Music marketing: How artists pushed the boundaries in 2016

From ‘visual albums’ to long form releases and guerrilla tactics, musicians have raised the bar for marketing in 2016.

Atlantic Records Last Shadow Puppets
Domino Records devises bespoke campaigns for its diverse roster of artists including The Last Shadow Puppets

To cut through the sheer noise made by the global music industry takes something special. In 2016 artists and record labels alike were forced to devise innovative ways to grab their share of attention, deliberately blurring the lines between music, art, theatre and experience.

Music marketing’s new approach was perfectly epitomised by Beyoncé. The release of the American R&B star’s ‘visual album’ ‘Lemonade’ in April made the world sit up and take notice. Beyoncé first teased the prospect of new music in February with the release of the politically charged single Formation, which she performed during the Super Bowl half-time show the same month.

Next a trailer appeared inviting fans to watch a ‘world premiere’ on cable TV channel HBO on 23 April. Beyoncé also timed the release of ‘Lemonade’ to coincide with the launch of Ivy Park, her ‘athleisure’ clothing label designed in collaboration with Topshop.

When ‘Lemonade’ finally dropped it was as trailblazing and creative as the build up promised – a visual album consisting of a series of videos linked by poetry. As soon as the hour-long screening finished the album was made available on Tidal, the streaming service backed by Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z.

READ MORE: Spotify – ‘We would like to see a world without exclusives as they’re not good for the user’

With her combination of artistry, theatricality and suspense strategically feeding into other lucrative revenue streams like the Ivy Park clothing line, Beyoncé not only broke the mould, she set the standard for releasing music in 2016.

And it would seem visual albums are not reserved for global superstars. Signed to Atlantic Records UK, 18-year-old Birmingham singer Mahalia created 10-track audiovisual mixtape Diary of Me in November, releasing a new track every fortnight with an accompanying video.

“It allowed her the creative freedom to tell her very specific story of growing up via audiovisual, as well as the pure audio,” explains marketing director Hannah Neaves. “It’s a great opportunity for any artist with a strong creative vision to extend their fan’s experience of their music.”

Great for generating excitement, but from a practical perspective visual albums could be seen as a bit of a luxury, says Domino Records marketing manager Brooke Salisbury.

“For many being able to hook viewers into a three-minute music video is now a tough sell. The engagement you see via news feeds and social usage of video content is often outstripping the full presentation.

“As a marketing move the visual album does feel hugely exciting, perhaps largely thanks to the surprise element. Dropping something with such gravitas makes an event out of the album, at a time when we’re constantly told that the format is done with,” she adds.

As a marketing move the visual album does feel hugely exciting, perhaps largely thanks to the surprise element.

Brooke Salisbury, Domino Records

The rise of the visual album is not likely to change the way classical music is brought to market any time soon though in the opinion of James Fleury, who founded music marketing agency Nouvague last year to bridge the gap between how classical music promotes itself compared with other genres.

“One could argue that classical music has been involved in a type of visual album for decades, as it’s provided the music to thousands of films and documentaries,” Fleury notes.

“Most recently Hans Zimmer [the Hollywood composer known for his scores on The Lion King and Pirates of the Caribbean] was commissioned by the BBC to score Planet Earth 2, which could have easily had an accompanying visual album, considering the outstanding footage that was available to the BBC.”

All in the build up

A protracted build up to hype an album release is one way artists and record labels are teasing fans and maintaining their profile in the interim between releasing new music.

Following in the footsteps of Beyoncé, enigmatic R&B artist Frank Ocean released album ‘Blond’ in August with a carefully orchestrated sense of mystery. A month earlier Ocean had taken part in a four-day live stream on his Tumblr site showing him in a warehouse chopping wood to snippets of music.

Then a couple of days before the album went on sale, Ocean released a 45-minute visual album exclusive to Apple Music. Entitled Endless, the long form piece of music was intended to tantalise fans and build hype to a fever pitch before ‘Blond’ finally arrived on 20 August.

Frank Ocean Tumblr
Frank Ocean used his Tumblr site to promote the launch of Blond

Ocean took an online/offline approach, distributing ‘Blond’ exclusively on Apple Music and also in pop-up shops in New York, Chicago, London and LA. The album came with a 360-page glossy magazine containing photos, interviews and exclusive lyrics penned by collaborator Kanye West.

Ocean’s distribution mix of independent record shops and streaming, combined with teasing exclusives on social media and the creation of a premium physical product typifies the evolving nature of music marketing.   

Taking a ‘top-to-bottom strategy’, Domino Records devises bespoke campaigns for each artist on its diverse roster, which spans the likes of The Last Shadow Puppets, Hot Chip and Wild Beasts. Each campaign is based on an understanding of the album, the existing fan base and potential new audiences, as well as how the artist wants to communicate and where the product sits in the current market.

