The Death of the Album and Birth of Release

This post is by Ethan Kaplan of BlackRimGlasses and Murmurs

1487640629_402585a3ac Last week marked the release of an album I have been associated with in some form for two years now. That doesn’t mean that I had anything to do with its creation, just that I was associated with it. To that regard, I was there for mixing, marketing and release. The record is from a group of people collectively known as R.E.M.

I predict it is the last “Album” they will release.

In fact, I predict that 2011 is the last year of the Album (capital A).

In the press right now, Michael Stipe is talking about the 12 videos (or films) he is having made for the record, one per song. In his press quotes he describes the videos as representing to him the concept of what an album is and could be in the 21st century. During recording, he and I spoke somewhat about the nature of what it means to make a “record” and what that entails. As part of this discussion, and thinking about ideas for what we could do to break the mold (the video project, an app, something on the web), I started outlining the evolution of what I considered an album since I started buying them.


R.E.M. – Green: the first CD that I ever purchased. It was mystery, and it represented things I hadn’t heard mixed with things I had (Stand, Pop Song ’89). My exposure to the band was through MTV and this record, and various articles. The visual identity of the band was defined by the art which carried over to the videos (black and white) and stage performance (yellow, orange, Michael’s awful hair cut).

R.E.M. – Out of Time / Automatic for the People: The first time the introduction to the record was visual. In the case of Out of Time, the “Losing My Religion” video, which I think got as much airplay for the WTF factor as it did because it was awesome. Automatic for the People: introduced through a teaser on MTV before the video music awards in 1992. 15 seconds of “Drive,” with the video of Michael crowd surfing.

R.E.M. Monster – A piece in 1993 that was about what R.E.M. was up to (in LA, recording). Then Michael popped into AOL to chat with fans. The first video/audio was again an MTV teaser, this time of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” This record was as much about the “package” of the band, the message, the identity as it was the music. Somehow the record came to be defined as about sex, sexuality, gender bending and such rather than what it really was about, revealed in the alternate title “Yes, I am Fucking With You”

And so on.

As each Album progressed, the things that defined it started becoming external to the music. This was driven in part by MTV and the press, but also in part by the band and their willingness to treat the concept of an Album as also a chance for rebranding. The hint of what was to come was in Michael’s visit to AOL. The real thing started bleeding through.

Every record since has gone on this trajectory: the music sitting along side, and sometimes behind the concept. Always informing, but less as the center.

This leads me to the now. I worked on five albums for R.E.M. at Warner Bros Records. In the course of this here is how I now define an Album (capital A):

  • Branding: an album serves as a tent pole around which to rebrand a band. Logos, type faces, color, visual identites. This also applies to non-visual things such as: message, statement, platform, etc.
  • Visuals: both with and without music, related closely to branding
  • The Hook: something that serves as the tweet worthy summation of what this Album is aiming at
  • The Angle: a unique method or action which serves as an easy method for someone to write about the record
  • The Timeline: the sequence of events and windowing of releases culminating to…
  • The Release: Not the end game, but rather a stop along the way
  • The Music: Can’t forget about this? Or can you?

The last part, “The Music” is broken down into:

  • Mainline Release: the 12 or so songs that make up the bundle known as The Record
  • The Primary Record: the default release of those 12 or so songs
  • The Auxiliary Music: everything outside of those 12 songs: b-sides, demos, live tracks, etc. They contribute to…
  • The Premium Record: bundling of other content to justify higher price points

Along side this are other types of auxiliary content:

  • The Videos: music videos and lyric videos
  • Auxiliary Visuals: Interviews, EPK, Live in Studio footage.
  • Photos: Photos held as exclusives and non-exclusives. Dolled out like Pokemon cards
  • Art: The high res complete album art, as well as the visual “stems” to make other art pieces (banners, IAD ad units, etc)
  • Style Guide: colors, type faces and approved look/feels

And then the releases:

  • Standard Physical – the main release, eco-pack, jewel case or digipack
  • Premium Package (Physical) – what TopSpin specializes in marketing
  • Standard Digital – The 9.99 on iTunes release
  • Premium Digital – The 14.99 on iTunes, uses elements of auxiliary content
  • Retail Partner Release – Starbucks, Best Buy, Target?
  • Direct to Consumer Release – optional, and getting more rare. Usually a step up from the Premium Package (Physical)
  • Singles – mostly for international markets
  • App – sometimes, album-as-app hasn’t caught on too well yet

OK then. That is a lot that constitutes an “Album.”

In fact, try to find the typical definition of an album in that mix? Is it the 12 song release? Or the 16? Physical or digital? Stream or paid download?

Was it released when all tracks were to market (one week prior to release), when the album was off security (and therefore leaked) or when it was on store shelves?

What do you review as the album? What figure attached to these do you use to judge success? Soundscan? Streams? Twitter mentions?

I posit that we are in a post album universe. The Album itself is anachronistic and has evolved into a place where it is a tent pole for cyclic branding rather than an encapsulated piece of art. Some bands might choose to keep the album as an atomic entity (ie, Radiohead), but to me it almost seems anachronistic. Ultimately, my view is that bands need to take the concept of an album and move toward the concept of a Release, in the software sense.

In that case, here are my rules for a Release:

  • Announce the release when it is ready to ship. Lead times should be at most 4 weeks from announcement to “in hands”
  • Self-direct all publicity and promotion. Own the visual language/identity, own the messaging.
  • Fans matter more than radio stations, website exclusives, etc. Giving a video to the NY Times ahead of your own YouTube won’t get you a good review: don’t do it.
  • Hear it and buy it: don’t put anything up to hear, watch or experience if it can’t be purchased. Reward loyalty for your fans through exclusives.
  • Make your fans product evangelists. Everyone wants an iPad because everyone they know wants one or has one. Make your release so amazing that you want to tell the world about it.
  • Own your press: disintermediate, be selective with interviews and use the channels at your disposal (video, twitter, etc)
  • Make it an event. Time it properly, make all messaging unified and coordinated.
  • Let the Release define itself: if you can’t summarize it in one sentence, keep winnowing it down until you can. It might be an app, a collection of songs, a video album, etc. Study this page.

And of course, make something of quality. Strive for perfection down to the pixel level for visuals, and timbre level for audio. Don’t let “well enough” suffice.

Every release might be your last, and in the best case scenario could define the rest of your career and be seen as a high watermark for everything you do. Treat it as such.

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