch to a full month’s worth of streaming, do you have 11 months of activity ready to cover to retain the new audience you have just acquired?
Not only fans in general (for new acts), but the DSP algorithms are encouraged by being ingested with ‘new & fresh’ material consistently. I start to think of the example of how cars need gas, and once pumped in with a full tank, how long will that last until you need to re-fuel? Start to understand your fanbase as a vehicle to know if I put in X amount of new music, how long will I be able to ride for before a re-fill is needed? And to that learning, what would be the best cadence that is sustainable?
To round out the way I look at this album route, it’s worth mentioning as well within this landscape that for star-level talent, it’s the exact opposite of thinking. Which is the point and the goal to get to. That goal is to create a feed at a rate that establishes a demand for more, and if that demand is there, within the streaming landscape as it is today, you drop as long of bodies of work as you possibly can, because fans will stream from top to bottom, and you have the ability to set record-breaking marks and maximize monetization. This is why Drake’s 2018 Scorpion project is a ‘double-album’ of 25 songs, why Migos went from 13 songs on the Culture album to 24 on Culture 2 just one year apart, and why Chris Brown’s last two solo albums 2017’s Heartbreak On A Full Moon was 45 songs & 2019’s Indigo had 32. Sheesh!
The Hybrid & In-Between
Like any strategy or decision, there’s always an in-between, best of both worlds type of scenario; a compromise, if you will. That remains the case in terms of how artists can cater to the cadence, and deliver music in ways that aren’t as thin as just a single, yet not as large of a lift as an album. This can be done in a few different ways.
Small “packs” of music are becoming more and more popular in this landscape, it sort of gives off the modern-day feel of a mixtape in the streaming era. I don’t believe there’s a specific method to this length-wise, but let’s say 2–3 songs at a time. This provides an opportunity to showcase some variety in your sound packed into one release in a digestible fashion while allowing yourself to receive a sense of which song fans are most gravitating towards. This in theory can also act as an A/B test to potentially inform a lane in moving forward, especially if you are experimenting with different approaches in production.
EP’s tend to be in the 4–6 songs range, which certainly could be considered here as well; my personal opinion is that it comes down to a science and mixture of how much music is your audience truly demanding from you at this point, and with what supply of resources does your team have to support that slightly wider release? Does that difference between a 2/3 song pack to a 4/6 song EP at one time really create a dent for the particular artist at this time? And why? Decisions like these speak towards how crucial your strategy in cadence really is because, for new artists, each release must feed momentum into the next & the choice that’s being discussed will impact the outlook of your release calendar with somewhat of significance for emerging acts.
An approach that I find interesting and that also checks a nice amount of boxes is to drive your roll out focused under the singles model in a deep-dived fashion and then package those existing fresh singles in which you’ve built momentum with and familiarized your fan base to, along with a 2/3 new song “pack” as discussed above, presenting this all together as a thematic album.
A couple of recent examples of this from artists I am a fan of would be Theophilus London’s January 2020 album, Bebey, which is a 13 song project with only 3 or 4 new songs by my count. The majority of the audio collection were songs that he had already released beforehand. In hearing the small bundle of new material next to the singles he had already built a buzz for, Bebey comes together cohesively when presented as one. Then you have songstress Destiny Rogers who released 8 songs (including a 30-second intro) this past May, presented as an EP entitled Great Escape. The first 4 of those 8 songs being previously released singles that had built momentum. Notable in my eyes that those 3 new songs on Great Escape were listed as tracks 6–8, in my opinion, packing the back-end of that project with the new material was done strategically.
Lastly, flipping the script on the concept above, and also becoming a bit more popular of an approach (at least within the pandemic where artists are dropping projects, yet not able to tour) recently, is the cadence of releasing an album & then following up with deluxe versions with additional new singles or remixes. As discussed when reviewing the pros and cons of the album approach in general within the article above, my thought is this approach works if the demand pool from your fan base is at a star-level where volume equates to maximum monetization in a super meaningful way.
Redfoot’s Recommendation & Conclusion
A piece of advice that I do have a good amount of confidence in giving is that in terms of approach, never treat any project the same. As mentioned at the very top of this essay, every artist is unique and every project is different. Are there opportunities to learn from previous experiences and apply that knowledge to new projects for artists at similar levels? Absolutely. When breaking artists, is there a formula today that is right versus wrong? I think there is a certain framework in which the industry will take what you are doing seriously, but in an ever-evolving landscape, it’s never wrong to try something that’s out of the box and hasn’t been done before. Perhaps just manage your expectations when experimenting that results may vary.
But if you have read this far, first of all, thank you! But secondly, I’m assuming you’d like to leave with some sort of recommendation based on what has been presented. To give you a general proposal of a recommendation, I turn to a corporate phrase in which as most corporate phrases do, makes me hit an eye-roll, but this one is something that I recognize as true, generally. “Crawl, Walk, Run.” And then, sprint!
This general recommendation is for new, emerging, independent artists. When a machine is involved, I don’t think it’s ever fair to yourself to rely on external factors beyond your control, but your project might benefit from others within that system, that bring leverage, and therefore labels might position your strategy differently. Sometimes rightfully so, but sometimes this results in a crash and burn. That is another story for another day.
Crawl is the singles model. Release frequently and build your monthly listeners to create a demand pool. It’s one song at a time, which should be simple enough, but I’ve consistently seen artists try to run before they’ve shown the execution in crawling in terms of deliverables, and hence it’s another main reason to start in this phase; it’s an opportunity for your team to understand the dynamics and camaraderie required in a release at a simpler level, one song at a time, and this should help as you gradually scale up together.
The walk is the hybrid & in-between scenario. Now you’ve built a semi-significant buzz from your consistently sticking with the singles model and fans are ready for just a bit more. Bring them into a thematic aesthetic of a world(s) you have created, whether this being small-packs of music or a project with just a few new songs and mainly built out of the singles you have put out. Now that there is a theme brought to life and some fan-demand to experience it, you can find yourself at the stage to branch out into shows/tours/activations/merchandise, any creative experience really to reel your audience in a bit further, so that your music begins to stick with them in a more meaningful way. Now, when your name comes up it does more than ring a bell, it connects to a particular moment in time.
Run and sprint aren’t stages you can just jump into as simple as crawling to walking. This is album mode, this is you are at a star to superstar level and you are putting out as many songs as possible because that volume of streaming demand is really there. You are maximizing every brand partnership opportunity that makes sense as possible, merchandise are features are frequent, shows are almost every night while on the road and the venue sizes continue to increase because your fans are filling those rooms. This is where your strategy basically is to seize the moment and make it last. The biggest artists of the moment are usually the ones working the hardest in the industry. Why? They have the most to do because their time is now.
You might need to walk for a while, or perhaps crawl to walk to crawl again. But, the name of the game is consistency, patience, and evolution across all elements of your brand. Continue to do these things, push yourself and your team to continuously look yourselves in the mirror, and raise the bar collectively. Believe and see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if others don’t get it at certain points. You’ll be running and sprinting towards that light soon enough.