Since the advent of the genre in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the standard trajectory for signed indie-rock bands has been to release an album, tour on it for roughly two years, release another album, repeat. In the industry, this is known as the two-year album cycle, a model that’s ostensibly designed to maximize the impact (and profits) of a sole record by having an artist promote it for the time it takes them to exhaustively gig throughout their markets.
Of course there have long been especially prolific artists like Ty Segall and of Montreal who frequently crank out albums on a yearly basis. And EPs, soundtracks, various artist compilations and occasional b-sides in the years between albums have obviously existed as a means to tide fans over. But as pop, hip-hop, R&B and electronic musicians have largely disavowed the two-year cycle over the last decade, in favor of frequent singles, back-to-back albums, and “inventing” new formats like “playlists,” a full-length project every two years has long remained the general template for career indie bands. But that’s just now beginning to change.
Within the last year-and-a-half, artists on labels like Domino, Polyvinyl, Sup Pop, Barsuk, Saddle Creek, Matador and many other rock-oriented indies within that world have been putting out music at a more-frequent rate. Whereas smaller projects used to be treated as special bonuses to fans, it’s now becoming the norm for one-off singles and EPs to arrive mere months after artists released their last album.
“We work with a handful of bands who have labels who seem to encourage this [increased output],” says AJ Tobey, head of A&R at Rough Trade Publishing. “And kind of have a separate agenda for releasing [non-album] singles throughout record cycles. It is something that seems very new that I’ve noticed on the indie-rock side of things.”
For instance, in 2019, Palehound (Polyvinyl), Tacocat (Sub Pop), Cherry Glazerr (Secretly Canadian), SASAMI (Domino), Empath (Fat Possum) and Rosie Tucker (New Professor) each dropped digital singles just four to seven months after their latest full-length. Artists like Weyes Blood (Sub Pop) and Charly Bliss (Barsuk) released EPs six and five months, respectively, after their 2019 albums. Black Midi (Rough Trade) and (Sandy) Alex G (Domino) put out two of the most highly-acclaimed indie records of 2019, and they’ve already both dropped a loosie in 2020. And three of the most popular contemporary indie artists, Lucy Dacus (Matador), Soccer Mommy (Loma Vista) and Julien Baker (Matador), have each released half-a-record’s worth of singles in the two years since their last full-lengths.
“The model of never going away does seem to be like the new normal,” says Polyvinyl Label Director Seth Hubbard. He’s been working at the Illinois imprint for 16 years, and he fully agrees that artists in that world are putting out more music than they would have even two or three years ago — let alone 10 or 15. “And now with Spotify being what it is, and social media being what it is, the reality for a lot of artists is that they need to tour more often to make a living. I feel like a lot of bands keep grinding and putting out new music [because it’s] one way to just keep the cycle going.”
Amber Carew, the Director of A&R and Social Media at Saddle Creek Records, also acknowledges that the artists she’s working with are releasing more content than in previous years. Before joining Saddle Creek in 2017, Carew spent years doing A&R and digital marketing at the much bigger indie label ANTI- Records, and since leaving ANTI-, the album cycle sea change has begun.
“We would be working a third single to college radio several months into the campaign,” she says of her time at ANTI-. “Now, we choose one or two songs to focus on at radio and that’s pretty much what we try for. The goals were loftier, really digging into records back then. Milking them for everything they are.”
However, as streaming has changed the way people consume music, and the prevalence of home recording technology has affected the way artists create music, the methods artists and their labels are using to release and market their music is also changing. Carew says that when she worked at ANTI-, smaller, non-LP projects were generally discouraged because they didn’t perform as well.
“‘So let’s just keep writing until you have a full LP,’” she remembers hearing. “That was always a sentiment that was given to the artists, and that doesn’t come out of my mouth anymore.”
Since streaming gives people so much sheer access to music, and the nature of social media constantly bombards people with new music content (articles, listener recommendations, posts from bands themselves), simply keeping an artist’s name in people’s minds can be incredibly difficult. For a fledgling indie artist who’s just beginning their career, putting out a single shortly after a debut album is a way to maintain a presence in the conversation.
“It’s another chance to go after press, plus it’s got a little bit of a sales aspect to it [in terms of streaming revenue],” says Jamie Coletta, a music publicist and marketing specialist who mainly works with underground indie artists. “Then I think it’s also about the way our attention spans are changing, and the way album cycles are changing. For a developing artist, a lot of the time, you need something new in order to get people to look back at you.”
And one of the most popular places modern listeners “look” for new music is in their playlists. Particularly algorithmically generated playlists like Spotify’s “Release Radar,” which delivers new music to users each week based on their previous listening habits — with no editorial control from actual Spotify employees.
“Obviously, the more songs you’re putting out, the more songs you’re getting put into that whole scene,” Hubbard says, shortly after mentioning that streaming is Polyvinyl’s top priority. “It definitely kind of feeds off of itself.”
Then there are the gobs of Spotify and Apple Music playlists that are editorially curated. Although having more music would theoretically create more opportunities to pitch the editors of those playlists, in Tobey’s experience with the artists Rough Trade publishes, these one-off singles don’t usually catch on the way an album might.
“I’m just happy to have them because I just always want more material for everybody,” he says. “But it’s rarely a game changer — it’s just kind of part of the story… It’s not a ‘Stop everything, there’s a new single,’ it’s an, OK cool, there’s a new song, that gives us one more chance to find something for it.’”
