Releasing A Slow Burn Album: Oh Wonder Tries A Different Approach
With many foretelling the death of the conventional album format, artists like Beyonce and Frank Ocean have been trying different stunts like dropping surprise visual albums, but by releasing one song off their album every month for a year, Oh Wonder took a different, and surprisingly successful approach.
Guest Post by Emily Blake on Medium
Oh Wonder definitely didn’t expect this.
When Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West decided two years ago to release their self-titled debut album one song per month for a year, it wasn’t a ploy to build an army of fans and sell out venues worldwide. Rather, West tells Next Big Sound that they just wanted to relive “that moment” of sharing new music over and over again.
“As a songwriter those moments are the best, sharing what you’ve been working on,” he said. “It was very innocent. It came from a place of kind of … frustration.”
But after their first release, Body Gold, hit over 10,000 listens on SoundCloud within hours, they had two thoughts: First, What the hell is going on? Then, Hey, we may be onto something here.
And they were. When “Oh Wonder” was released in full on September 4, 2015, it went on to hit #26 on the Official UK Charts and #80 on the BillboardHot 100. And despite the fact that Gucht and West had never intended on touring — Oh Wonder started out as more of a side project — they did just that, beginning with four sold-out shows in New York, L.A., London and Paris. They went on to do a couple hundred more, including performances at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza this summer.
And now, two years after the release of Body Gold, Oh Wonder seem headed for the big leagues, hitting #19 this week on the Pandora Trendsetters Chart, which tracks up-and-coming artists with the highest number of Artist Station Adds.
There have been whispers for years that the death of the album is imminent. And a recent report by music consumer insights company LOOP found that more people listen to playlists (31% of total listening time) more than albums (22% of total listening time). So, West’s thinking— along with many others in the industry — is this: If we’re going to bother releasing an album, we need to get creative. And while that has meant surprise album drops and grandiose visual albums for the Frank Oceans and Beyoncés of the world, he says there’s a very strong case for the more gradual, slow-burn release.
“The world we live in now, people are used to getting things quite quickly, so that totally works for surprise albums,” West says. “But I also feel like people like routine, they like knowing when something’s coming as well.”
West remembers that every month, the day before they released a new song — which was always on the first day of the month — they’d get hundreds of tweets along the lines of, Oh my God, there’s a new Oh Wonder song coming tomorrow.
Looking at data from the beginning of January to the beginning of May, Oh Wonder saw generous upticks in Twitter mentions around the beginning of each month. (They released each song on the first day of the month.) Where they usually saw somewhere between 20 and 75 daily mentions, for the first five or so days after a release, they’d see mentions well into the hundreds. The biggest uptick came after the release of Technicolour Beat on March 1, when they saw 2,634 mentions in one day.
And that quickly translated to higher engagement on Pandora as well. In the last six months of Oh Wonder’s release, the duo saw over 20,000 Artist Station Adds on Pandora.
“We were surprised and we’re still surprised… we started making music at home and there was never going to be any touring involved, we never thought anyone would listen to our music,” West said. “It’s kind of surprising every day.”
Oh Wonder aren’t the only ones using the song-per-month method. Danish duo Raveonettes have been doing it throughout 2016, only with a little more pomp and circumstance. Each song is heavily promoted and accompanied by a music video. It’s all leading up to what they call an “anti-album.”
They’ve been releasing each song on the last Friday of every month, and like Oh Wonder, they’ve seen a good amount of buzz on social media — especially Twitter — on those Fridays and in the few days after. In a recent interview with MusicAlly, manager Scott Cohen said the song-per-month method is proving to be “quite powerful” because this way, you have 12 opportunities to market it.
While it wasn’t necessarily that deliberate for Oh Wonder, West acknowledges that it definitely works.
“That cliffhanger thing — that What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? — that culture works,” he said. “Unknowingly, we kind of tapped into that well.”
And while the surprise album definitely benefits major artists, West thinks even the biggest players could benefit from switching it up and slowing it down. Pointing to Frank Ocean’s Blonde specifically — an album he “loves” — West says, “I felt like if I got that album over of a year, I’d probably feel far more attached to it.”
What does he mean by “more attached”? Well, he sees it at every show. Whereas with albums that are released all at once, fans tend to skip over tracks they don’t immediately love, their method gives each song a month to grow on listeners, so there’s rarely a favorite.
“When we now play shows you can see people’s connection with each track. There’s no standout,” he said. “People know everything about the songs because they’ve sat with them over a year and they’ve grown to make the songs their own. I feel like our fans kind of have a real ownership of our music, which is amazing. Sometimes I feel like our fans have more ownership than Josie and I do.”