STORY: Emily Zemler
The music industry-like the rest of the country-is in a time of great instability. Albums regularly leak prior to release and many fans, even deeply devoted fans, elect to (illegally) download their music from torrents and websites. Record labels are struggling to cope with steep falls in record sales, often dropping bands that don’t immediately prove lucrative. Bands are fiercely competing for attention and funds.
This sounds like the dawning of the musical apocalypse, but it’s actually an exciting time. As the old model falters, an opportunity to consider new and inventive methods for releasing music is arising. It’s becoming clear that, as they say in Washington, D.C., this is no time for politics as usual. In a recent interview, BRAND NEW drummer Brian Lane addressed the uncertainty of the band’s future with Interscope Records and the potential that future Brand New releases might eschew the typical notion of an album. “We're talking about recording another album, but we don't know whether it's going to come out on a label or whether we just release songs in batches,” Lane said. “Everything is up in the air at the moment, but we're not just going to be slacking and hanging out, we will start working pretty soon. I don't know if there's a point to releasing records if they're not physical releases, if we're going to release a lot of things digitally, then I don't see why we couldn't release a song a week or a song a month or just put out what we like from whenever we record.”
The idea of releasing new songs in batches or individually over the course of time is one that many bands are picking up on. MAE, whose last true full-length, Singularity, came out on Capitol in 2007, self-released one song per month during 2009, a project they announced on their website in 2008 after parting ways with the major label Capitol. The band, who have since formed their own label with distribution through Tooth & Nail, offered 12 songs in 12 months on their site. Each song was free to listen to and available to download for a minimum donation of $1. The songs were also released on physical EPs, the third of which will come out this year.
A statement on the band’s site said, “We have decided to offer our music directly to you without the partnership of a proper label. Absent a label, we have found ourselves with no limitations, continually inspired with creativity to approach the whole of our course with this direct connection in mind. With our desire to impact the world being the forefront of our mission, we have decided to donate all of our profits from digital downloads to fund humanitarian projects that Mae and you will be a part of all year long.”
Other bands have tried similar experiments. Dave Smallen, a solo artist whose former band, STREET TO NOWHERE, were also signed to Capitol, digitally self-released a song on the first day of each month from March through December last year, culminating in a physical album release at the end of 2009. “ didn't want to lose the album idea altogether,” said Smallen. ELIZABETH SEWARD, a solo artist based in New York City, is releasing a song each Monday in 2010, posting them for free download on her Tumblr page. Her decision to do so was both artistically inspired and because she doesn’t “have the funds to release that many physical albums right now, so the decision to just start releasing songs regularly online really happened organically.”
It’s not only younger artists who are releasing songs frequently over the span of a year, which indicates that it’s both a way to appease longtime fans and gain new ones. To celebrate their 20th anniversary, THE BOUNCING SOULS offered 16 digital songs and four 7-inches in 2009, all through their own label, Chunksaah.
Greg Attonito of the Bouncing Souls
The digital singles were similarly released once per month and those who had purchased a subscription of the singles received four bonus songs in December. Bouncing Souls frontman Greg Attonito compares the idea to a weekly TV show that keeps viewers engaged throughout a season and is ultimately happy with the results, although he notes that it’s tricky to gauge its true success at this point. “The digital sales did well, but not really well, so it’s hard to tell,” he says. “But the people who bought the year-long subscription for every song seemed to really enjoy getting a new song on the first of every month. We toured all year long and rediscovered each song on the road as it came out. That was the most fun aspect of it for the band and the audience: If we had a show somewhere on the first of the month, we would play the new song and tell everyone it came out that day. It was like savoring a chocolate bar slowly instead of chomping it down in one bite.”
