Country Music Hopes to Have Global Release Date Figured Out By Luke Bryan's Album

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Luke Bryan performs onstage during the 50th Academy Of Country Music Awards at AT&T Stadium on April 19, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.

It's a sure bet that at least one Alan Jackson fan somewhere in the United States will wander into a retail store today, July 14 looking for his new album, Angels and Alcohol. And that fan will be surprised -- maybe even a little miffed -- to discover it's not available, even though it's released this week.

Consumers have been trained for decades to expect new albums to hit the street on Tuesdays, and while other products -- including books and some DVDs -- will continue to launch that same day, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has synchronized most of the world to a new schedule, with music now arriving on Fridays, beginning July 10.

Jackson's album is the first major release by a country star to reach the market under the Friday plan, pegged to July 17, while Luke Bryan's Kill the Lights, due Aug. 7, will be the first country album to hit stores with the support of a top 10 single, assuming "Kick the Dust Up" (No. 8, Country Airplay) continues on its current trajectory. That makes Bryan in particular a bit of a guinea pig for Music Row, which will no doubt be watching the album's performance closely as Universal Music Group Nashville contends with some expected issues and perhaps some others that could not have been predicted.

"My plan is to have it hopefully worked through by Aug. 7 when the Luke Bryan comes out," UMGN COO Tom Becci says, "because it'll likely be one of the biggest records in country music and all music this year."

The global release date is a direct result of digital music's growth. Previously, different countries operated with their own standard release schedules. Australia, for example, went to market on Thursday, Germany hit on Friday, the United Kingdom released on Monday, and the United States followed on Tuesday. While that was suitable for physical retailers, it created piracy problems for manufacturers in the digital era as rabid British and American fans could illegally download music before it became available in their homeland.

"We can watch it pop up on all these sites the minute it's released," says Becci, "so we really need to have a global date specifically for the major, major artists. It's a huge issue."

But the solution is creating other issues, some of them predictable. Billboard, for example, has revised its charting period. All charts built on Nielsen Music sales data and/or streaming information will shift from a Monday-to-Sunday cycle to a Friday-to-Thursday model. As a result, charts that were previously published on Thursdays -- including Country Albums and the multi-source Hot Country Songs -- will now be available Mondays, leading to the Billboard Country Update's revision to a once-a-week publication, beginning with the current issue.

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Less predictable are some of the marketplace concerns created by Friday releases. Artists typically make the bulk of their income by touring on weekends and may now find themselves in remote markets on the date an album is released, unable to capitalize on some same-day marketing opportunities. The Friday release puts recorded music in more direct competition with some other entertainment options -- including movie releases, sporting events and even live music -- during the weekend. And, most importantly, questions remain about retailers' ability to react in a timely fashion if they sell out of stock unexpectedly on a Friday.

Under the previous scenario, a surprise blockbuster would show life on the Tuesday it was released, and wholesale rackjobbers -- primarily Anderson Merchandisers -- had three days to restock shelves before the high-volume weekend traffic. With the global release date, there could be circumstances in which an album sells out Friday, distribution centers are unaware of the trend until Monday, and therefore are unable to restock until Tuesday or Wednesday, essentially missing five days of potential sale on a hot product.

"Physical sales in our genre, especially in the first weeks of a record's life, can still be 50 percent [of volume]," says BBR Music Group senior vp/GM Rick Shedd. "So it's not insignificant by any means."

How best to promote those albums is also a conundrum. Album reviews had already grown infrequent. Consumer publications that might have previously run them on Monday or Tuesday are now faced with Thursday or Friday run dates, where they compete for attention with movie reviews or concert information.

And where artists could once gang up on talk shows from Monday through Thursday to call attention to a release date, the weekend  now splits a similar four-day run. Artists can garner Friday release-date exposure on Thursday and Friday, while Monday and Tuesday serve as something of a post-weekend mop-up period. It's not clear if press on those days after a release will be as effective as it was in the past when those days coincided with a new release.

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"Like with any change, there are going to be kinks to work out, so we're all going to have to try to be patient and address them and move forward," says American Association of Independent Music vp Molly Neuman.

Some pieces of the puzzle are clear. Marketing in social media is expected to be easier for releases with an international footprint. In the past, the jumble of release dates required multiple messages that were tailored for specific countries. Now one message can apply to the entire world. Additional weekend follow-up postings are likely to reach more consumers, arriving at a time when people are more involved on Facebook or Twitter.

"My social media department is pretty excited because they like the engagement they get over the weekends," says Faithe Parker, managing partner for Marbaloo Marketing, a digital marketing company working the Jackson and Bryan albums, as well as other projects. "I know that my press team is a little more cautious in their excitement toward the move, knowing that the major TVs will come in after three days now and that a lot of our publications don't have full-time weekend staff."

Marbaloo could not have existed before the Internet, creating some irony, since it's online behavior that has created the need for a global release date.

"It certainly changes things," she says of the new Friday standard. "But I think the music industry has become accustomed to change. We've all had to be flexible for a long time now, and I think this is just the next round of that."

That's perhaps easier in some other territories that have now gone almost exclusively to digital downloads and streaming. But in the country genre, its key suburban heartland shoppers still frequent box stores, making the new release date a major issue. If slower restocking time leads to decreased sales, retail could reduce its commitment to recorded music even more than it already has.

"The consolidation of titles and space is alarming at physical retail," says Shedd. "They're running a business. I just don't want anything else to have further impact on that."

Country's guinea-pig projects will likely provide some insight, particularly Bryan's album, since it's supported by a current hit and Bryan is expected to be aggressive in promoting it. 

"That'll be a really wonderful case study," says Parker, "for how people should use the new release date in the future."

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.