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Inside The Chainsmokers' Plan to Rethink the Album Cycle

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Michael Campanella/Redferns
The Chainsmokers onstage in Stockholm on March 9.

After The Chainsmokers presented their 2018 release strategy to their record label last fall, the plan was so complicated that Columbia Records vp sales Joe Gallo had to buy a new dry-erase board. Columbia’s team spent three weeks scribbling out the idea -- a single will come out every month on Spotify, Apple Music and the rest, atop a new EP containing each previous single.

“We wrote out a road map,” recalls Gallo. “We wanted to create what we’re calling a ‘waterfall.’ As we go with the second and third tracks, the waterfall keeps getting larger and larger.”

In January, The Chainsmokers put out “Sick Boy” as what appeared to be a standard single release; in February, “You Owe Me” arrived as a two-song bundle on ­streaming ­services with “Sick Boy” in the second slot; since the third single, “Everybody Hates Me,” dropped March 16, it has topped the three-song bundle. This ­cascading process will repeat until a 12-song album drops in December. Adam Alpert, CEO of the band’s longtime label, Columbia partner Disruptor Records, came up with what he calls the “building the album” strategy. “Every song will get a new boost in ­consumption,” he says.

The Chainsmokers’ plan is an elaborate case in an ­industry-wide lab ­experiment on how best to rethink the standard single-single-album release playbook of the CD era. In recent years, pop stars have taken a range of new approaches, from Beyoncé's surprise self-titled album to Kanye West’s edit-as-you-go The Life of Pablo to Drake’s “playlist” album More Life. In 2017, Ed Sheeran, Camila Cabello and others put out two singles at the same time, and 21 Savage re-ordered his Issa Album for streaming services with the hit “Bank Account” at the top. Bebe Rexha flooded streaming services with singles and EPs throughout 2017 without ­releasing an album at all, while two of the biggest singles of the past year -- Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" and Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" -- still do not have an album home. It’s a sea change for the major labels, which were once so furious about Tom Petty releasing a free MP3 they made him remove it from the web.

“For the first time in the history of the business, there’s not just one ­configuration where fans are ­consuming, so we take an absolutely customized approach with every record,” says Larry Mattera, GM of commerce and marketing for Warner Bros. Records, Rexha’s label.

But The Chainsmokers are ­hoping to solve a broader problem ­nagging the industry as it peers into its future: When today’s young listeners stumble upon a song they like, they’re far less inclined to check out other tracks by the same artist than are their older album-era counterparts. And that could mean a drop in catalog revenue when the youngest generation accounts for more of streaming’s subscribers.

“I have a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. They do not deep-dive for other songs,” says Cory Llewellyn, a former Universal and Sony exec and owner of digital-marketing service Transmission Media. 

While the Chainsmokers' building-album strategy could get young fans to go deeper if they discover the EP among a week’s new releases, Llewellyn points out that such fans are more likely to discover the single tracks on playlists, and still may not make the leap to the Chainsmokers' page to discover the act’s latest release bundle. But Zach Fuller, a media analyst for MIDiA Research in London, says the Chainsmokers' plan will still boost traffic on Spotify and other services by constantly refreshing their pages with new material. "If you do discover it [from a playlist], you are innately more likely to go to the [artist] page, and Spotify has the latest releases at the top," he says.

The duo released a song almost every month in 2016, an approach that led to massive hits like "Roses" and "Closer" and has helped the group reach 4.4 billion U.S. on-demand streams of its songs, according to Nielsen Music. But the act wanted to keep fans streaming all of its singles, rather than just the latest. It's too early to gauge whether Chainsmokers' album-building strategy is working as planned -- "Sick Boy" has more than 112 million Spotify streams and "You Owe Me" hit 25 million, but neither stuck to the Hot 100 very long. Gallo, though, says streaming data showed the first single racked up 3 million streams on its own, then jumped 10 percent, to 3.3 million streams, in the first week after being bundled with "You Owe Me."

As part of the building-the-album strategy, Chainsmokers will monitor streams for each single throughout the year, and use data to determine which single to take to radio -- an idea that is becoming more common for labels of all sizes. The digital team at indie Glassnote Records recently noticed via Shazam that Mansionair's single "Astronaut (Something About Your Love)" was getting Los Angeles radio play, which led to a new remix release in early 2018. "We use that data to shape timing and shape how we build momentum," says Ryan Payne, the label's head of product management and sales. "You can see how fans react [to a new single] every day."

And streaming services encourage the experimentation. "We're just living in a world right now where there are no rules," says Troy Carter, Spotify's global head of creative services. "There's no reason to ever have to go back to single-single-album [release strategies]. Artists should be able to release music whenever they feel like they're inspired."

Joel Klaiman, executive vp/general manager of Columbia, says he thinks variations of The Chainsmokers' building-album strategy "can work for virtually everybody." "It's almost like a recurring TV show," Klaiman says, "[Fans] know what to look for. I think the episodic element, or the recurring element, of it [is something] fans are going like, and appreciate, and look forward to."

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 24 issue of Billboard.