In the film industry, summertime is blockbuster season, with popcorn movies arriving on schedule and raking in millions. But things are less simple in the music industry. Tent-pole albums are usually saved for the fourth quarter. Only three albums released between June and August last year - Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter IV," Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Watch the Throne" and Beyoncé's "4" - sold more than 300,000 copies in their debut weeks, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And TV platforms like "American Idol," "The Voice" and "Dancing With the Stars" are between cycles. So how do music marketers make the most out of the summer months?
A hit single typically does the trick, though the fabled summertime anthem isn't exactly predictable. "Traditionally [a summer song] is the whole windows-down, play-it-loud-in-your-car song," RCA Records senior VP of marketing Aaron Borns says. "But there is a lot of melancholy that comes with the emotions associated with summertime." For every dance track like the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" (8 million sold), there's a "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele (7.1 million) that adds some depth to top 40.
Summer songs don't need to debut anywhere close to the season, either. This year, tracks intentionally released on the cusp of summer - like Usher's "Scream" and Maroon 5's "Payphone" - will try to repeat the success of songs like Katy Perry's "California Gurls" (5.3 million downloads since debuting in May 2010). But LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" arrived on New Year's Eve 2010 and sold 276,000 downloads from January to April last year. Then it grew on radio as the weather improved, selling 3 million downloads from May to August and topping Billboard's 2011 Songs of the Summer list. "There probably is a [summer song] formula, but . . . we never set out to do the song of the summer - we just set out to do something great," says GoonRock, who co-produced, co-wrote and was featured on "Party Rock Anthem." "That something great goes hand in hand with the feeling of summertime - feeling hot, feeling good - and that's why it worked so well."
If the science of a summer song is difficult to engineer, TV opportunities can be even trickier to navigate during the summer. But fluctuating prime-time schedules open the door to more experimentation. In 2012, that means freshman shows like ABC's new singing competition "Duets" and E!'s upcoming talent showdown "Opening Act," which allow established artists like Kelly Clarkson ("Duets") and Nicki Minaj ("Opening Act") to pop up on potential hits without making long-term commitments.
Meanwhile, NBC's "Today" and the "Good Morning America" summer concert series give rising artists a bigger performance platform than in other seasons. "We just booked Neon Trees to do 'Good Morning America,' and that's an outdoor, Central Park gig," Island Def Jam executive VP of marketing and creative Eric Wong says. "If their record ["Picture Show"] was coming in the fall instead of last month, the show might just be in [ABC's] studio."
Prime-time reruns also mean the high-profile looks to be had in sports events can have even more impact, from the MLB All-Star Game to the NBA Finals to the Stanley Cup playoffs to the Olympics. Since being used in NBA playoffs commercials, Linkin Park's new single, "Burn It Down," has sold 260,000 downloads, according to SoundScan, nicely setting up the group's "Living Things" album, out June 26.
For branding companies like New York-based agency Cornerstone, whose current clients include Nike, Pepsi and Converse, summertime means less online minutes for the average consumer, so music festivals offer an immediate pressure point. Cornerstone co-CEO Jon Cohen says that the most effective brand initiatives take advantage of consumers' heightened willingness to get some fresh air and experience new products. "[Festival] attendees need some other things to focus on at an all-day festival," Cohen says. "You're seeing food become a bigger part of the festival experience . . . you're seeing videogames, and a lot of activities." For example, Cornerstone has previously organized Xbox Live sponsorship programs at Bonnaroo in which different comedians roamed the festival grounds interacting with fans and performers.
Marquee acts like the Black Keys, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Skrillex will benefit from making the festival rounds this year, but for major labels, summer festivals in 2012 represent an opportunity to develop smaller acts. As event live streaming expands and performance reactions can be tweeted in real time, nonheadlining bands can gain more eyeballs. It's the reason why, along with overseeing the summer touring of RCA acts like Clarkson and Dave Matthews Band, Borns is particularly excited to see where rising indie-rock act Walk the Moon, which is performing at Sasquatch! and the Governors Ball festival this year, stands at the end of the season. "You do not have as many superstar albums coming out in the middle of the summertime," Borns says, "so it's a nice time for those word-of-mouth artists to gain a lot of mind share."