Laura Marling’s last album, ‘Semper Femina’, is a wonderful piece of work: something I’ve returned to again and again since its release, discovering new details every time.
Hats off to that, then. But also to the team that worked hard on the marketing campaign for an album, released through More Alarming Records via Kobalt Music Recordings, that went top five in the UK and also made an impact elsewhere in the world.
At AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London today, some of that team talked about the campaign: Abi Dawson from management company Everybody’s Management, and Kobalt Music Recordings product manager Helen Barrass and general manager Paul Trueman. AIM CEO Paul Pacifico moderated.
Marling had been in a record deal for 10 years – originally with Virgin – before deciding to release her new album through Kobalt’s label-services division.
“Laura saw what we were offering, and immediately wanted in on this idea of putting out an album in a very flexible way, in which she retains ownership and involvement in the business of what she does,” said Dawson.
“The idea that she could sign one album with some really great marketing, some label support, some budgets, and not have to give away her music for years to come, was just unbelievably tantalising… It’s just a no-brainer. And giving Laura the space to breathe outside this ten-year commitment to a major label… while she figures out what the next ten years hold, was really important.”
Trueman talked about the dynamic of a “landscape opening up” where label-services is a viable alternative to – but not an across-the-board replacement for – traditional label deals.
“The key to it working is that discussion about ‘what do you want?’ [with the artist],” he said. “It’s about applying the right services and the right skills with the partners that we’re working with.”
Barrass talked about those objectives for Marling, positioning her as “one of the best singer/songwriters of her generation” in media coverage, while also giving her complete control of the creative around her album and its marketing campaign.
“She in her ten-year career has very much had to deliver her music and watch other people represent that music and market that music for her. But here, very early on we were being told ‘you have complete control and we’re not going to challenge you too much on that, because we trust you’,” she said.
Dawson also talked about what the data showed about Marling’s audience: it was younger and more evenly-balanced between men and women than had been assumed in the past. She’d been pitched as more of a “broadsheet” artist for older audiences. Changing that involved doing more with the campaign around streaming.
“She has really over the last few years taken to listening to music on streaming platforms and engaging with that. So that was a huge part of the strategy,” said Dawson.
“From the beginning we went straight in to meet with Spotify and Apple, and we brought Abi along too… to make sure they were totally engaged and on board from a very early stage, and to get their feedback as well on the best way we could move forward with this,” said Barrass. The team met with Spotify even before the record was delivered, and Apple a couple of months later.
“We knew that Laura’s got a younger fanbase, and she should be appealing to even more of a younger fanbase, so how could we reach those people?” added Trueman. “We wanted to do something innovative and make Laura stand out in this [streaming] world.”
That included the famous Spotify ‘pre-save’ campaign, where fans could visit Marling’s website and sign up to have the album (including its lead tracks) automatically added to a Spotify playlist of their choice. It was the first time this had been done, built on top of Spotify’s API by Kobalt’s team.
“For the first time it was us being able to push music into Spotify’s libraries,” said Trueman. “And the second part of that was the ownership of the relationship with the fan. As part of the pre-save you have to enter your email address… so for all aspects of Laura’s business, including merch and live, we’ve now captured a large number of very hardcore Laura Marling fans with that tool.”
Dawson said this was a big selling point. “We went on to use what we had gathered in the pre-save and did a Spotify pre-sale on her tickets, which was incredible and went really well. Interestingly we met some resistance from our agents, because they didn’t want to have all these different pre-sales, but we really pushed for it,” she said.
“It’s made me more confident about pushing and challenging. It’s such an old-fashioned way of thinking not to give it a go. What’s the worst that happens? No one buys the tickets.”
Other elements of the campaign included a mechanic to pre-order the album from Marling’s own website, and get first access to tickets for her tour when they went on sale the following week. “We got 1,000 pre-orders just through that in the first week,” said Barrass.
Dawson talked about the importance of management being so heavily involved in these kinds of campaigns’ digital elements – “even if I was having to google ‘pixels’ and ‘dark posts’ during calls!” – to understand what was being done and how it was paying off. “These are things I understand now, and it was really important to be across all of it.”
“Laura is fairly promotional-shy, she doesn’t like talking about herself, she doesn’t do lots of interviews, she doesn’t do direct fan engagement. She makes her music,” said Dawson. “But on this campaign she was doing more things out of her comfort zone, like an HMV in-store or an interview, as a direct result of feeling more in control… She felt empowered, and she felt connected to it.”
“She even did her first Facebook livestream,” said Barrass. “And maybe her only one!” joked Dawson. “But she did, she stepped up and did it, and it worked.”
Once the album was out, Marling was able to step back from promotional duties, but the team around her continued their work. “It became much more about what more can we do with music?” said Trueman. “It took us back to an early discussion we had with Spotify to do a Spotify session, and then it was actually producing a new version of the album.”
That was a two-CD version for HMV – the second being a live performance of the album in full – and a special vinyl version for independent stores, which led to more promotion on Spotify and playlisting on radio stations like 6Music.
Trueman showed a graph of Marling’s Spotify streams over the course of the campaign, to show the peaks and plateaus sparked by different activities:
The message (which was much less blurry in the room, apologies for the zoomed-in photo quality) was that while there are still those peaks, the longer-term story is a rise in total streams – something that can be predicted for a longer period ahead, and which translates directly into income for the artist.