Bear with me, I know it’s a sensitive subject…
…because I know that since the very beginning of your love affair with jazz, you’ve thought, talked & studied in terms of albums, right?
Transcribing solos on Kind of Blue. Discussing the highlights of the ’64 concert. Learning the tunes from Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz To Come, Giant Steps and many more…
Sifting through the record shops or waiting at the letterbox for the next Amazon delivery…
I know I did.
Well, putting aside the romantic appeal and artistic logic of releasing albums for a minute, here’s why it may be time to stop thinking of your output like this – for now at least…
Changes in way we digest music
Hardcore fans and journalists aside, most people aren’t listening to albums in their entirety anymore.
At least not to begin with.
In fact, according to a 2017 recent Nielsen report, despite on-demand audio streams increasing 62.4% compared to the same time period in 2016, there was a decrease in physical album sales (-17%) and digital album sales (-19.9%), highlighting consumer listening habits and an industry focus on single releases.
And it’s not showing any signs of slowing.
If you’re not gigging & touring as much as you want right now, the solution is getting as many new people as possible to discover your music. Selling your music to your existing fans is of course super important, but not a game changer.
Because your existing ‘super-fans’ (the ones who support you without question) will buy every album you release anyway.
But how many of those fans do you have right now?
How many people will go to your website and order a copy of the album in week 1?
Or, even better, as a pre-sale?
Until that number is high enough that you can confidently book studio time, musicians and manufacture a CD without thinking about debt, the #1 goal should be to build fans and awareness.
Because the more people you are reaching, the more demand there is to see you play live.
Releasing albums: the loooonng game!
One of the big challenges with using albums to grow your career is that they take such a lot of time and effort to get ready!
You can easily slip into the classic 12-24 month cycle of releasing music.
Or longer even.
And then even if you do a great job at squeezing loads of attention from your release and getting a bunch of gigs, that still leaves many months between the end of that project and the start of the next.
> That’s a LOOONNG time to wait to get back in touch with a promoter who likes you but could’t find a date this time.
> It’s a LOOONNG time to wait for a review from the journalist who loved your last project but didn’t have space to include it in that month’s magazine.
> It’s a LOOONNG time for your existing fans to wait to hear how things are developing with you musically.
Income from selling music vs gig fees
Back in the day, a lot of bands actually toured at a loss in order to promote their album. Selling albums was where the real money was.
This model is pretty much flipped on its head now.
You can probably earn more from 5 average festival gigs than you could in a year of selling your album in shops and online.
People can get so much music, at the click of a button, for so little money nowadays! That’s a whole other discussion, of course, but the fact is, it’s hard to sell big amounts of music unless you are connected with a HUGE amount people.
But the experience of seeing a band live – especially in a genre as vibrant and exciting as jazz – is still something worth paying for and will be for a very long time.
And, more than that, many countries have the sponsorship and support to ensure that the bands playing at these events are paid well.
Regardless of what frustrations you might have getting yourself gigs right now, you don’t need to be a ‘famous’ jazz musician to earn good money from touring. You just need to have direct contact with a solid fanbase and to excite and interest concert promoters to take action NOW.
And that’s very much something you can achieve yourself.
And to do that, the main thrust of your attention – aside from making brilliant music of course – should be how to reach as many people as possible.
So really, you’d be wise to use your releases to create as much buzz and attention as possible to turn promoter responses from ‘‘someday maybe” to “yes, now…”
Enter the EP: Consistently release great music and market the hell out of it!
Why are you really releasing music?
I’m pretty sure you make music because it’s something that excites and interests you, rather than out of some desire to get rich, right?
But building a sustainable career where you have creative freedom to make whatever music you want, is both possible and something you should be working towards.
It’s unlikely to be something that comes primarily from album sales, though. It’s going to come from performing live.
And to get there, it’s necessary to think a bit deeper (with your ‘manager’ hat on) about WHY you are releasing music and whether an album is always the best way to do this…
1) You’re releasing music to create news for getting gigs
Because promoters are much more likely to check out your project when you are contacting them about something new
Releasing an album is a big deal!
It’s your album, people should take notice of this, especially if you’re doing your job and shouting about it everywhere you can.
Some promoters – mainly from venues rather than festivals – like to ask “when’s the album?” when considering booking an artist.
This is generally down to the expectation that an album release is a period where there are several people – label, publicist, artist – making a big effort on pushing the music and that they’ll benefit from more ticket sales as a result.
But if you’re not releasing on an established label, that angle is not as persuasive anyway. Much better – regardless of what you choose to release – that you take control of marketing and publicising the new music yourself, in whatever way you can.
Compare this to releasing an EP: you still get to shout about the fact you’ve got new music. You can still share:
- The key track
- The artwork
- The video
- The story
And then you can do it all over again, a few months later, with another EP.
2) You’re releasing music to get press
Because if you want gigs, it helps if the promoters hear about you from other sources, such as jazz magazines, blogs and newspapers. Same if you want to build your fanbase. Presenting new music to journalists is a pretty standard way to achieve this.
