What 2019 album releases can teach us about 2020 planning

Amber Horsburgh
8 min readFeb 3, 2020
Optimizing your release in 2020 might set you up for a few of these next year

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Some catch-phrases often thrown around the room in label marketing meetings…

“It’s a summery record, so it needs to be released in summer” — a&r person

“nope, terrible idea to release a record early March or April because SXSW and Coachella, there’s just too much noise” — marketing director

“Basically everyone starts checking out by November so don’t release then or December because there’ll be no-one here to fix your stuff should anything go wrong” — project manager

These broad claims bear truth but I wondered, just how much truth? To find out, I analyzed 691 album releases from 2019 in the US trying to find answers to: when are the best and worst times to release an album, how style of music effects release windows, and how can marketers strategically plan their record campaigns around optimal release weeks in 2020.

Think about it: people streamed music 18 hours per week in 2019 and of that time, they listened to 40 different artists, according to the IFPI. If you can better predict your competition on release week and optimize your campaign to suit audience listening patterns, you’re in a much better position to steal more hours (heck, even minutes) of streaming.

In this article you’ll find:

  1. 5 best and 5 worst weeks to release an album
  2. How Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift have a bigger impact on release competition than Christmas and July 4
  3. Why looking at the sun for your release date isn’t as woo-woo as it sounds
  4. 2 cultural calendars you can save directly to iCal, Google Calendar or Google Drive so you know exactly what’s going and when in music, entertainment and culture

*** A note about this dataset before we dive in: albums analyzed were from Wikipedia’s crowdsourced list of albums released in 2019, categorized as “notable” meaning they received significant press coverage from reliable sources. As such, albums skew pop leaning and U.S focused, you’ll find a number of significant hip-hop/r&b releases missing, e.g.: Lil Skies/Rico Nasty&Kenny Beats/Baauer. The data is intended for macro patterns to aid album release planning, which is a fine set to do so.

Top 5 & Bottom 5 Release Weeks in 2019

Based on competition as defined by consumer streaming patterns and seasonal effects on music preferences, traffic, cultural events, and major holidays.

* February 8th and August 23rd appear as the same release date because they represent the same point — they are both days that mega pop-stars released their albums. This is an opportunity only for artists outside the category however, does not work for direct competitors.

Translating this into 2020…

1) Steer clear of major cultural events… and the weeks immediately after

As labels and artists try to avoid releasing records during weeks of major holidays or cultural events a backlog is created, which results in more releases the following week, thus increasing competition.

April 26th was the 2nd busiest week of 2019 with 21 albums released that day. Why? Because Coachella had occupied the previous two weeks running from April 12th — 21st, 2019.

Labels worry that the industry and consumers will be consumed by Coachella — key curators at Spotify, Apple, Amazon etc. being OOO at the event, press opportunities zapped due to Coachella coverage, and bandwidth issues with staffers being at the festival. The assumption is — if you’re not performing at Coachella, then there’s no support for your release. You’re competing against the stunts by the performers (think Jaden Smith bringing out Willow and Will Smith to perform, Kanye’s Easter Sunday Service surprise add, Ariana Grande bringing out N*SYNC, and Billie Eilish making her Coachella debut). So kiss goodbye to late-night TV appearances or bulk playlisting, just release after.

A backlog is created from avoiding the week between Coachella’s (April 19, 2019) pushing more releases the week after. 7 releases on April 19 vs. 21 on April 26. 3 times the number of artists released the week after.

However, simply waiting two weeks after Coachella can reduce your competition by 50%, May 3rd saw just 11 albums released, compared to 7 between Coachellas and 21 the week after.

The same pattern happens after public holidays. For example: the week after Labor Day’s short week was the busiest week with 25 albums dropped, when everyone gets back to work in January 21 albums were released (January 25th) and the week after Memorial Day saw 18 albums (June 7).

For marketers, you need to know what’s going on. Here’s two I-can’t-believe-this-is-free resources:

Shore Fire PR’s calendar of key entertainment and sport events that you can save to iCal, Google Calendar or as a PDF

Developed by Brooklyn based PR firm, Shore Fire, this calendar has every last detail you could possibly need for US music events, deadlines, awards and conferences. In addition, key sporting and cultural moments for added context.

Downloadable calendar of key entertainment and sport events for 2020 by Shore Fire PR is a fantastic resource for marketers to know what major cultural events are happening, which will effect the competition for a particular release date. Downloadable as a PDF or save directly to your own iCal and/or Google Calendar.

Cultural Moment Encyclopedia

Painstakingly developed by Brooklyn based strategist, Sean Choi, this spreadsheet details key global events across music, arts, and tech. The best thing about this is that he’s gone the extra mile to estimate the reach potential so you can weigh up value for activating as such events.

Sean Choi’s Cultural Moment Encyclopedia spreadsheet gives you key events worldwide in sectors of music, arts & culture, sports and tech as well as the potential audience reach. Critical for assessing the value in activating, performing or co-marketing at any event.

