Ever wonder how an album could be certified gold a mere three days after its release? It happened in 2018 when Charlie Puth released his latest full-length Voicenotes. Ever wonder how artists are keeping up true album sales in a digital world dominated by online streaming? There are a handful of surefire tactics that labels are pushing to score those chart-topping numbers. So let’s dive in to some of those that seem to be working the best.
Tour Ticket Bundles
When an artist announces a new upcoming record, they tend to also announce a live tour to promote its release. And a growing trend seems to be including a digital download of the album or a physical CD with each ticket sale. It’s worth noting that most fans will probably purchase the album in one way or another on top of buying a ticket that includes a download or CD, which yes, counts as an album sale. Whether they already pre-ordered it on iTunes or pre-ordered a limited vinyl pressing, they’re still getting an album with the ticket no matter what.
The same sentiment applies here. A digital download is thrown in with a pre-ordered merch bundle, whether you want it or not. It might be a full box-set bundle with plenty of goodies or it might be just a singular t-shirt. This is also the case when purchasing physical copies of a record. 5 Seconds of Summer packaged a digital download with every CD or vinyl record or cassette sale of their newest album C A L M. If you’re someone like me who enjoys ripping a good old-fashioned CD onto their computer, or if you prefer on-demand streaming from services like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc., a digital download is practically obsolete. And yet the artists still get to count that bundled download as an additional album sale.
Prolonging the Longevity of Singles
It’s customary for artists to release at least one or two singles before an album debuts, unless it’s a surprise album drop (which have performed rather poorly on the charts in the past). These days, though, artists are releasing more and more tracks ahead of an album’s issuing and giving them more time to thrive. If you’re wondering how Charlie Puth managed to pull off a gold certification essentially upon release of his album Voicenotes, the singles leading up to the record were a main driving force. He released the first single “Attention” over an entire year before the album actually came out, allowing the single to rack up millions upon millions of streams. He also delayed the album and unleashed a couple more singles leading up to its postponed release. All the streams from these pre-release singles counted towards album sales during the first week of the LP’s release.
Releasing a Large Number of Singles
As I mentioned, many artists have been releasing more and more singles, both proper and promotional, before an album officially drops. For a standard 12- or 13-track album, a label or artist would typically release two to four singles before the full-length dropped. These days we see artists releasing sometimes more than half the album before it actually comes out, meaning more streams to count towards first-week sales. Panic! at the Disco (or, rather, The Brendon Urie Show) released 6 out of 11 tracks ahead of 2016’s Death of a Bachelor, which nearly spoiled the full album experience for listeners upon release. (Also, the lead single “Hallelujah” came out 8 months in advance of the record.) Halsey recently released her new LP Manic earlier in 2020, a 16-track album with a run-time just short of 48 minutes. And yet she dropped 6 singles before the release, accounting for nearly 20 minutes of the album. All Time Low released 5 singles ahead of their 2017 full-length Last Young Renegade, which was only 10 tracks long. Those 5 pre-released tunes accounted for roughly 18 minutes of a 36-minute record. Not only does releasing a heap of singles allow for more streams before the proper album release, but it also builds more hype and publicity, boosting pre-order sales and general interest.
Releasing Multiple Videos on YouTube
It’s expected that most non-promotional singles will receive the usual music video treatment. In recent years, Billboard has begun counting YouTube views toward sale numbers, only when the video is an official upload from the artist or label. So, as a result, many artists are learning to game this as well by releasing a music video, an official audio video/visualizer, a lyric video, a live performance video, an acoustic rendition video, an alternate music video, and more, on top of the default video for YouTube Music’s streaming. In 2018, 5SOS released a total of 8 videos for their hit single “Youngblood,” ranging from remixes to acoustic versions to a couple of music videos. It hasn’t been proven if all these remixes and live performances count towards numbers for Billboard, but releasing two music videos and an official audio video can certainly reel in some massive viewcounts.
