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22 October 2012
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Feature: Full Stream Ahead

The current fad for streaming entire albums online before their official release doesn’t make obvious sense. So why are so many labels doing it, especially independents? We investigate

Words Ben Cardew

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Back in 1979, Fleetwood Mac were big business. Their 1977 album Rumours was a chart behemoth and expectations were high for their new release, Tusk, which the band had been slaving away over for the best part of two years.

Sadly, it flopped. Or rather, it would sell around four million copies — not bad, you might think, but considered a disappointment after Rumours. The price of the album was one factor in the disappointing sales (a double, it cost around $16) but drummer Mick Fleetwood would lay the blame squarely at the feet of US radio chain RKO, which played Tusk in its entirety before its release, allowing for mass home taping.

Fast forward to the present day and you might wonder if, by the same logic, the music industry wants to sell any albums at all. Allowing the public to hear an album in full before release is now standard practice — especially in the US — thanks to pre-release streams, typically offered via media partners or through the artist’s own website.

Indeed, NPR in the States has a whole ‘First Listen’ section on its website devoted to hearing upcoming albums in their entirety (recently, Flying Lotus’ Until The Quiet Comes and Beth Orton’s Sugaring Season) and one label executive explains that previewing albums there is “a standard form of promotion now for big records”.

Making an album available to stream pre-release is not exactly the same as putting it out on air on a national radio chain, of course. For a start, most pre-release streams are strictly limited in timing and will quickly disappear from the online archive. Also, while it is easy enough to rip a stream, the practice is hardly mainstream in the same way as taping songs off the radio once was.

All the same, you have to wonder how labels and artists benefit from the practice in a music market where sales are harder than ever to come by. Why, you might ask, would anyone bother to buy a record if they can hear it in full, pre-release?

It’s simple, according to David Emery, head of marketing for indie giant Beggars Group: because of the quality of the album itself. “We stand by the quality of the records that we put out, and are confident that if someone hears one of them there’s a good chance they’re going to want to buy it,” he says. “Pre-release streams are great ways of hooking someone in and also getting people talking about the album online. We’ve seen that they boost pre-orders, rather than take sales away.”

“We’re competing in a very crowded market place with a lot of bands vying for attention, so anything that gets your music into people’s ears is a good thing,” adds Michael McClatchey, co-founder of indie label Moshi Moshi. “Even better if you can get people to listen to the whole album, as then they get the full picture rather than just a snapshot [which is what you get from a single release].”

Yet, after-release streaming as a replacement for sales remains a rather divisive issue. Some people argue that it actually drives fans to pay for music — new research from NPD Group found that 38 per cent of free Spotify users bought a track download in the last three months, compared to 17 per cent of non-users — while others consider streaming a way of raising some money (albeit generally very little) from music fans who would otherwise just download a release from P2P sites.

In other words, streaming services are competing against the pirates, rather than against legitimate sales. By the same logic, a pre-release stream can be a way of stopping fans from downloading an album illegally when it leaks online before its release date.

“Sales depend more on building a fanbase of people who tend to buy as opposed to steal — and if the pre-release streaming helps build a lot of hype for a release, it is possible this will translate into a wider fanbase, more of whom are prone to buy than steal music,” explains Ninja Tune managing director Peter Quicke.

The issue of pre-release streaming, then, ties into a wider debate about the album release process and the role of labels. Traditional music industry logic (or at least in the 1990s and 2000s) dictated that albums should have a release window — the period from when the album is first announced until it actually hits the stores — of several months, as this allowed labels to build interest, resulting, theoretically, in big first-week sales and towering chart positions.

This worked well in the CD age, when the only way to get hold of an album was to physically buy it. In the digital era, however, labels find it harder than ever to control the distribution of their releases, with most albums available to download illegally weeks before their official release date.

As a result, many people in the music business have started to question the logic of teasing music fans with the songs and albums that they won’t be able to buy for months. Pre-release streaming allows fans to hear a band’s new album as soon as possible, without turning them into pirates.

On a more general level, the practice represents a move away from the ‘gatekeeper model’ that has dominated music industry thinking ever since songs were first recorded to shellac, whereby labels and retailers control what consumers can listen to, and when. In the new music industry, so the thinking goes, fans should be able to choose when they want to listen to an album and by what means. Pre-release streaming is one definite step in this direction.

And that’s not all. The pre-release stream has the added advantage — if done with a media partner — of establishing good relations with the partner in question, according to McClatchey, which may last for the entire album campaign.

It will create coverage, too. For media, pre-release streams are a way of driving traffic to their websites and increasing the time that people spend there. It is, therefore, very much in their interest to push users towards the stream in question, using all the tools at their disposal.

Of course, as with streaming itself, the practice of previewing albums does have its detractors and it is interesting to note that some big albums (Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto for one) are only released to streaming services several months after they go on sale, in a move intended, ironically enough, to protect sales.

Nevertheless, with the number of pre-release streams currently on the rise — The Guardian alone has had about one a week for the past few months on its music site — and The xx’s recent “stream visualiser” campaign for Coexist showing how streaming can become increasingly creative, it looks like the practice could be here to stay, whatever Fleetwood Mac might think.

“[Pre-release streams are] proving to be pretty successful and there’s no doubt that streaming music is on the rise, so I can definitely see them sticking around for the immediate future,” concludes Emery. “Although, as ever online, things change all the time.”

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