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When teaching or consulting independent bands recently, these are the two groups of questions I get most frequently.
“Should I release music for streaming, download, or physical?”
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“Should I release a single, EP, or album?”
The answer to these questions in 2020 is, yes. That’s the truth about the industry today, you need to do it all. The real key is understanding how you should release your music in this current fractured music landscape, and why.
First, some ground rules. Set aside your preconceived notions about how your fans want music–you probably don’t know, and you certainly don’t know how prospective fans may want it. Forget about the romance of an album, or your disdain for singles–that doesn’t matter, you can do both. Also set aside how you like you like to consume music, as a musician, because you are an outlier.
Fans today are splintered — some love just playlists and are looking for a perfect song to add (no matter the artist), some want to find albums and dive in deeply to catalog, some still want to support with actual dollars and own your music by direct download or physical. It’s maddening, but that’s the market. But there is good news, by using digital distributors like DistroKid and others, it’s very affordable to release multiple singles, EPs and albums. CD printing and on-demand vinyl printing is more affordable than ever, and for downloads it’s hard to beat Bandcamp.
Be aware that the news you read about trends in streaming or how “physical is dead” are mostly about major label artists, and that’s not your lane just yet. Fans who support independent artists are different. If you want the best chance of breaking through, you have to find listeners in different regions, you have to happen upon a few influencers, you have to land on playlists, you have to service industry folks.
If you want to release music that reaches fans– established ones that follow you, and new ones who’ve never heard of you–you must release music for algorithms, not fans. Actually, you should be writing music for algorithms too, but, that’s another article.
With over 50 million songs in any given streaming catalog and over 40,000 tracks uploaded each day to Spotify, how does any streamer determine what music it shows a listener?
Algorithms (ML, and data grouping). That’s how you get a recommendation, next song, or populate a Daily Mix, Weekly Mix. While the actual formulas are secret, we know some of the metadata factors. One of the primary data points in music streaming algos for relevancy is recency/date — this is why you aren’t served songs from 1972 or from three years ago that you already didn’t like. The second is based on a single metadata point of reference meaning (UPC/ISRC, title, time) – meaning “single.” These are all singular inputs. An album or EP is actually multiple data points, so that’s not the way recommendations are served. The streamers know that no one listens to an album, they listen to one song at a time–call it an EP, an album, or a playlist–but it is one song at a time. One of the other ones that services like Spotify use is data grouping whereby they group what songs you normally listen to with others who listen like you and start to find that patterns of what you all might like. But the big factor to keep in mind is new music.
No matter how much music you record, you can release it in the way I am describing, so don’t get hung up on the process. Record a whole album, record singles, doesn’t matter. (Note: As always, make sure to get an instrumental mix and separated vocals for placement opps). With each release: update your SoundExchange catalog, register it with your PRO, list it on ALLMusic, and create a YouTube Cover video with the song to get it into Content ID (some distro services do this for you).
Release a single no more than once a week, no less than once a month. Each single becomes its own “product,” a separate UPC/ISRC code with metadata that is weighted by recency and date. By the time you get to the fifth single, gather all of those previously released singles within your digital distributor and incorporate them to release a 5-song EP, another separate product with its own UPC/ISRC, separate title. At this point, you should hit up friends and family to include multiple songs in their playlist, then create your own around your region or state, create playlists of moods like, “chill” or “wake up,” with a mix of top songs, other independent artists and of course, one of your songs.
At this point, you should print an EP CD for handouts or selling at shows, for booking, for specialty radio (a lot of local independent radio stations, satellite shows, even licensing houses still only accept physical). Don’t go crazy, print less than 300, in jackets. The goal here is not to make the money back, it’s to use it as a business card, a giveaway. By all means, you can sell them for fans at shows who want to support, but don’t budget it that way.
Now is when you should also add these singles, and EP to your Bandcamp account for download.
Do it again with another four songs, each a separate single, then on the fifth song release the EP. In the next few weeks add any extra songs as singles and then do a full album with all of the previously released songs on the two EPs, and the extra cuts as one product – a new album. It is at this point, if you have the revenue, you should offer a larger physical item, a print-on-demand vinyl (Qrates is a good place to start), cassettes (cheaper than you might think) or full-blown CD.
Now, get creative and add those extra tracks you never released, add a live show, add instrumentals and follow the same process.
By this point, you should be three months into it, you have at least 10 singles, 2 EPs, one full-blown album, a few physical items for any requests or sales, and all of them available digitally for streaming or download. If you follow this formula, you will see an increase in streams, sales, and most importantly in added songs to playlists and new listeners leading to more licensing opportunities, and ultimately a better touring outlook in the months ahead.
I can’t wait to hear your new music in 2020.
–Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.
main photo by Pascal Volk