Conventional marketing wisdom has it that records should be released in all media versions simultaneously, but a growing body of recent experience proves otherwise.
Lil Wayne defies 'best practice' with online pre-release
It used to be so simple. A band would go into a studio, record an album, slap a release date on it for six months' time and start putting out singles to build hype. But the days of turning up at a record store at 9am on a Monday to snap up a hot-off-the-press record are long gone, and Lil Wayne is the latest in a long line of artists mixing things up to stay ahead of the game.
Last Monday, he announced that his album Tha Carter IV would be available online at midnight tonight, in a bid to cash in on his performance at the MTV Music Video Awards this evening. It would then be available in stores tomorrow. "I am extremely excited to be the first artist to utilise such an amazing idea," he said in a statement about his online-first strategy. "I hope that I can open the door for others."
Unless a skateboarding accident has softened his brain, we can assume this is an example of the rapper's characteristically dry humour. As the satirical newspaper The Onion pointed out, Lil Wayne isn't exactly "the Rosa Parks" of toying with release dates in the name of PR. Jay-Z and Kanye West, for instance, put out their collaboration Watch the Throne on iTunes for several days before it hit the shops on August 12.
Does this make commercial sense? America's music-business trade association the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) still sticks by a statement it made in 2008, saying that it was "accepted practice" for all versions of an album to come out simultaneously, and that "it is simply good for business that this practice is respected". Staggered release dates, the statement says, create confusion and that has an effect on sales.
But Watch the Throne came straight in at number one after its eventual physical release, and Lil Wayne's move has generated significant press for Tha Carter IV. The industry has changed radically in the past decade - CDs made up more than 92 per cent of recording revenue in the US in 2000, and only 49 per cent last year - so perhaps NARM's advice is out of date.
The success of Radiohead's In Rainbows was a landmark moment back in 2007, when it was released on a pay-as-you-wish basis online with only 10 days' warning, and that still hit the number one spot around the world upon its physical release. Pittsburgh producer Girl Talk's 2008 album All Day was similarly released on a pay-as-you-wish basis with no warning whatever, and the crushing demand crashed the band's website.
Radiohead weren't even the first people to realise the possibilities of a changing music industry. In 2001, the indie band Wilco streamed their fourth album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on their website in its entirety after being dropped by their label. They got 50,000 hits in a single day, the album was picked up for commercial release, and it eventually went gold.
There's a reason other than publicity for making songs available online early in this way, and that's to pre-empt leaks. It's so routine now that early copies of albums are illegally made available on the internet before their official releases, that it actually makes news when a major artist avoids a leak.
Putting out an official, high-quality version of an album early, keeping release plans under wraps until the last minute and entrusting fans to choose their own price are all ways of keeping this kind of leak to a minimum.
And there isn't much sign of the industry going back to its old ways. The Oklahoma alt-rock band the Flaming Lips released a song in January across 12 different YouTube videos, which must all be played simultaneously, and then later in the spring put out an EP that came in the form of a gelatin skull containing a flashdrive with four digital songs on it.
The Kaiser Chiefs have been thinking outside the box, too. In June, the band released their new album The Future Is Medieval via their website, and gave fans the power to choose 10 of 20 possible tracks to put on it, as well as allowing them to customise the album's artwork.
With so many possibilities surrounding the presentation, content and interactivity of an album - not to mention when and how it's released, and for how much - it's exciting to think about where we could go from here. One thing's for sure though: there's no going back.