Published Mar 01, 2006When New York's newest post-punks We Are Scientists rolled into Toronto earlier this year they had only just released their debut album, yet the hype was already intense. The band did a flurry of interviews, fans loitered outside a sold-out show and the trio were coming off a high-profile performance on Letterman, all before the record's release date.
Or at least our release date Virgin/EMI first put out their acclaimed album, With Love and Squalor, in the UK last fall, and from that moment, anyone, anywhere with access to the internet could download it.
"The technological networking of the music marketplace leads to a situation where corporate music executives and artists are no longer in control of who gets to hear what kind of musical product at what point in time," says Markus Giesler, assistant professor at York University's Schulich School of Business.
Losing that control messes up the traditional marketing practice of staggering release dates. Though not featuring the same logistical issues as movie releases (studios save money by moving expensive film prints from region to region), new music is doled out slowly because labels like to launch albums with a tour or at least a promotional stop.
"Artists don't tend to break globally," says Paul Shaver, VP of marketing for EMI Canada. "A staggered release date allows artists and labels to focus on a region as opposed to worrying about stretching an artist too thin by working a record globally. You take the story that's building in each individual region and you bring it back home and that helps to grow your story."
That "story" is better known as buzz a priceless attribute as far as breaking new acts and We Are Scientists are a good example of why labels want to cling to the old ways.
W.A.S.'s showcase at Austin's South-by-Southwest music conference last year impressed BBC Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq, who began spinning their as-yet-unreleased album and invited them to London to perform. When the band suddenly exploded with a UK radio hit, their North American release was held off.
"Nothing was happening in the U.S. because we hadn't started anything here. So we and Virgin agreed to strike while the iron was hot and take advantage of this little gift," says bassist Chris Cain.
"It has been good in getting us on the map with people who are active music fans (I don't want to say hipsters). People who are really into music, tend to live in cities and dress cool are now aware of us almost strictly because of what happened in the UK."
But what is not known is how many of these fans waited patiently for an official release date or, inspired by the UK reaction, simply downloaded the album illegally to hear what the fuss was about. Certainly, their UK chart success a top 50 debut and three hit singles has not been replicated in North America, despite the media attention. A few weeks after release they're nowhere to be found on Canada's Top 200 and have even fallen off Billboard's "Heatseekers" chart, which tracks new bands yet to crack the Top 100.
We Are Scientists' glam-pop label-mates Goldfrapp have a more precarious situation; they had established a small but eager fan base in North America when their EMI-distributed label Mute decided to suddenly delay the release of their third album Supernature. The business-like press release announced the new February 2006 date was "part of the global strategy to launch and break" and was needed to "accommodate the overwhelming demands of the international marketplace."
"I don't know if there are negatives," Shaver says of the release strategy, despite the fact that the album has been available online since last summer. "It's a positive and it builds up a marketplace. If die-hard fans really want it, they would have found it another way, whether via import shops or [legally] ordering it [online].
"I think there are music fans that respect the artist and will go and pay for it," he adds. "That's my belief."
The delay certainly allowed Goldfrapp to book tours in tandem with the new date, but it also meant that Canadian fans who wanted to buy the album as an import were expected to shell out as much as $35 to $45.
"That statement from the EMI executive carries a certain truth," says Giesler. "The hardcore fan would buy it if he had the choice, but if stuff is not available in stores then the next alternative would be to go onto the internet and just download it."
"Staggering" predates illegal file sharing, but even when it's successful the strategy is inherently outdated. The majors realise this, of course, which is why a Coldplay record is not released regionally for fear of lost sales.
But it's still the status quo for smaller bands. Sweden's the Cardigans are getting a five-month-late Universal Canada release for their latest LP Super Extra Gravity, which came out in Europe last October and has yet to see a release date in the U.S., where their Universal label Mercury dropped them several years back.
The "Lovefool" hitmakers' 2003 album Long Gone Before Daylight wound up on indie distributor Koch Records over a year after its initial release, a delay that contributed to the notion that the band was washed up despite their music being arguably as good, if not better, than it had ever been. It certainly hindered U.S. radio picking them back up, but likely had little impact on frustrated fans heading over to SoulSeek.
Giesler says consumers have the upper hand and the most powerful, if admittedly reactionary, strategy would be to release globally, especially with blogs and message boards (where posters gripe "staggered international release dates are sooo last century") spreading awareness of new music faster than ever.
"The music marketplace is global by definition these days because consumers have the potential to suck stuff from the internet and maybe get exposed to music in Sweden even though they are located in Canada," says Giesler. "That sometimes plays against the strategies of the labels, of course."
However, changes are afoot. Shaver notes the debut from Norah Jones-ish Brit act Corinne Bailey Ray will be available in Canada via legal downloads around the same time it comes out in the UK, though this also risks further antagonising brick'n'mortar retailers who must compete with more expensive imports.
Nonetheless, a worldwide digital "soft launch" paired with heavily-promoted regional releases (likely topped up with extra singles, remixes or DVD content) seem to be the only way labels will be able to update their age-old practices for our brave new world.
But it boils down to a big picture perspective: major labels are hoping for mainstream home runs, not niche base hits, and are willing to cannibalise early domestic sales if that's what it costs to build advance hype.
"We don't put these plans together for the diehard muzoid crowd your plan would fail because they would find it by any means. The plans are for the masses," Shaver says, later admitting: "The system's not perfect. Don't get me wrong."
It doesn't really matter if frustrated Goldfrapp fans downloaded Supernature because there aren't yet enough of them here to have made it a success anyway but their pre-release buzz could fuel an eventual crossover.
If the gamble pays off and the masses do adopt a new act, well, that follow-up album is pretty much guaranteed to drop everywhere at once.