Too Many Pre-Album Singles are Being Released Ahead of Albums

Before the wide proliferation of digital downloads and streaming music, if an independent music artist was looking to release a record, the label or perhaps a publicist would send out a press release via wire services, work the phones, and later utilize email to help alert the press and thus the public of the upcoming album. Maybe a single would be sent to college and non-commercial radio to help promote the album, or maybe they would wait until after the release. Maybe the album would be released on a Tuesday, or maybe on a Friday or Saturday to coincide with a release party. But as time went on, Tuesday was the generally recognized day to release a new album before Friday was eventually adopted as the international release day in 2015.

Then as digital downloads and later streaming became the prevailing way listeners consumed music, things started to change. Now it was much easier to release and promote pre-album singles since you didn’t have to rely on physical product or radio to get them to the public. But still the norm was to release one or maybe two singles ahead of a proper album release, though it certainly wasn’t required, and some didn’t release any pre-album singles at all.

Now in independent music, that paradigm has shifted dramatically, where it’s common, if not compulsory for an artist to release four, five, or even six or more pre-album singles before the proper album release to where now fans have heard sometimes half the songs before the record populates on streaming services, or the physical copy arrives in the mail or the local record store, usurping much of the excitement around receiving a new release: that tingly feeling, the frothing of anticipation as you fight with the cellophane wrapping and those annoying anti-theft stickers that used to run along the top spine of CD cases. Then your enthusiasm for the new album lasts maybe for an afternoon as opposed to weeks, since you’ve already heard most or all of the best songs.

So the question is, why is this? How did we get here? And who if anyone is benefiting from this multi-single pre-release system? Are the artists and the labels? Is the public? Or is it publicists and the media who help facilitate these pre-release singles with quote-unquote “exclusive premieres”?

To put it bluntly, many exclusive premieres are often an apparatus of lazy publicity and even lazier journalism, putting the onus on artists to basically give away their songs to media outlets before an album is released in exchange for favorable press coverage, while the media outlet receives assurances the artist will link back to the exclusive premiere articles through their social media properties, goosing the traffic numbers of the outlets. In large measure, these exclusives have replaced more traditional media coverage of album releases such as reviews, interviews, or human-interest features in both local and national press.

This system is problematic for a host of reasons beyond requiring artists to release so many singles ahead of a proper album debut to garner ample press coverage. It often erodes a lot of the autonomy and objectivity that’s supposed to exist between press, the music industry, and artists. Through the instrument of exclusives and premieres, media outlets are acting more in the vein of promotional arms for the industry as opposed to third party actors. This not only affects how these exclusives are handled—with journalists and publicists commonly working in concert to create the content—it could and likely does affect how certain journalists and outlets cover certain artists, shying away from negative coverage since it may affect opportunities for exclusive content or access to the artist in the future. In fact for some music outlets, exclusives are their primary or sole enterprise these days.

Part of the reason for this change in music media coverage is the virtual evaporation of many independent media outlets and journalists, and a large proliferation in the ranks of publicists, often with former journalists switching to publicity for the more stable paycheck. Where in the digital download era you had two or three journalists for every publicist, now that ratio has been flipped, not only resulting in crammed inboxes for overworked and underpaid journalists, it has changed the dynamic of how music is covered. A journalist or an outlet can often require exclusivity, or demand that an artist link to any coverage all their social media properties before committing to coverage.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of these exclusives and premieres is questionable at best, especially for the artist, but sometimes for the media outlet as well. Often for an up-and-coming independent artist, all an exclusive premiere of a song or video is worth is maybe 100 to 300 views or streams, often facilitated by their own friends, family, and burgeoning fan bases as opposed to new fans facilitated by the daily readership of a given outlet. Similarly, the outlet really doesn’t garner much traffic from the premier either. Maybe an artist nets a few new fans, and maybe they don’t. The size and the name recognition of the outlet has little effect, or can even help bury the premier if it’s on a bigger website with many stories posted daily, though often the real goal of a premier is to mine a quote from the big-named outlet that can be used in future promotional copy.