So why are bands suddenly ready to break the mold of the album cycle and explore new options? It’s no secret that album sales are down, but does offering more songs for less money help these bands? If Mae give away 12 songs and donate the proceeds to nonprofit organizations, do they recoup the recording costs? How is a band doing something like this going to stay financially viable? Ryan O’Connor, a 26-year-old music fan from League City, Texas, believes that fans will help the bands they love regardless of how the music is issued, but underlines the fact that people only have so much money to spend, especially in the current recession. “Some bands have reacted to album leaks by providing a digital download prior to the release day for a ridiculously low price,” O’Connor says. “When this happens, if I am a fan of the artist, I will show my support by buying multiple copies. I bought Rx Bandits' Mandala four or five times on Amazon.com. It's the best way I can think of to tell the band, ‘Please, don't quit making music!’ [But] to be frank, I simply cannot afford to satisfy my craving for music. The costs of buying albums can really add up.”
Money is clearly not the motivating factor for bands like Mae or the Bouncing Souls or artists like Smallen. The main reason for rebuilding the music release model seems to be about staying in the spotlight for the longest possible time and maintaining a platform and audience for their songs. Bands are now leaning toward constantly satiating their fans’ thirst for new material rather than quenching it after 12 months of dehydration. The increasing onslaught of new music has created an insane level of competition for bands and the music industry for the attention of the masses-which is far from constant and reliable. One of the ways labels and artists have compensated for their fear of falling out of the public eye between records is generating releases during that down time. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon to have bands putting out EPs between records or tossing out a live album to temporarily appease their fanbase, but these releases have drastically increased in the past few years. Brad Oldham of Vector Management works with MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA, who released a live disc in 2009, as well as a split EP with Kevin Devine since their last full-length, Mean Everything To Nothing, out last April. Oldham believes that it is almost a requirement now for a band to continuously release whatever they can to avoid being forgotten by easily distracted fans. “Artists, especially developing artists, need to really stay visible and relevant at all times now; as opposed to the older ‘album-cycle’ timeline, which doesn’t seem to exist as much anymore,” Oldham says. “In the past, you might see an artist completely disappear for up to a year or two between their albums. To go off the grid like that now would terrify me for younger acts. You might never bounce back. So doing some sort of bridge-piece between records-- anything from a short, digital-only EP, to releasing a live concert or an in-store performance, to a remix album--that can keep you connected to your fanbase throughout the year as you are working and leading into making your next album seems critically important.”
While it’s mostly unsigned or self-releasing artists who have completely broken the traditional model of releasing music, it’s clear that major label bands like Manchester Orchestra, who are signed to Sony but operate their own imprint called Favorite Gentlemen, aren’t exempt from new methods. In fact, some of the major labels are even testing out new ways to release music, shattering the commonly held belief that the record industry doesn’t understand the changing of the times. Universal Motown, part of Universal Music Group, has been releasing what executive vice president and general manager Pat Monaco calls “mini LPs.” FOREVER THE SICKEST KIDS and newcomers DOWN WITH WEBSTER, whose debut album is being released as two seven-song volumes during a several month period, are two of the artists Universal Motown is using for trial runs. “The motivation is to shorten the album cycle and try to give consumers new product more frequently, as opposed to waiting for a complete album cycle which could take 12 to 18 months,” says Monaco. “We think we can feed consumers’ desire for new music over time instead of releasing an album and basically have it fall from the radar screen after a couple months and then tour and then wait for another album. We can release a mini LP, tour and then after six months or so, release another mini LP and tour. Clearly, songs are selling and that doesn't necessarily translate to album sales. This is a way, for a relatively low price and good value, to get more music to the fan for not that much more than a single.”
It’s yet to be seen whether the “mini LP”--like NEVER SHOUT NEVER’s recently released What Is Love?--will be a lasting trend and whether other labels will develop congruent models. More and more bands are spacing their releases closer together and making them into smaller, more digestible portions, but the album is not lost. There is a distinct cohesion to a full-length record and an important visual aesthetic to the packaging that gets lost in these new formats. Plus, as Monaco notes, bands have always released EPs and singles. Attonito isn’t sure whether the Bouncing Souls will ever do anything like this again, noting that while it feels good to release songs digitally over time, he and the band are “happy not knowing what [they] are gonna do.” That uncertainty is, for better or worse, becoming the norm. It’s how the bands and labels respond that will define what happens to the future of music. alt
STORY: Emily Zemler