Back in the glory days of music sales, long before the web had done away with scarcity, albums and singles could hit the top of the charts on pre-sales alone. Those days are long gone, but exclusive pre-release listening initiatives are beginning to reinvent the pre-release sale cycle. There have been a number of diverse efforts of late including Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ being streamed exclusively on iTunes a week prior to release and Jay-Z’s Samsung ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ hard bundle. This week sees the arrival of another high profile artist effort: Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ is going to be available one week ahead of release exclusively in the UK on mobile music service O2 Tracks. Done right, pre-release digital previews could be a crucial shot in the arm for music sales.
The debate around whether streaming cannibalizes downloads is going to run for a few years yet, and we’ll probably only have enough data to draw definitive conclusions when streaming’s ascent and downloading’s descent are irrevocably set. Until then, the challenge is how best to leverage the capabilities of existing digital platforms to drive sales of both downloads and good old fashioned CDs and LPs. Previewing on an all your can eat streaming service will always both drive and cannibalize sales, just in the same way that radio has always done so. But build the preview experience into the structure of a music store and the chances of conversion are much higher. Daft Punk’s iTunes preview was a run away success because it was in the heart of the globe’s biggest music retailer (though of course the impact of the uber effective marketing campaign cannot be discounted).
Powered by UK music start up MusicQubed, O2 Tracks is far from a download store (it delivers users a small selection of handpicked playlists for £1 a week) but it is nonetheless a proven driver of music sales. MusicQubed reports that O2 Tracks users frequently click to purchase tracks in the app, with stores such as iTunes providing the fulfillment. Thus O2 Tracks is an opportunity to drive hype (O2 are investing heavily in marketing the preview project) and to drive sales.
Lady Gaga is truly a digital era artist, with music sales that are strong but overshadowed by super high social engagement metrics such as Facebook Likes and YouTube views (see this chart for more). So while Lady Gaga’s management will be most interested in the strong marketing support from O2 and will in part measure success in terms of social footprint, her label Polydor will of course be paying much closer attention to conversions to sales. O2 Tracks should deliver on both counts.
As more pre-release digital initiatives are run we will get a better sense of what works best, and where. As that data builds I expect a clear case to emerge of a more structured and consistent approach to pre-release marketing. A crucial ingredient will be exclusive extra content, not just the album itself (the O2 Tracks ‘Artpop’ preview includes an eight minute interview with Lady Gaga). This is the sort of content that delivers genuine added value to core fans of any given artist and that helps build even more reason for fans to listen to pre-release album previews. The days of albums regularly topping the charts on pre-sales alone may be a thing of the past, but the pre-release sales cycle is waking up to a whole new lease of life in the digital age.