Go into the s***storm

Cultural events and public holidays are one thing, however, the absolute sure fire way to clear a release date is with a mega pop-star’s release day. Aside from the Christmas/New Year break when labels and some distributors actually shut down offices, the quietest days to release an album in 2019 were February 8th and August 23rd — when Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift released their ‘thank u, next’ and ‘Lover’ albums, respectively. Only 4 other artists released on the same day.

I actually laughed out loud when I saw this on the graph. It’s an amazing example of an entire industry being of one mind.

February 8th and August 23rd were the quietest weeks to release an album in 2019 aside from the week of Christmas and New Year, with just 5 albums released. Feb 8 and August 23 were the weeks that Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift released their ‘thank u, next’ and ‘Lover’ albums. This shows the power of mega pop-stars to clear release weeks for others, which is an opportunity for artists outside the pop category.
Just 5 albums were released on the days that Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift released their ‘thank u, next’ and ‘Lover’ albums.

Here’s the thing, this is an opportunity for artists outside the pop category.

If you were managing the release of Ed Sheeran or Katy Perry, I wouldn’t release on the same day as these two because you’re in direct competition; however, if you were NLE Choppa or Brent Faiyaz — who occupy an entirely different space in culture — this could present a good release day as your direct competition is lowest.

2020 Release Opportunity: Q4

Q4 saw the fewest albums released with 159 — largely driven by the two weeks leading up to and during Christmas/New Year break having just 2 releases in those weeks.

The conventional wisdom is that Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas back to back make it too noisy to release music. Press opportunities are lowered due to end of year “best ofs” and seasonal coverage. Q4 budgets are already allocated making events and partnerships a struggle. DSPs are shifting toward seasonal editorial choices, thus reducing visibility for new releases. Internal staff taking vacations, giving you less resources to troubleshoot should anything go wrong.

This is all true, however, music consumption is the highest during Q4.

A study conducted by venture capital firm, Goodwater, tracked official streaming data from Spotify finding that music consumption was highest per monthly active user during Q4 at 25 hours per month in 2017.

You could assume that as the year draws to a close there are more opportunities to listen to music — parties, work events, dinners that all need music. Plus, school and work breaks giving us more time and time on our phones and social media.

One could argue that November releases shouldn’t be scary. Artists and teams that plan well in advance could reap the rewards of less competition. People listen to more music in Q4, artists release less.

Know your audience, nail your release

Competition is one variable you’re working with when planning the best day to release your record. Another variable, which is paramount, is consumer listening preferences during the year, said plainly — bangers have a better chance in summer.

Preference for intense music follows the solstice peaking at summer solstice. This suggests that absolute day length is the best predictor of musical intensity. So, if you’re an artist with relatively intense music you want to be charting when preference for intense music is highest (when people seek music to compliment activities associated with increased temperature and daylight), you’re optimal release window is between June 10 and July 14, and the 10 weeks leading up to that.

Researchers at Cornell University, NY analyzed 765 million streams by 1 million Spotify users in 2016 across 51 countries and found that consumers listen to more intense music when the days are longer.

“Intense” music tends to sound loud, vocal, cheerful and eurphoric and defined on Spotify by its audio categorization system that tracks a song’s loudness, duration, acousticness, danceability, liveness, energy, instrumentalness, speechiness, tempo and valence.

Consumer preferences for intense music follows the solstice, peaking at summer solstice, suggesting that music to compliment summer activities associated with increased daylight and temperature will do will between May and August.

When choosing your release date, considering the sun might not be as woo-woo as it sounds.

On the other hand, moody music does better in periods when our environment is threatened. The Environmental Security Hypothesis maintains that people prefer more mature and meaningful music during dark times like periods of high unemployment and murder rates, low birth rate and disposable income.

This was reinforced by researchers who tracked Billboard #1 songs from 1955 to 2003 against US social and economic conditions. They found that the hits in dark times were slower, longer, more comforting and conveyed greater meaning.

Slowthai’s ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ album cover. Released May 17, 2019.

This had me think about one of my favorite albums and campaigns from 2019, Slowthai’s ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ released May 17, 2019. The music is unquestionably intense — loud, vocal and high energy and the record’s themes hits global insecurities around an imminent Brexit, class hostility, and widening poverty and delivered in sharp wit. It’s an album so perfectly timed.

This analysis shows just how critical the release date is to your entire release marketing strategy. We’re in a time of fluidity, where artists want to throw things up as soon as it’s recorded and there is definitely space for that however, when considering an album campaign spending the time to assess consumer preference patterns across the year, forecasting competition, and leveraging cultural moments could dramatically impact its success.

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Amber Horsburgh

Music marketing consultant. Downtown Records & Big Spaceship alumni. Writes about music, strategy and feels at Deep Cuts http://bit.ly/2yphFYx