Signed and established artists are now offering free access to their music ahead of an official release. In particular, streaming an album before it hits the market is becoming a trend, whether it is through NPR, Amazon, iTunes, or Pandora Premieres.
iTunes and Pandora are the biggest launch pads. iTunes locks the listener into a continuous album stream, while Pandora allows users to skip songs and return to previous tracks. Still, streaming through iTunes is more attractive for an artist and their label, as the company has the credit card information of millions of account holders. The “buy now” button enables the transaction to take place in ten seconds, and no additional user information is required. It is ideal for pre-orders.
Today’s up and coming artists are well acquainted with the promotional tool of free music. A current example is Toronto based singer-songwriter The Weeknd, who released three albums for free before signing a recording contract with Republic Records at the Universal Music Group. He earned rave reviews and a strong following, which increased his leverage with the label. In place of new material, The Weeknd’s first release for Republic, Trilogy, was a re-mastered collection of his three independent releases and an additional three new tracks. Sales have approached 300,000 since the album’s launch in November 2012, a sizeable figure notwithstanding its status as a free good for over a year.
Not long ago, finding free music to listen to was only possible through the radio or by going to a venue and seeing live music. With the speed and ubiquity of the Internet, buying music is, perhaps, no longer the necessity that it was. Free, ad-supported streaming services like Spotify are growing in popularity and feature comprehensive catalogues, which may end up dethroning physical and download sales in the long run—it already has in Sweden. When record labels and artists stream an album before it hits the shelves, they are not just encouraging pre orders, though. Unlike leaked versions, artists can broadcast their music at high quality, which gives integrity to the final product.
After a seven-year absence from the music scene, Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience became one of the most anticipated albums of 2013. It was made available for streaming in its entirety through iTunes a week before it’s official release on March 19th. The record became “the most pre-ordered and the fastest-selling album in iTunes’ history”, producing an impressive 968,000 copies by the end of the first week of sales – an accomplishment worth noting in today’s climate, where most artist are struggling to move half a million copies in their debut week. Industry experts had predicted a successful release for Timberlake; in the event, it became the best selling album of 2013.
Timberlake had only released two singles prior to the album: Suit & Tie, featuring Jay-Z on January 15, and Mirrors, on February 11th. He also promoted the record at a number of different appearances, including performances on Saturday Night Live and at The Grammy Awards. Both must have enticed fans to stay tuned for the official March release. Part two, The 20/20 Experience: The Complete Experience is due out September 30th , six months after part one. Fourteen US dates alongside hip-hop superstar Jay-Z, as part of the Legends of the Summer Tour, should take care of the album’s promotion, and, after the current summer tour is over, Timberlake will return to the road to perform solo his new release. The 11-track album is already available for pre-order on iTunes, but whether it will be streamed ahead of time is yet unknown.
Another pre-release streaming success is Random Access Memories by Daft Punk. The record sold 339,000 copies during the first week of sales. The release was similar to Timberlake’s in that it was available for streaming on iTunes a week prior to the drop. It was equally anticipated, as it had been eight years since their previous album Human After All. The only track released before the album is the catchy single Get Lucky, which had the “biggest streaming day for a single track in Spotify history in the U.S as well as the U.K.”
It seems that if people like what they hear, they will buy the music. The industry shows that the “streaming before release” strategy is especially successful for established acts that have been dormant. However, newer artists should not shy away either, as The Weeknd shows. The strategy pushed The Weeknd to the fourth spot on the Billboard 200.
More data points may be needed for a firm conclusion. However, the evidence so far suggests that streaming an album before its release is a reasonable strategy. Lately, it appears to have been paying handsome dividends to the artists that embraced it.
By Nina Thistlethwaite