Generally the small amount of space reserved for jazz in national publications is for full albums.
It makes sense, as these have traditionally been the most in-depth and thought-out bodies of work an artist makes. And possibly also because it’s the artists releasing albums that are actually paying a publicist to pitch for this type of press.
But be realistic.
Are you likely to get national coverage at the moment? If not – and/or you can’t afford a publicist – an EP still allows you to reach blogs, radio, playlists & websites in the same way as with an album. But, with the massive bonus of following up with these people a few months later with more music and a second chance to get coverage.
3) You’re releasing music to make money after gigs!
If you deliver a great show, people will want to buy a physical version of your CD as a souvenir of the event. For a lot of artists, this is where they make the majority of the music sales.
It’s undeniable: an album is a great product to sell after a gig and is usually the thing that most people want, especially if it’s recent.
An EP, on the other hand, costs a similar amount to produce as a full album (in terms of manufacture, not necessarily studio time) but yet you can only sell it for a % of an album. So it’s not so profitable for you.
So once you are at a level where you have a demand and are able to do 25+ international gigs a year, it probably does make sense to have albums to sell.
But maybe EP releases are the best way to get to that stage as quickly as possible…
4) You’re releasing music to get the attention of agencies
Releasing new music can help you prove that there is a buzz and demand around your project
Often agencies, including mine, want to know the release plans of an artist they’re considering taking on. As with promoters, this is down to the expectation that a release will provide additional attention and press for the artist which will lead to more gigs.
If you don’t have an established label, you’d do just as well to do a great EP launch yourself and then share the results with an agency. And then getting them on board for the next campaign, in 3-4 months, instead of the next campaign in 1-2 years!
It’s pretty rare for an agent to take on an artist the very first time they hear about them. Normally it’s a build up of factors:
- Great reviews
- Successful gigs
- Interesting projects
An EP helps you build these things in terms of months, rather than years.
5) Releasing your music to get into record shops
You still want your music to be in record stores?!
Yes, record shops stock albums, so if you have a distributor, or can connect with a chain of stores, it could be possible that yours will pop up there.
It’s pretty rare, on the other hand, to find EPs or singles in record shops these days, so it’d be unwise to expect yours on the shelf if you go down this route.
But unless you have a profile and track record anyway, it’s probably just as unlikely for your album to be there.
And anyway, it’s becoming rare to actually find CD shops at all (!) – let alone people who still buy their music here – so I wouldn’t place too much importance on this consideration.
6) Releasing music on a record label
Partnering with a company who will speed things up…
If you’re lucky enough to find a good label who is willing to invest in marketing and publicity for your music, it’s likely they will want nothing less than a full album.
And, if they’re offering a good deal, you should probably do it!
By this stage, though, you’ve probably already got a pretty good fanbase already.
In terms of EPs, most labels aren’t interested in releasing them unless they have a long term relationship with the artist. That’s because if a label releases an EP…
The manufacturing cost is pretty much the same.
The shipping cost is the same.
The cost for a publicist is the same (although there are less press opportunities)
BUT they can only charge half the price of an album…
The numbers don’t add up!
Are you in the position where a label offers to ‘release’ an album in return for keeping a hefty % of sales, but with little or no marketing and PR?
If so, I’d strongly consider self-releasing a couple of EP’s or singles by yourself, just to see how far you can get with building your profile first.
If you do it well, you’ll be in a much stronger position all round.
And anyway, your 100% of sales from an EP can still be more than 30% of sales from an album…
7) A question of $£€ and ? ? ?
Are you trying to grow your profile on a tight budget?
Maybe building towards festivals in your home country or better venues in your city?
An EP could certainly be the way forward.
Less writing and/or arranging time
Less rehearsal time
Less studio time
But STILL a great reason to create a bunch of ‘noise’ around your project.
Of course, if money was no object, and you were bursting with enough inspiration to record multiple albums each year, then maybe this would be even better.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt.
But even then, you’d probably find that the majority of promoters and fans were focused on one or two of the key tracks.
Getting creative in 5 tracks or less…
The idea of releasing 40-60min body of work – an album – obviously requires a big amount of artistic input, which is partly why the format is so revered.
A great album is not a collection of tracks, it’s a much bigger statement and far more than the sum of its parts.
And that’s why, for established jazz artists, I think the album format is here to stay.
But there are artistic advantages to releasing shorter bundles of music too.
> You are freer to explore your current influences and musical opinions, with the safety net that you can release something different a few short months later.
> You can test out different ideas and line-ups and get feedback from your fans in time for the next project.
> You have the focus to hone in on just 3-5 of the best tracks at that time – no fillers!
Put your agent hat on…
It’s pretty much certain that only one or two of them are going to be clicked, so you should focus on sending the best ones instead of leaving it to chance.
It’s the same when sending new music. You could send a link to the whole album, but it’s likely they will listen to only a couple of tracks.
So, in that case, the best thing to do is to send a link to one or two tracks.