Producing Different Variants of Physical Copies
I’m a huge vinyl and cassette collector, and I have quite a CD collection going, too. I grew up on tapes and eventually CDs, and then everything seemed to go digital. But in the past several years, vinyl records and cassette tapes have made an alarming comeback. Tapes originally seemed to be a cool novelty thing in more underground scenes, primarily among independent hip-hop or electronic artists. Vinyl records were relatively reserved for the most die-hard fans, with limited releases and rather expensive 180 gram pressings. But the “vinyl revival” evolved and consumed the mainstream as well; it’s almost strange these days to see an artist release an album without having a vinyl record available. Tapes have also slowly crept their way into the mainstream—big-name artists like Shawn Mendes, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Ariana Grande have all released best-selling albums and singles on cassette, just to name a few. (Which leads me to wonder how many of their fans actually own a tape deck to play the cassette…)
For collectors like me, it’s instinctual to purchase one copy on vinyl and a cassette copy as well, totaling at least two sales. (As I talked about earlier, these usually come with additional digital downloads, so it’s more than likely four album sales.) But what about all those exclusive colored vinyl variants? You know, the limited edition ones from Urban Outfitters or HMV or Target or FYE? Or when the artist announces another special edition pressing? I usually only go for one record, but it’s undeniable that some fans will go out of their way to purchase all the different pressings. Not to mention releasing 7″ or cassette singles to bait the fans and collectors even more!
Selling Signed or Limited Edition CDs Right After Initial Release
I haven’t seen too many artists trying this one out, but it’s probably the one that gets on my nerves the most. In 2018, 5 Seconds of Summer was slated to score their third consecutive #1 on the Billboard 200 with the release of Youngblood, being the only Australian band to do so. But on release day, Beyoncé and Jay-Z dropped a surprise album, shaking up the Aussie band’s chart predictions. Shortly thereafter, 5SOS announced they would be selling limited signed copies of their deluxe CD, counting as first-week album sales even if the CD itself didn’t ship out to customers for a few weeks. Fans quickly scrambled to purchase a signed copy, including myself who had already bought the vinyl record, cassette tape, and Target-exclusive CD. When the charts were published, 5SOS sure enough scored their third #1 on the Billboard 200. Did the shock-drop signed copies help boost those first-week numbers? Maybe not by much, but it definitely added some to the pile.
In 2020, we witnessed a similar situation. 5SOS anticipated their fourth #1 album with C A L M being released on March 27th. There was little to no competition for that release week—Pearl Jam seemed to be the only worthy contestant with Gigaton, but it was a longshot considering 5SOS’s current relevance and popularity, especially among younger listeners. But a mere week before their album dropped, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, expected to release on April 3rd, was leaked and the label decided to move her album’s release date a week earlier to the 27th. With Dua Lipa’s gargantuan streaming numbers from the album’s singles, Future Nostalgia definitely put up a fight with 5SOS’s C A L M. A day after C A L M was officially released, 5SOS pulled the same move they did in 2018 by putting signed CDs up for sale online. This time it was even more enticing: not only was the CD signed, it also contained an exclusive bonus track not available anywhere else. (And, you guessed it, it also came with an additional digital download.) Now I had already bought the deluxe CD (which did not include that exclusive bonus track), two vinyl records, and a cassette tape. Many fans were in the same position with multiple copies of the album already on their hands, and yet they still flocked to purchase the signed CD, riding the hype of a fresh LP. Again, will this truly boost their first-week sales? We’ll have to see.
Update: On March 30th, it was revealed that unfortunately due to a shipping error, around 10,000 copies of 5SOS’s album were sent to customers early, causing it to debut on the Billboard charts a week before their anticipated debut week. Three days after the album released, it entered the Billboard 200 at #62, meaning the album essentially charted before its intended release. It was predicted to debut in the top 10 and is still expected to rise to the top 10 the following week.
Including More Songs on an Album
This is probably one of the most obvious ones. Many artists have expanded their albums’ tracklistings in order to gain more streams, and sometimes these songs have shorter runtimes. Lauv’s latest album ~how i’m feeling~ offered up 21 tunes, and Migos’ 2018 Culture II had a whopping 24 tracks. This is because more tracks equals more streams, plain and simple, even if it means sacrificing quality. An album with 20 tracks is going to score higher streaming numbers than an album with 9 tracks, simply by the principle of quantity.
So there you have it, just a few ways artists are continuing to garner huge first-week album sales. The music industry has become a game of strategy between streaming, radio, and hard copies, and labels are starting to play rather dirty by exploiting fans and finding loopholes to justify another album sale. (i.e. tour tickets, merch bundles, etc.) Is it ethical? Wrong? Understandable? Let us know what you think down in the comments below, and be sure to share any other tactics artists are utilizing!♠