Things used to be so simple. You would release some singles to get some hype. Maybe an EP for something a bit more substantial. Then work your way up to an album to make that lasting impact. Singles were there to promote the album, for the most part.
Nowadays things are way more complicated. With the maturing of music streaming platforms, the playing field has vastly changed, music is now consumed in a much less linear, predictable and controllable fashion.
The power used to be in the hands of the record labels and the radio stations: now it’s shifted to the hands of the streaming platforms (i.e. the retailer), their algorithms and their editorial teams.
So how should aspiring musicians approach their release strategy in this day and age?
Let’s take a look at the different elements, options, and combinations.
Finding a Release Strategy That Works For You
We should tee up what we’re about to tell you by saying that you should find the release strategy that works for you, your music and the scene or genre it’s in.
Listening habits vary over different demographics (like age and location) and in different genres.
If you’re making music that is meant to be listened to as a collection of tracks, obviously firing out loads of singles isn’t going to work for you. If you make music for clubs and dancefloors, albums aren’t going to be as much of a priority. So as we outline the pros and cons of different approaches, consider whether it all applies to what you’re doing.
Why Should I Release Singles?
In recent years there has been a move to artists choosing to release more singles than when things were focused around selling albums. Back then a label would typically release 3-5 singles from an album, usually one or two before release and one or two after.
As downloading and streaming has become more prominent, listening habits have shifted towards playlists and other combinations of single tracks. People could now skip the tracks they didn’t like on an album and just choose to repeatedly listen to a select few.
So to fit this new listening habit, some acts and labels like to release a steady stream of singles to keep fans engaged. This is particularly prevalent in dance music genres, where production times on single tracks are usually much shorter than it takes for a band to write, record, mix and master a track. These days, it is also common for singles to be released that don’t feature on albums and work as standalone pieces, whatever the genre.
But there’s more to a single-led strategy than meets the eye. You have to think about how music is amplified on streaming platforms. The big plays come from being featured on the in-house editorial playlists that the platform curators design.
The more singles you release, the more chances you have to get included on these playlists. If you release all your tracks in one go on an album or an EP, you give the playlist editors a choice.
They won’t pick more than one track to go into the same playlist, so you’re essentially making the tracks on your EP compete against each other for a spot on the same playlist. If you stagger them as singles on separate release dates, you increase your chances of each track getting onto a playlist.
With Spotify’s playlist submission tool, you can only pick one track per release to submit to their editorial team, so even with an EP, you have a decision to make about which track you put forward.
Why Should I Release an EP?
An EP offers you the chance to make more of a mark on your listeners and the press. It’s a statement of intent, something more substantial than a single to put out into the world.
It also gives you the chance to have a greater share of each listener’s time, consuming music on their platform of choice. If they’re served up your new multi-track EP instead of a new single, you’ll get the play counts and royalties for all of the tracks on it (if they listen in full, anyway). Obviously with a single you only get a fraction of these numbers.
You could argue that if you released the same number of tracks over a few weeks, you would hopefully end up with the same number of plays from anyone listener – That’s probably true for die-hard fans, but less likely for casual listeners.
It’s very easy for single tracks for smaller artists to get lost and be missed too, while EPs tend to get better coverage. For example, if you check out the ‘New Releases’ section of Spotify, you’ll see that it tends to favor EPs and albums.
The Combination Approach: Releasing Singles Which Form an EP
This EP release strategy is rapidly growing in favor of labels and artists throughout the industry, combining the benefits of both approaches. The big announcement is that an EP is being released, but that it will be drip-fed to listeners over the following weeks. So you get the impact of the big reveal, the multiple stabs at getting editorial coverage through the various singles, the momentum of a sustained, consistent release schedule — and then a nice full EP at the end of it. This also has the benefit of your EP having (hopefully) some good play counts on the day it’s ‘released’ in full.
This is likely to make a more lasting mark on consumers than just releasing a clutch of singles sporadically. And particular with album lengths shortening in recent years, EPs are a perfect length for listeners with medium-length attention spans.
Should I Still Bother Releasing an Album?
It can be very disheartening to put a lot of effort into creating an album only to see it very swiftly forgotten about in the current climate. Plenty of great albums come and go without making a lasting impact any more, simply by nature of how much music is released every week and the fact that anyone can listen to ALL of it if they want to. Gone are the days of kids saving up to buy an album and then listening to it obsessively until they could afford something new.
However, if an album concept is still important to you, that’s all that should matter. It’s also still key in terms of press. But don’t feel like you need to rush towards it. You can still build a great profile with singles and EPs, as plenty of artists have done in the last decade. Albums are worth taking time over and should only be contemplated when you feel you really have something to say that justifies the format and length.
In terms of editorial on streaming platforms, albums still get good coverage. Spotify’s New Releases section chooses a selection each week and keeps the older releases visible for several weeks, for example.
And of course, releasing singles followed by an album still has its merits as a release strategy, and brings you the same benefits as the singles + EPs approach outlined.
The way people release music is always changing. From Drake putting out a playlist to try and break new streaming and charting records to surprise album drops from major artists, people are trying to find ways of getting that competitive edge. Vampire Weekend recently went with a new twist, releasing three sets of two tracks from an 18-track album over the space of a few weeks to reintroduce the band with impact following an extended period away from releasing music.
Pay attention to new music releases and you’ll be sure to learn a thing or two you can apply to your own strategy.