Carew has had a more positive experience with leveraging one-off singles on streaming platforms. In 2018, Saddle Creek released an album called You, Forever by the Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sam Evian that the label felt was under-received. “At least to me, it felt like we needed to give people more, just because something maybe wasn’t clicking,” Carew remembers. So within the next year, the label released four additional Evian songs — two new tracks, a cover, and a re-imagined version of a song from the record. The strategy worked.
“It’s a consensus of Saddle Creek that after releasing all of those things following You, Forever, we all of a sudden noticed that streaming numbers were really up,” Carew explains. “And that he was getting more placements than usual, fan territories were changing when we checked analytics in the DSP [Digital Service Provider] platforms. And we noticed that there was a lot of movement in the audience side in terms of engagement online. . .”
“I think an album can seep in over time and grow and connect with people,” she continues. “But not in the way we were noticing. So it had to have been these one-off releases we were doing that sort of boosted the album and brought it back to that.”
As an employee of a publishing company, Tobey’s main priority is securing sync licensing deals with the artists Rough Trade publishes. In other words, sending music to music supervisors who work on movies, TV shows and advertisements to license music for their projects, which is how their artists make the majority of their income.
“Of course we work some bigger artists like The War on Drugs and Grizzly Bear, and they obviously actually do sell a lot of albums and get tons and tons and tons of streams and tour the world in front of massive audiences,” Tobey says. “But for a lot of the smaller bands that we work, a main chunk of money is gonna come from sync licensing as opposed to anything else on the publishing side of things.”
In that specific line of work, Tobey says that supervisors are more receptive to checking out a full album than an individual single, so one-offs aren’t as useful to him. However, although those smaller projects may not be as lucrative, Carew sees them as a necessary form of promotion. “We need to be constantly putting out content even if those smaller, individual projects don’t see a return,” she says. “They’re at least keeping the artists at the top of everyone’s mind. And they’re used more as a marketing tool than they are a product.”
That idea of treating music as a marketing tool, using non-album singles as a way to promote the albums themselves, is echoed by most of the people who contributed to this piece. And according to Hubbard, Polyvinyl is taking it one step further: using singles to promote actual tours.
“A lot of times now when our bands are going out on a second tour behind an album or a third, there’s usually a , ‘What are we gonna do to promote this?’” Hubbard says. “And honestly, I think the old model would’ve been maybe, ‘Let’s find that third or fourth single from the album and then make a music video and try that.’ And honestly, I don’t think that’s as exciting for fans as a brand new song is.”
“People used to tour to support music, and now people put music out to support tours,” says Sasami Ashworth, an indie musician who released her self-titled debut, SASAMI, last March via Domino. By September she already had a new single out, she dropped a holiday-themed EP in November, and she’s currently planning to release another single in Q1 of this year. However, she emphasizes that her “non-traditional” output isn’t some sort of means-tested marketing strategy, but simply an accurate representation of her musical growth.
“I just feel like the most important thing about investing in my art is for me to feel like my work is authentic, and the way I present it is authentic,” she says. “And to me, that’s not every two years I grow [and make an album].”
Since many artists today have access to home studios where they can record and produce music for cheap, and uploading music to streaming services is exponentially quicker than pressing physical copies, the literal process of making and releasing music also lends itself to smaller projects. It’s a stark contrast to 20 years ago, when doing so would’ve necessitated booking studio time and a four-month block to press the physical product.
“When I was growing up, it was very, very, very hard to get a CD into a store,” says Greg Katz, who owns New Professor Records, manages a few smaller artists, and co-owns a publishing company. “It was a system that required factories and semi-trucks just for a fan to have the opportunity to listen to your songs again. Now that is completely over, and with one click you can reach everyone in the world. So I think that increased access is something that is great for artists across the board.”
Through New Professor, Katz has worked with many artists from outside of the indie rock sphere, and he also manages producers and songwriters in a more mainstream setting. Therefore, he’s constantly surrounded by musicians who don’t view the album as this sort of sacred, unquestionably correct format for releasing music — the way many indie bands do.
“I think the idea that the proper release for an artist is a 44-minute album is a holdover from another medium,” he says. “A holdover from 33 rpm, long-playing records that were the standard 60 years ago. That’s not a Commandment handed down by God as the right way to give music to your fans or the right way to make an artistic statement. It’s something the mainstream commercial music industry imposed on artists a long time ago to maximize profits.”
Sasami’s singles-heavy output reinforces that sentiment, but she notes that some artists eschew the album format not just for creative, but for financial reasons.
“I also feel like a lot of people put out EPs because making albums is so f–king expensive,” she says. “Not everybody can afford to make a full-length album as their first introduction to the sonic world; it’s a huge commitment to make an album, depending on the kind of music you make. Financially, it’s not viable for everyone.”
Although the frequent release model seems to be an effective marketing strategy in this current age, all of the label personnel who contributed to this piece stressed that their release schedules are ultimately artist-driven. One of the core tenets of an indie label is to be inherently reactionary to the mainstream, to exist as a literal alternative, both creatively and financially, to the status quo. If they employ a major label strategy and the money follows then that’s great, but their priorities always lie in giving their artists as much creative freedom as possible.
“I think indie labels will always be a haven for artists who want to resist the prevailing trends in the music industry, and that’s what they should be,” Katz says. “There’s that Arctic Monkeys album title, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, to a certain extent indie labels are here to enable artists to do what they want regardless of whether that is the most likely path to commercial success.”
Carew feels the same way.
“I want an artist to come to me today and say, ‘I want to put out this EP, here it is’, and for me to be able to plug it into our release schedule that day,” she says. “And honestly, I know that’s a modest goal. But that’s our goal for Saddle Creek.”