If a pop star wants to go away, can they ever really ”go” away? In an age of always-on communication, the marketing fires can never go out completely; but the longer they stay away or the quieter they are, the harder it is to make a convincing return. We speak to marketers about how they ensure the flames are never extinguished, how a content strategy should be planned for during down times and how the re-introduction period can almost be as long as the main campaign. Here we separate the comeback kids from yesterday’s heroes.
Going away is not an option for most
The notion of time off for recording artists is one that has swung between extremes over the last seven decades of popular music. In the 45-driven 1950s and early 1960s, artists were obliged to churn out record after record in case the pop kids got bored or their career momentum was stolen by a rival; by the CD-era 1990s, however, a three-year gap between albums had become standard, particularly for larger acts, especially as they were expected to fill a CD with 74 minutes of music, almost double the amount of music on an LP (plus produce as many B-sides again for multi-formatted singles).
In the 2010s (and now the 2020s) the needle has swung back again to constant activity, with music industry thinking being that artists cannot risk so much as a week away from the permanent bustle of social media or playlists for fear that clever marketing or cleverer algorithms push audiences to another act.
Look, for example, at Justin Bieber: his new single ‘Yummy’ (and his as-yet-untitled fifth studio album in March) is being billed as his big comeback, given that he hasn’t released a new studio album since Purpose in 2015. And yet in 2019 alone, Bieber released songs with Ed Sheeran (‘I Don’t Care’), Billie Eilish (‘Bad Guy – remix’) and Dan + Shay (‘10,000 Hours’), the kind of bubbling activity that suggests he did not really shut down.
As ever in the music industry, though, things aren’t quite so simple. Ed Sheeran was able to take a hiatus in 2016, with no new music released, no social media activity and no apparent impact on his career; P!nk announced towards the end of 2019 that she would be taking a break from music in 2020 to concentrate on her family; and Rihanna seems to have been hinting at a new album every year since the release of Anti in 2016, something her fans have been growing increasingly impatient about and that is spilling over into toxic replies to her social media posts “demanding” she releases a new album.
These, you may argue, are superstar acts who can afford a few years off (but still have to navigate the salty politics of fans who feel they are “owed” music at a time which they decide, not the artist).
But smaller artists have done so too: Ninja Tune’s The Cinematic Orchestra took a decade-long gap between albums before returning with 2019’s To Believe; Franz Ferdinand had five years between studio albums (bar the FFS collaboration) stretching from 2013’s Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action to 2018’s Always Ascending (although that included the departure of founding member Nick McCarthy) and British grime artist JME didn’t release an album between 2015 and 2019 and didn’t post a single tweet in 2019. Clearly, then, taking time off is possible for some acts, if not advisable for most.
“I think the more dedicated your fanbase and unique your brand/style of music, the easier it is to pick and choose when you return,” one digital marketer tells music:)ally. “If you create music for a saturated marketplace, choice increases and attention dissipates. You can disappear off the music circuit but still remain buoyant in other areas. Rihanna is a good example of this with her Fenty Beauty campaign.”
New acts are under the most pressure to stay visible at all times
John Fleckenstein, co-president of RCA, says that taking time off for new artists is “harder for sure”.
“The number that is thrown around of 40,000 tracks being uploaded every day [to DSPs],” he says. “If you are a new artist and you are still trying to find an audience, to get attention, it is definitely harder to go away for a bit.”
He continues, “Because of the always-on climate that we live in today where people wake up every day and check their feed for what they are going to do today or what they are going to pay attention to, if you are away for a while it is pretty hard to re-insert yourself in people’s lives.”
Filling the gaps in the quiet times
This raises the question of what exactly labels and managers should do when their artists are on hiatus or out of the public eye and what the process is when they make a comeback.
Key Music Management’s Richard Jones – whose company manages Pixies, Dead Can Dance, Teenage Fanclub and Blood Red Shoes among others – says that management and labels should make sure they have activity lined up for artists during these times.
“You have to line up things: a) for them to do; and b) to be released or be supported so they have some presence at the time they are not in the public eye,” he suggests. “For smaller artists, or less successful [ones], with a smaller fanbase, they do have to keep active consistently or you have to give that impression. You have to basically fill in the gaps by smart planning and also finding associated things for them to do, whether it is collaborations or remixes or guesting on other people’s records or syncing and licensing, which often can fill in quite a gap.”
Collaborations often come about spontaneously. But labels and management can play an important role in this field, according to Tony Barnes, head of digital at Virgin EMI Records. “Usually [collaboration] comes about from artists in studios spending time with other artists,” he says. “But sometimes it can come from us [the label]. There is an opportunity that can come about:
someone has a great record that they are looking for someone to take part in.”
He gives the example of Virgin EMI artist HRVY, who last year collaborated with Swedish production outfit NOTD , South Korean boyband NCT, Mexican singer Danna Paola and English DJ Jonas Blue, all helping to build his profile.