The label has seen a huge rise in the appetite for special and limited edition releases in 2016, says Salisbury. “With re-issue campaigns and special products the key to success lies solely in finding the fans.

“Database messaging and Facebook are hugely reactive spaces, and with the right presentation and an element of urgency to the message – limited quantities, special pricing, signed initial runs – there’s huge sales potential from an organic standpoint.”

Blurred lines

Having a one-dimensional strategy to push out new releases is no longer enough to impress and increasingly the lines of social media, influence and experiential are blurring.

Take Atlantic Records, which decided to thank fans of 21 Pilot ahead of the duo’s gig at London’s Alexandra Palace by asking them to submit artwork via Facebook representing what the band means to them. The chosen artwork was then showcased in 109 advertising panels at Wood Green Underground station – the closest Tube station to the venue – from 7 to 20 November, supported by integrated Snapchat geo-filters of the album lyrics and images of the duo.

Grime artist Skepta, who grew up in Tottenham, North London, explored a mixture of social media and guerrilla marketing ahead of his homecoming gig at Alexandra Palace in December. Working with music marketing agency Diabolical, Skepta put up cryptic posters around nearby Finsbury Park showing a blurred image of his face on postage stamps. He then returned at night and filmed himself spray painting the posters with details of the gig, sharing the videos on Instagram.

Diabolical Skepta reveal
Grime artist Skepta teamed up with Diabolical to create this guerrilla marketing campaign

Arty projects are proving particularly popular in 2016, according to Kevin Graux, account director at music marketing agency Diabolical, who thinks tease and reveal campaigns generate the most excitement

The agency worked with indie band Bon Iver to create a mural showing artwork from its new album ‘22, A million’, which was painted on the wall outside independent record store Rough Trade in London’s Spitalfields. Initially painted without any reference to the artist, the team then added the missing details identifying Bon Iver just days before the album was released.

The more levels you can operate on the better, Graux argues. “We’re always thinking about how we can engage people at different touch points. However, sometimes it only takes one billboard, coupled with a clever idea to create international visibility across multiple platforms.”

New frontiers

With virtual and augmented reality set to dominate our lives in 2017, the potential impact of new technologies on the music industry is vast, particularly if they are adopted by high profile musicians.

“If the right artist – Taylor Swift level – partnered up with the right VR brand tomorrow and offered access in such a way that was undeniable to fans, this could really break a VR product and help usher in the technology,” says Salisbury.

“That said, it’s a hugely noisy market for new technologies. Wearable tech is slower to take off than we were told it would be and there’s a long way to go with adoption of streaming.”

Sometimes it only takes one billboard, coupled with a clever idea to create international visibility across multiple platforms.

Kevin Graux, Diabolical

Sulinna Ong, vice-president of marketing at streaming site Deezer, agrees that VR and AR are still very much in their infancy, with widespread adoption being hampered by the bandwidth required and cost involved. These disruptive technologies have, however, made music marketers more adaptable, agile and willing to experiment, she notes.

READ MORE: Deezer dismisses exclusive deals with musicians as ‘irritating’

Fleury from Nouvague would like to see an institution like the BBC Proms show a commitment to embracing virtual reality and in doing so help artists or ensembles who might not otherwise be able to experiment with the technology.

“However artificial intelligence is where we’ll undoubtedly see the biggest growth next year,” he adds. “While classical music still needs to fully embrace AI-triggered recommendations, content creation and ad targeting, it’s actually new image recognition technology that I’m most excited about for 2017.

“Classical music will always remain a predominantly live industry, so there’s a host of opportunities around enhancing the live experience with visuals. I’m sure we’ll see this plugged into live film experiences.”

As the music consumption landscape shifts, Salisbury recommends music marketers in 2017 to seek to diversify their revenue streams and explore the opportunities of sync (synchronisation rights), publishing and licensing, brand partnerships and merchandise.

She also believes marketers across the board could learn more from working with the music industry. “The value of content in the marketing process remains the music industry’s biggest hook. What could other marketers learn from us? Perhaps considering what could be gained in their own space from partnering with music.”

  • Marketing Week will publish the second part of this feature ‘Music marketing: Disrupting the album cycle’ later this week.
  • There will be a keynote panel on ‘Tapping into the creative DNA of the music industry’ at Marketing Week Live on 8 March. Click here to register. 
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Comments
  • Serge 11 Jun 2017 at 2:27 am

    Interesting approaches. What do you recommend for starting a new project? Does an enigmatic mysterious approach work in that case (i.e. revealing nothing about who is behind it, at least for a time)? Kind of like Enigma did with their album in the 90s?

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