Unlike some professional songwriters, who spew out demos at a rapid clip and see what sticks, Savan Kotecha spends weeks tinkering with each of his tracks. This exacting approach has led to credits on name-making hits for One Direction ("What Makes You Beautiful"), Ariana Grande ("Problem") and the Weeknd ("Can't Feel My Face"). But Kotecha worries that his painstaking methods are increasingly untenable.
That's because artists, especially younger acts trying to establish a commercial foothold, are rushing to release more pre-album singles than ever before. The old album rollout model usually consisted of one single in the months leading up to an album and a second to coincide with the LP's release; now, Kotecha says, "it's all about throwing out content." Camila Cabello shot out six songs before her debut LP, Cardi B unleashed four and on-the-rise boy band PrettyMuch have sprayed out six – with no album in sight.
In the last year, established acts have also embraced single-happy rollouts (at least the singers who still believe in them over the surprise release). Taylor Swift put out four songs before Reputation; Justin Timberlake fired off three before Man of the Woods; Jason Derulo has released five since his last album; and Rae Sremmurd unveiled six tracks before SR3MM.
This approach reflects the breakneck pace of a world driven by streaming and social media. "Traditionally artists would go a long time between album projects, disappear and then come back as a big event," explains Robbie Snow, SVP of Global Marketing for Hollywood Records (Demi Lovato, Bea Miller). "In this day and age, we try to keep things flowing so artists almost never go away. Fans want to be engaged constantly with artists that they like."
"In the past, it was about vying for fans' dollars," adds Larry Mattera, GM and EVP of Commerce and Marketing for Warner Bros. "Now it's about vying for fans' time – time spent consuming our repertoire, rather than our competitors' repertoire."
"It's all about throwing out content," - hit songwriter Savan Kotecha
The rules in this competition remain undefined. "We're experimenting across the board," Mattera says. "Is a singles-focused approach better, with songs stacked at appropriate times? Should it be a smaller body of work [like an EP]? Is this fanbase actually looking for an album at this time?"
Putting out 12 or 15 songs at once on a full-length seems increasingly risky in a world where "people's attention spans are the size of a period," says songwriter Eskeerdo (Fifth Harmony, Kendrick Lamar). "All your music is entirely consumed in a week – if you're lucky," he adds.
By releasing multiple singles, artists and labels can "keep things flowing," as Snow puts it, and also hopefully avoid one-hit wonder-dom, which appears increasingly common in the era of the viral flash-in-the-pan. Acts like Baauer, Tinashe, iLoveMakonnen, Dej Loaf and iHeartMemphis had one unavoidable smash but have not been able – or, perhaps, willing – to maintain a mainstream presence since then. More than ever, "an artist has to build a foundation to sustain," stresses one former major label A&R, who wished to remain anonymous during a job change. "When artists have one big record and go run with that, it doesn't work because they never had a foundation to begin with. That's why I'm such a fan of the slow build." She likes an artist to have four songs working simultaneously before even looking towards an album release.
Keeping multiple singles in the market at once also allows labels to vet a variety of tracks and gauge listener response. "Put it on all the streaming services, see how the numbers look, and if the numbers are up to par, then we go to radio," says the former major-label A&R. "Take H.E.R.'s success: That was a project they put out two years ago and 'Focus' is on radio now. That wasn't something they intended. With Daniel Caesar's 'Get You' record – that worked online [it was released in October 2016], and now it's really starting to impact radio."
In an ideal world, after a week or two on Spotify and Apple Music, an artist would be able to determine which song, if any, to put muscle behind and focus promotion efforts accordingly. Of course, the reality is far more haphazard. When Cabello's first solo release, "Crying in the Club," failed to catch fire, she put out two more singles – "I Have Questions" and "OMG," which also sank quickly – before finding her way to "Havana," which eventually became a Number One hit and a launching pad for the Camila album. Hits tend to beget hits, so follow-up pre-album single "Never Be the Same" is also now in the top 15 on the Hot 100.
That's a success story. In contrast, Timberlake, perhaps unwisely, chose to release his first Man of the Woods single less than a month before he released the album, giving him little time to stumble onto a "Havana" of his own; none of his singles lingered. But it's possible that extra months wouldn't have made a difference, anyway – Derulo has spread five singles over two years, but none have been embraced, and he hasn't announced a release date for a new album.
These examples demonstrate that spewing out singles is far from a foolproof strategy for scoring a hit. Streamers like options, but choice can still be counterproductive when it comes to radio, which does best when it can focus its power on a single track. In a recent Billboard story, radio business veteran Sean Ross suggested that this problem plagued Swift's Reputation, which has failed to produce a robust single in the manner of its predecessor, 1989. "Radio's lack of long-term love for 'Look What You Made Me Do' … allowed quick follow-up '…Ready for It?' to live a chart life of its own, and emboldened some [program directors] to back off the first single," Ross wrote. "'Gorgeous' muddled things further."
"In the past, it was about vying for fans' dollars," says one label exec. "Now it's about vying for fans' time."
Another potential problem: sharing too many songs ahead of time blunts the impact of the actual album drop itself. If listeners hungering for fresh material have heard a third of an LP before it comes out, that can make the release less exciting, if not anticlimactic. More importantly, fewer new songs – due to lots of pre-album singles – means fewer reasons to stream, and possibly less time spent on your catalog by listeners whizzing rapidly through the streaming-verse.
But Hollywood Records' Snow sees it differently. He believes that sharing extensive portions of an album ahead of time is actually a good way to signal the stream-ability of the final product and lure listeners to your repertoire instead of the other team's. So even if an artist has one single already scoring high marks on any given platform, Snow reasons, "it can be worth it to put out a few more songs to show that the album is really engaging, there's depth there, and give people more incentive to buy or stream."
As new release strategies like this one become increasingly prevalent, Kotecha has begun to adjust his approach. "If you're working with an artist in the early days," he explains, "you're giving your best material, and it's just part of the building process." So unless he's pursuing a passion project, Kotecha is investing less time in "building artists from the ground up." Instead, "you're waiting for the time when artists need that rocket fuel," he says. "When you're part of pressing the turbo button, that's just as satisfying an experience."