Release me (I of II)

A post over at the sogo message boards brings up a subject I have been talking a lot about with a friend recently (the timing of releasing singles to radio) and, since it was on my list of stuff to write about already, here we go: Singles are ultimately chosen and serviced by the record company, but usually the artists have (or ought to have) more than a little input in this decision - such as how a song goes over in live performances, how many requests a group receives for a certain song, and so on. That said, of course, not every record company is as interested in collaborative decision-making as others, and I’ve heard at least a few complaints from artists who feel like their labels have not always been so great at consulting the artist (and, one would presume, at least a few artists have been apoplectic over the way their songs have been released to radio). But beyond the way the decision is made, there’s also the more important issue of timing a release. The upshot here is that releasing singles interacts with two other major forces at work in music promotion and marketing:

1. The existing chart dynamics - what’s up, what’s down, and, most important, what else is rising in the charts when a given single is released.
2. The arms race among record companies to get better, newer tunes out against each other (which of course is all tied to sales).

Each of these factors (releasing a single, the charts, and record label arms race) shape and are shaped by the others. Since these elements are constantly in flux and difficult to talk about in isolation, it’s easier to talk about the entire situation anecdotally. Say a popular song, “Rising Star,” let’s call it, is on the charts and rising, rising, rising. And while “Rising Star” is ascending the charts, Big Record Label (BRL) has another single it’s ready to release - either a new tune from the same artist who cut “Rising Star” or a new tune from another artist on the same label (”artist” here is meant to designate a group or a soloist). If you’re BRL and you’re trying to decide when to release “New Tune,” you have to keep in mind that newer singles tend to pull attention away from the current single, especially if “Rising Star” and “New Tune” are from the same artist (a radio dj is not likely to play two songs by the same artist in, say, an hour … which is what DBM is referring to, I think, in his reply on the sogo thread), or if “New Tune” is by an artist with equal or greater popularity than the “Rising Star” artist. One way or another, the new single pulls the momentum off “Rising Star” and usually causes it to prematurely peak in the charts.

Here’s where the collaboration, or lack thereof, between an artist and a record label comes into play. A label that tends to give artists more say in promoting their songs will probably (though of course, there are no absolutes here) sit on “New Tune” a few weeks until “Rising Star” either peaks or hits No. 1. The difference that few weeks hold-time for a new rune can make in an existing song’s chart performance, a project’s sales, and (to some lesser but still important extent) an artist’s fortunes can be pretty substantial: A song flying up the charts may only need three weeks (or less in some cases) to move from Top 5-ish to No.1. The more collaborative outfits might agree in consultation with the artist to hold off on releasing “New Tune” until “Rising Star” has had a fair chance to run the charts. On the other hand, the more centralized record labels will probably tend to ship “New Tune” now and not wait the three weeks or so for “Rising Star” to top out or go all the way.

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