And by the time an artist gets big enough to where a media outlet could garner a sizable amount of traffic from an exclusive premiere, the artist no longer needs to work with the media directly since they can get the word out themselves through social media. Still though, even some more established artists use exclusives ahead of an album out of force of habit or to assure positive media coverage, which often doesn’t serve their best interests.

Exclusive premieres can be where viral events go to die. As opposed to fans interacting with a new song via the media service of their choosing, and sharing it on whatever social media network they so desire, making a song only available on one website even for just 24 hours puts a ceiling over its potential. This can be especially problematic for videos, since the first 24 hours of a video’s life often determines it’s place in YouTube’s algorithm. Debuting a video as unlisted as part of an exclusive premiere can and often does deprecate it in YouTube’s algorithm compared to other videos after going public.

Another issue with this current system is that it front loads most or all of the buzz and media coverage for a given album to before a release date, meaning there’s little or no follow through once the record hits the street and streaming services, and people can listen to it in its entirety. Maybe someone really liked a song they heard six weeks before the album was released, but forgot about the album by the time the release day came along.

For a while, the popular thing to do to promote albums was to make them available in their entirety and exclusively a week early on a certain media outlet. NPR’s now discontinued “First Listen” feature was widely popular, and quite successful for certain artists, so much so that other outlets got in on the action. But where NPR would pair their First Listen debuts with an in-depth and thoughtful feature on the artist and their music, many other outlets would just post a paragraph or two of promotional copy supplied by the publicist or label, along with a SoundCloud player of the record, and call it good. As digital downloads gave way to streaming, these features became less relevant in the marketplace.

But this underscores how not every exclusive premiere is built the same. If an artist or label wants to work with a media outlet to premiere a song that dovetails with an in-depth feature that’s relevant to the song’s subject matter, it can be quite enriching for both the artist and the public, selling listeners on why they should be a fan of a given artist. It’s not that all exclusives and premieres are bad or problematic. It’s the wide proliferation of them, along with the compulsory notion that is what an artist must do to promote themselves that’s the issue. It’s become so commonplace, even artists who don’t work with media outlets for these exclusive premiers will still release five or six singles before an album in an attempt to create buzz.

There is also a metadata game being played here that is driving so many pre-release singles. It’s not just facilitating premiers through the media. Managers and labels like to see streaming data coming in for an artist, and playlist opportunities open up ahead of an album release. That’s why we’re also regularly seeing the release of “instant grat” tracks among mainstream album releases—meaning pre-release singles not promoted to radio. But you can still create ample pre-album buzz with one or two debut singles, while more emphasis can be paid to promoting a record after it’s released when it’s easier to facilitate physical sales and continuous album streams since the entirety of the album is available. Also, instead of putting the energy out to promote an array of singles ahead of an album, something can be said about just focusing on one or two that can hopefully break through the noise of everyday life and the constant barrage of new music, and resonate with a wider swath of listeners.

All that said, for certain albums four to six pre-release singles may make the most sense. But if you require it—especially for an album to receive ample press coverage—it can and often does erode the integrity of the album concept, and the cohesive narrative the artist is attempting to present to the public where all the songs and themes play off each other and feed into something greater. Songs for many albums are meant to be considered in order, and ultimately become something greater than the sum of their parts. Some will tell you albums are no longer relevant, and artists should just release singles excursively. But independent fans tend to be more distinguishing, and seek the more immersive musical experience of an album. Though some have been predicting the demise of the album concept for years, it’s still the most important unit of measurement in much of independent music.

All of this concern may be similar to screaming at clouds since there is a lot of “It’s just the way it is” attitude and momentum behind the idea of releasing more singles ahead of albums than less these days. But it’s not a solution in search of a problem. At the least, more discussion should be had about the efficacy of this pre-release practice. And assuredly you will find that among most dedicated fans and many of the artists themselves, they would rather see a “less-is-more” approach when it comes to singles released before albums.

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