Op-Eds

The Classic 'Album Release Cycle' Seems to Be Dying

Am I the only one who was like 'I cannot keep up with all these projects coming out right at the end of the year, the fuck?' No? Good.

by Chanté Joseph
12 February 2019, 10:30am

Background image, 21 Savage 'I Am > I Was' artwork; left, Vic Mensa 'HOOLIGANS' artwork; right Kodak Black 'Dying To Live'

It’s ‘back on your bullshit’ season again. Christmas is long gone and you’re now at the point when the ‘new year, new me’ you promised yourself is fading away. Like many, I too wanted to start the year afresh. I was ready to welcome the blessings of 2019 with open arms, but alas, as the troubled wordsmith Tyrese once said, “Everytime I try to leave / Something keeps pullin' me back, me back”. And that thing was the one too many releases that dropped late last year.

Normally, the end of the year is about reflection and planning ahead. But towards the end of last year, a bunch of music dropped. You had albums and mixtapes from Flohio, Maxsta, Belly Squad, Clean Bandit and Cupcakke. Meanwhile, Vic Mensa and Big K.R.I.T put out EPs on the same day in mid-December while Kodak Black and 21 Savage dropped albums right at the end of the year. What’s the big rush? Christmas is supposed to be a time spent winding down, reflecting and planning ahead. The last thing you still want to be doing is dealing with loose ends.

Music-wise, the last few weeks of the year usually stick to a few patterns. Bublé’s in the fridge and Mariah is at her skinniest; together, their festive contributions tend to become unstoppable, topping not only our streaming service playlists but the charts. Other artists may try their hand at Christmas albums too, rarely as successfully as the classics, but at least they tried? But the past couple of years have felt different. Artists seem happy to now release music whenever, regardless of the season, and the High School Musical Sharpay in me wants to berate them all to “stick to the status quo!” I thought I was the only one suffering under the weight of new year-end albums and singles. until I noticed that even the music diehards around me could not keep up.

Sope Soetan, writer and co-host of popular music podcast Don’t Alert The Stans believes there’s simply just more music being released. “The barriers to entry that existed ten to 15 years ago have drastically deteriorated. Everyone has a chance to compete now,” he tells me over email. “It’s a gift and a curse.” And he’s basically right. The 2018 UK Measuring Music report did its usual job of highlighting how much money the music business in the UK generation from 2017 to 2018. It also nestled in a little bit of commentary that pretty much foretold the trend I saw at the end of last year. In the introduction, Andy Heath, chairman of UK Music, said that though it has been a “fantastic time for music makers and for consumers” it is becoming increasingly difficult for new talent due to the “sheer quantity of music out there in a crowded marketplace”. The report itself didn’t quantitatively measure that, but the conclusion was still hinged on how more music seems to be flooding our ears and screens.

Of course, a lot of this growth is down to Spotify. The service says it hit 200 million monthly users just this year (though reportedly about half of those users pay to use the service). And when you factor in that research suggested today’s listeners have much shorter attention spans than consumers did 30 or so years ago, artists and music platforms are changing when and how they distribute music. Rubin Patel, co-founder of London-based record label Tenwest tells me that “consumption has become more track-based and less album-based” in order to keep up with the fleeting demand for new music. Then there’s the fact that music no longer has cycles.

“The days when an artist would have a four-to six-month lead up to releasing a new album are gradually becoming a thing of the past,” Sope says. “It is almost imperative for artists to continue delivering content, so they can stay above the fray and in the conversation.” When I hear from Maddy Raven, head of music promotion at music marketing agency Burstimo, she also says she felt as though, in the past, “no-one would be releasing near the end of the year. But now, “in the past few years we’ve seen that this hasn’t been the case, and both major label and independent artists have been releasing tracks as close to two weeks before Christmas – often not even festive-themed.”

Still, when it comes to dropping new singles and albums, timing is everything. As Sope tells me, “with the advent of the internet expanding and digitising the market, independent artists who used to benefit from less stringent rollouts are now competing with artists backed by huge conglomerates. But on the flip side, to an extent all artists suffer from this because we can now have as many as seven major releases in one week.” See Friday 16 November, when Mariah Carey and Little Mix both dropped albums. This idea of over-saturation comes up a lot in the conversations I have. As Tony tells it, “there is so much music being released and depending on where you look, new releases can be lost”, and so that means “direct consumer interaction” – ie: you streaming and then Insta Storying a track – or PR campaigns can run all year round.

Rubin, of Tenwest, sees how this tends to impact indie artists in particular. “It always felt like an unwritten rule that year-end releases were reserved solely for well established artists with big, engaged followings,” he tells me. “Most year-end releases bank on the fact that hardly anyone else is releasing at that time and so you have the opportunity to stand out much more than releasing elsewhere in the year; again this tactic is way more effective for high-profile artists and poses risks for more grass-roots talent." Zayn Malik’s Icarus Falls came out on Friday 14 December, after all – he’s an act with a big enough fanbase that they’ll follow him anywhere, at any time of the year.

That said, the end of 2018 saw artists who didn’t necessarily have huge international critical acclaim – like Grace Carter, with the Why Her Not Me EP, and One Acen’s SexyOddRose EP – release singles and fully fledged projects. Essentially, the fact that more music is coming out at the lull period in the year is probably reflective of the digital age. “People consume music via streaming platforms, so can listen to what they want, when they want, rather than having their listening habits forced, leading to more and more artists releasing as this quiet time,” Maddy says. And though Sope disagrees, he does tell me that “the consumerism associated with the Christmas holidays has always bequeathed a rise in artists being opportunistic” and there isn’t so much of a rise in the number of releases, but more artists big and small cashing on a time when “consumer habits are more elastic.”

As consumers grow impatient and hungry, the industry will continue to churn out hits, irrespective of time. The digital era has ushered in a new way of doing things, which means that our Christmas period is no longer sacred – we just have to get used to that. It doesn’t matter if you have 11 other albums to catch up on, for the sake of looking cool and engaging with timeline chatter: you better listen until your ears bleed.

You can find Chanté thinking about all the projects she still hasn't listened to, on Twitter.