The Nov. 19 release of the soundtrack to “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” was preceded by three singles from Coldplay, Christina Aguilera and Sia — a feat notable not just for Republic’s collaboration with the acts’ respective labels to work the songs at radio, but for the landmark improvements to Apple’s bundling of tracks into album pre-orders.
“We’d always had the lack of flexibility of releasing singles and being of the pre-order itself — on a lot of occasions, the consumer had to buy that particular track twice once the album came out,” says Russell Fink, senior VP of digital and mobile sales for Republic and Island Def Jam (IDJ). “But over the last six to 12 months, we’ve seen iTunes overhaul their system in a way that’s put the consumer first, so now you can reward fans and thank them for being loyal to artists by investing early in new material.”
As labels’ A&R and marketing teams pay closer attention to taking advantage of the Complete My Album flexibility, it could help bolster the value perception of digital albums with fans and ultimately boost sales. While digital album scans were up 2.6% to 87.7 million in the first nine months of the year, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan, the format’s growth has slowed so far this year. A closer look at the data reveals that slowing growth in the second quarter turned into a 5% decline in the third quarter to 26.9 million units compared with the same period a year ago.
Digital albums on iTunes can be preceded by up to 50% of prereleased material, according to executives familiar with deal terms. And as iTunes continues to scale up and improve its prerelease bundles, acts like HAIM and Icona Pop have been able to combine singles released more than a year prior to their albums into Complete My Album offerings.
A major-label sales chief says the industry would like to see similar functionality across all digital service providers like Amazon and eMusic. “With iTunes Radio coming into play now and what’s been happening with streaming this past year, we’re still in the early stages of finding out what’s the most effective way to approach the marketplace with the right offer,” the executive says.
Having more flexibility with pre-orders has forced the labels to create a less cluttered marketplace for artists once their albums are released. In the case of Republic’s Lorde, the 17-year-old singer had sold 150,000 copies of EP “The Love Club,” featuring the No. 1 hit “Royals,” before her full-length “Pure Heroine” arrived Sept. 30. Because the label was able to honor sales of “Royals” and pre-release track “Tennis Court” for pre-orders of “Pure Heroine,” the previous version of “The Love Club” was pulled from iTunes (as was a “Tennis Court” digital single) and rereleased the following week with “Tennis Court” B-side “Swinging Party” in the place of “Royals.” “We wanted to make sure we were directing everyone to the latest product out there. We didn’t want any confusion about ‘What am I buying?'” Fink says.
Fink saw the first indication of this newfound flexibility in March, when IDJ was able to negotiate a limited $7.99 price for pre-orders of Fall Out Boy’s “Save Rock and Roll.” “The one thing we discussed with the band, management and the label was, ‘How could we make a statement of ‘thank you’ to the fans for waiting for us after a four-year hiatus?'” Fink says. The label was able to offer the album at a reduced price for its first three weeks of pre-orders, and in turn held the No. 1 spot on the iTunes albums chart for its first week and received ample placement on the iTunes home page.
Interscope head of sales Gary Kelly had similar ease in bundling preview tracks from Eminem and Lady Gaga for both artists’ new albums, with up to four songs available from each bundled into the Complete My Album feature. “That’s been the big benefit, because you’re really giving consumers an easier option to upgrade the album,” Kelly says. “These new infrastructure changes have made it easier to convert those consumers toward first-week sales.”
Perhaps the most extensive test of iTunes’ willingness to allow multiple singles in advance of a full album is Justin Bieber’s “Music Mondays” program. Since October, the singer has been releasing new songs to iTunes every Monday — leading up to what neither Fink nor Bieber’s management has yet to determine may be a proper album. Should the songs end up on an official release, “we would have to find one or two new tracks to include on the final album,” Fink says. “There has to be a certain value left for people to purchase the entire bundle.”