Unless you’re Adele, you have no business releasing album tracks all at once

One size doesn’t fit all for album releases.
One size doesn’t fit all for album releases.
Image: AP/Chris Pizzello/Invision
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Adele’s upcoming album “25”—a follow up to her hit sophomore record—is one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year. Already, the first single “Hello” has shattered records. And the album is expected to catapult to the top of the charts, raking in millions when it drops next month, even with streaming music’s ability to depress sales.

The UK pop star left enough time between records that fans missed her—her last album was released in 2011—but not so much time that they forgot about her. And soon, she’ll sing her way back into listeners’ hearts with 11 new songs (plus three bonus tracks for Target customers).

In short, the time-consuming and expensive process of making and marketing an album works for Adele, who is in a league of her own as a performer. Its success could even prop up the flagging record industry as a whole, like pop star Taylor Swift’s “1989” did this time last year.

But for many musicians—those who aren’t superstars—releasing an album’s tracks all at once is making less and less sense. And that is changing everything about the way they do business.

With streaming music threatening to overtake digital downloads as the most valuable music format in the coming years, artists are increasingly reliant on royalties tied to individual streams distributed over services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal.

These royalties, by most accounts, put less money into artist’s pockets than physical copies and digital downloads do. “You have to have hundreds of thousands of streams to add up to a meal,” seasoned entertainment lawyer Kendall Minter told Quartz. “At least before, you could get a cup of coffee for a download.”

On average, the industry earns about $0.007 for a single stream, a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found. The artist takes home roughly $0.005 of that, depending on the streaming service and record deal, said Minter. With downloads, the industry earns about $0.82 per track sale, the NBER paper said, with about $0.70 going to the artist, depending on the platform and deal.

It also doesn’t help that streaming music is eating away at both digital album and track sales.

Digital tracks, which have always commanded the bigger share of downloads, bore the brunt of the impact this year. Sales were down 10% during the first half of 2015, while total streaming surged 92%, according to a Nielsen report. Nielsen analyst David Bakula told Quartz he expects that trend to continue. Factoring in Apple Music’s June debut, he projected a 12% to 14% decline in digital tracks for the full year.

Music has never been more accessible than it is today. With the introduction of iTunes and other digital download platforms in the 2000s, listeners could own almost any song they wanted. But there was a trade off—an individual transaction cost. Now, for roughly the same price as 120 songs or 12 albums on iTunes, listeners can access millions of songs any time they want for $10 a month, or $120 a year, through Apple Music, Spotify, or Tidal. Subscribers are unquestionably going to listen to—and discover—more artists with this model. The playing field is wide open, but there is still a rather limited amount of money to go around in the recording space.

To make end’s meet, musicians need songs to live longer and consistently remain on listeners’ playlists.

In turn, artists are rethinking the way they release music. Instead of spending months or years working on a full album—followed by three months of costly promotions, and a year of touring and producing videos—some artists are releasing a steady stream of music throughout the year and then re-packaging the tracks into EPs or albums with additional songs.

Indie band White Violet, for example, recently restructured its record deal with Normaltown Records. The band plans to put out two songs every two months for about a year, and then re-release those tracks on a vinyl record or digital album, instead of putting out one album all at once.

“We were wasting money releasing one album all at once,” the band’s lawyer, John Seay, told Quartz. By frequently releasing tracks, Seay said, the band is “hopefully staying in people’s minds more regularly.”

And, he added, it helps them “react to the market and use different publicists in different ways.” With this model, every song gets its own marketing plan.

Jumping into the music scene.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Sayles/Invision

More mainstream artists, like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, took similar routes when breaking into the music scene. The Seattle-based hip hop duo began pushing tracks from their debut album “The Heist” more than a year before the record dropped in 2012 to hype it up.

Over the summer, DJ group the Chainsmokers released a new original track every month, along with music videos, behind-the-scenes videos, and other social content. After fans started discovering the new and older tracks, the Chainsmokers compiled their songs into an EP called “Bouquet,” released in October. As of today (Oct. 29), the compilation is number two on the iTunes dance album charts

“To stay hot, you have to deliver to your fans, and they consume quickly,” said Adam Alpert of Disruptor Records and Management, the band’s management company and label. “It’s not just about delivering music. It’s about delivering all types of content.”

In recent years, artists have also begun touring more to make up for declining record sales, expanding their merchandise collections, and looking to feature their music in ads, TV shows, movies or video games, among other methods for boosting income.

To be clear: The album isn’t dead. As Taylor Swift, Drake and other Billboard topping artists have proven, fans still look for albums of their favorite artists. In fact, overall album consumption across all platforms, including track equivalent digital albums and streaming equivalent albums, increased 14% during the first half of the year, the Nielsen report estimated. And there are creative reasons why an artist might choose to release an album in its entirety.

But to really make money that way, artists need a strong fan base. And a good way to build that in today’s competitive landscape is by staying in their minds.