In a new study from research firm Forrester, titled “Music Release Windows: The Product Innovation That The Music Business Can't Do Without,” the company has taken an old concept and made it a rallying cry for greater change in the music industry.

“Content scarcity can never be truly regained so value must be reestablished with the scarcity of convenience,” wrote Mulligan at his blog, “compelling services operating within three broad music release windows.” That release window starts in week one with premium channels (mobile tariff and device purchase bundles), goes to mainstream release channels in the third week (download stores, CD release) and hits free services (ad-supported services like Spotify and Pandora) in the sixth week.

Windowing is a concept that has been implemented in one form or another for many years. Limited edition CDs created a window in which fans could acquire additional content (usually on a bonus CD or DVD). Pre-release singles are a windowing strategy – singles help build demand for the full-length album. More recently, labels have combined windowing (digital singles and EPs before an album’s release) with versioning (multiple versions of an album) to better generate revenue from a traditional album release.

Forrester’s report encourages the industry to move beyond the album format. “We propose that the straight jacket of album format can now be shaken off and in its place releases can become part of a continual artist-fan relationship with artists delivering a steady stream of creative output.”

And there’s the key: the continual artist-fan relationship. That is the goal of every music company today. Ironically, the direct-to-fan release is not included on Forrester’s release window graphic. But it will be a major part of future release strategies. In many cases, the end goal is to move beyond the album cycle and feed fans a constant flow of music, videos and other premium content and services. There will be fan-only releases that won’t get the sort of broad release that needs a windowing strategy. It’s important to note that labels, artists and managers can only do so much to build those relationships. They need to be given the proper tools. Service providers create the products that offer the level of convenience and value that will attract both fans and artists to the products.

Forrester’s three-tier release window brings up many questions about how a label/artist releases its products and which is the best strategy. Here are a few topics to think about when considering the merits of a windowing strategy.

- Is windowing or versioning the better strategy? This is a question that gets right to the core of the future of music services. Versioning allows consumers to self-select the product that best meets their desire/ability to pay. Windowing bases its schedule on existing versions (which are based upon demand/desire to pay) and may unnecessarily duplicate that self-selection process.

-- Does the windowing strategy apply to artists of all levels of success and maturity? AC/DC , The Eagles and The Beatles are three of the rare examples of bands that do not need common windowing strategies. They can maximize revenue by releasing albums through limited sales channels. On the other side of the spectrum, a developing artist that does not have much of a fan base benefits from exclusive relationships. Adherence to a release window may not be possible with those exclusives.

- Can publicity and promotional activities be adequately built around a five-week release window? A simple one-time release simplifies the act of promoting a new release. Three different windows would add complexity and, as a result, higher costs. The publicity and marketing in versioning strategy may be more effective. In such a scenario, there is a marketing timeline that starts with pre-release singles, ramps up with the release of different versions of the full-length album and continues through remixes, videos and other items. With Forrester’s window, one product has three different release dates. Add more products and the number of release dates grows. It’s not brain surgery, but more simple is always better than less simple.

- Does the windowing strategy offer a competitive advantage? Granting exclusives to retailers and services can give an artist a boost in awareness that would not otherwise exist. Many artists, for example, have given Verizon and Rhapsody limited-time exclusives on new releases. In return, the artists get valuable consumer impressions. When artists partner with telecom and media companies, their window strategies are going to be determined by that partnership.

- Does the label/artist want to discriminate based on ability or desire to pay? Putting non-payers at the back of the line may not be the best way to treat consumers. Young people and casual music listeners are less likely to participate in the early window stages. Should they be excluded? Should the merely curious have to wait give weeks after album reviews start appearing before he/she can legally listen to an album for free? And how does this waiting period for non-payers fit into labels’ efforts to fight piracy? That five-week wait could encourage many people to break the law.