Which you can then do whether you have an album or an EP…
Even as I’m writing this article, I got an email from a musician who sent me a streaming link to a whole album PLUS 7 separate videos. It’s often just not feasible to listen to this much until you know the project and are fully engaged with it.
More Releases = More Gigs
OK, so you probably get the idea now of what I’m trying to get across: the more reasons you have to get in touch with promoters, journalists, fans, etc, the better.
Here’s an example from my personal work:
An artist I represent released an album and, as a result of the press and attention it created, I booked a bunch of shows including a tour with a big band.
The final show on the tour was recorded (high quality, multi-track) and we got the files to mix and master.
A few months later, when the attention from the previous album was naturally diminishing and the next album was still a way off, we prepared a couple of these tracks to put out online, for free.
As this was new content, I managed to get a US jazz magazine to ‘premiere’ it on their website. So instead of us pushing it out on social media and by email, a big publication did it for us.
I then sent the resulting article from their website to a whole bunch of promoters, along with news that there were ‘brand new live tracks’ to hear.
As a result, a lot more promoters clicked this agency mailout than usual and we got a couple of additional shows that would not have otherwise come in.
Just one example of the benefits that can come out of being able to give people ‘new’ content regularly.
How about breaking the album down?
Another artist I work with came to me with a full album already recorded (but not released).
There were no labels ready to put it out and not too much of a gig history. So, we split it into 2 EPs and a bunch of singles and gradually dripped it out over the following 18 months.
For each release, we fixed a date at least 4 weeks ahead to give time to spread the word.
We had a video ready to go. I emailed every relevant promoter and journalist each time. We tried to get as much coverage (ourselves) and, on one occasion, engaged a freelance publicist to add some extra weight to it.
Basically trying whatever we could to create a bit of a buzz.
3+ years on and the artist tours regularly and only just released a first album – on one of the biggest labels in the world!
Obviously if your album is more conceptual it might not be possible to break it down.
Even if it’s not, your automatic reaction to this idea might be ‘no way!’
It’s different for everyone, but it’s worth considering which way is going to get you to where you want to be, quickest.
Try for yourself, right now…
If you’ve just released an album, or you’re about to, don’t panic! There are tons of brilliant things you can squeeze out of this and it’s still the #1 way to grab attention.
If you are in between releases, though, check your archives of live recordings and unused studio tracks to see if you can find something you’d be happy to put out in the public domain.
Now figure out the best way to deliver this (streaming? MP3 on your website? Youtube?) and plan to release it in the next few weeks.
Announce asap that there is new music coming.
Find a publication, blog or newsletter in your community who will post this for you, and/or schedule it on your own Facebook page.
Once the track is out, send a link (ideally to a website or Facebook page) to any promoters who’ve shown interest in your project but haven’t booked it, along with a short mail along the lines of this:
When should you release a full album?
I’m very much pro-albums, not just from a musical point of view but also in situations where you’re set to make the most of them:
- If it’s likely that you will actually get some national press, then it makes sense to capitalise on that by putting out a full album.
- If you’ve got a strong record label willing to release your music, it’s worth putting together a killer album for them to promote.
- If you’re gigging regularly, it makes sense to have an album to sell after the show.
- If you feel confident that a sizeable number of people from your fanbase will buy an album from you as soon as it’s released, then for sure you need to be releasing an album.
[Think of it like this: if you can count on 500 people to buy an album directly from you as soon as you release, that’s something like £7,500 (500 x £15) of revenue right there.
That’s a good amount of studio time and a publicist! But just to be clear, that’s not 500 emails on your mailing list or 500 fans on Facebook.
That’s 500 SUPER fans who digest everything you put out there.]
Releasing an album: right place & right time?
If your #1 goal right now is to build your profile and get more jazz gigs, it’s worth giving some serious thought to how and why you are releasing your music.
Too many bands record and release albums because ‘that’s what you do.’
EPs and singles are not for everyone – there are certainly pros & cons with either method – but as I think you’ll agree, there are enough benefits in the modern world to justify looking at it.
It’s a fact that with the rise of streaming (and don’t automatically jump to Spotify; this also includes Soundcloud, Youtube, Bandcamp and possibly even your own website) people are digesting music differently.
Many promoters, journalists & fans flit from song to song, playlist to playlist, video to video. And, what’s more, the advances in recording which make it affordable for everyone to release music means there’s always something NEW to discover.
People love NEW.
So whilst there is a time and a place for releasing full albums, you might find that releasing shorter (1-4 track) selections of music will achieve the same results as a full album and allow you to put this sort of thing together much more frequently.
Just think: if you can squeeze 80% of the attention of an album launch from a mere EP – but do it three times in a year – then how many more eyeballs and eardrums is that on your project..?
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Hope that gives your some things to think about ahead of your next album release or recording session. If you’d like to explore more content on releasing music, I’d highly recommend starting with these popular articles:
ALBUM PRESS OUTREACH
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International jazz booking agent, manager and host of Jazzfuel.
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