“From a label’s perspective there is always loads you can do,” says Fleckenstein. “There is tons of marketing around the catalogue, tons of things you can do to remind people how much they love this song that they were listening to three months ago. That is largely a marketing and promotion exercise – anything from [if it] is the artist’s birthday, you can remind the fans on Instagram; [or if] they happen to show up on the red carpet, we post a congratulation because they won an award.”
One way to fill the gaps between new studio albums, according to Jones, is to plan out anniversary releases, compilations and rarity round-ups for the years between new studio albums, effectively treating frontline bands as catalogue artists. “When your artist has a big back catalogue, there are a lot more things that you can develop to fill in these gaps,” Jones explains, giving the example of the Pixies, who celebrated the 30th anniversary of their debut LP Surfer Rosa in 2018 with a deluxe reissue.
Blurring the lines between frontline and catalogue
Sony Music has been working on the crossover between frontline and catalogue since the start of 2017, with the aim of maximising catalogue streams of returning artists. “Influencing consumption of our artist’s catalogue just before or after a new single drops means we can drive more streams but also start conversations early with streaming partners,” Sony Music UK told music:)ally at the end of 2017, when talking about a collaboration between RCA UK and Sony Commercial Group for P!nk. “This can also influence algorithms to deliver new music to the right people as soon as it’s out, as hits could help fans rediscover their forgotten love for an artist.”
Sony didn’t say as much, but having something to offer DSPs in between albums can also keep artists in their good books (or even just on the radar of playlist editors) during the fallow years.
Planning for quieter periods – but never going silent
One of the most pressing concerns for artists on hiatus is social media. While some artists – notably Ed Sheeran in 2016 – can afford to come off social media altogether, this is the exception rather than the rule, with most artists needing to keep these vital communication channels open.
James Quinn, director of Beautiful Digital, says that established artists feel more comfortable taking time out from social media. “Artists we have worked with – such as Paul Simon, Celine Dion and Lenny Kravitz – can take longer breaks in between records and, in general, social activity will be a bit quieter during this time. As marketers we try not to overpost during these periods, preferring to update fans with meaningful, insightful posts rather than posting for the sake of posting.”
And yet Quinn says his company would try to keep activity constant on social media for emerging artists such as Tom Grennan or Georgia. “Audience growth tends to be absolutely key for these artists and thus we need to find ways to grow our audience, even when the wider marketing timeline is a bit quieter,” he notes. In this case, Quinn says Beautiful Digital will sit down with the artist and their teams to identify “content pillars” for social media. These include musical initiatives, such as catalogue and playlist marketing, but can also go beyond that.
Quinn identifies “hobbies, social issues, gaming, food, basically anything which the artist is genuinely interested in and likes to talk about” as being potential content pillars. “We’ll then draw up a content chart for the team and identify how often we’ll touch on these subjects,” he says. “We’ll also organise regular social shoots for the artist so we have a bank of photo and video content to use during this period. This combination of interesting content pillars and polished social content will mean we can continue to grow and engage audiences while artists enjoy their downtime.”
Fleckenstein says labels should resist the temptation to take control of artists’ socials when they are away, arguing it could hurt the potency of these platforms. “Social media is really just conversation; it is super-charged word of mouth. We talk about this with artists: ‘What’s your voice?’ And I think if you follow anybody close enough on social media, the compelling ones, you feel like you really get to know them,” he says.
“The second you turn it into some generic advertising/marketing thing is when you immediately see people start switching out because it’s not relevant any more.”
The long build-up to the “fast” return
There is, if course, no set schedule for how long labels and managers must plan in advance when taking into account artist down time: some artists like to release music as soon as it is ready; others prefer to wait for the big push. However, Key Music Management’s Jones says that managers of artists of a certain size – basically festival headliners – typically plan absences and comebacks three years in advance.
“European festivals in particular book headliners a year in advance. If you are going to do that, you would normally do it in association with a new record of some description, so that would have to be: a) written; b) recorded; c) completed; d) released and all of that,” he says. “That’s probably a year and a half, so you are probably into two and a half years, then with the writing process you are three years prior.”
Jones adds that he would normally meet with the artist’s label a year before the album is provisionally set for release. If it is a new label, they will initially talk about how they plan to work together. If it is an existing relationship, manager and label will discuss what worked well last time around, what didn’t and how to improve things in the new campaign.
Fans will then have to be primed for the artist’s return. Corey Zaloom, head of digital marketing at Domino Recording Company, told music:)ally in 2018 about the challenges of reactivating the Franz Ferdinand fanbase after the band’s lengthy absence. “That really started over the summer of . It was a while that we were prepping for this album but it was a pretty straightforward approach,” she said. “We set up merchandise competitions, we started using the band’s email list again and we were just more active and communicating more, incentivising fans to engage them more and getting them used to seeing the band being present again.”
Barnes, meanwhile, says that labels can use advocates of the band to help build an initial buzz around their return, which the label can amplify on social media.
There are other, more creative ways in which this can work. Pixies, for example, warmed fans up for their 2019 album, Beneath The Eyrie, by releasing a 12-part podcast detailing the recording of each song, while Domino ran a fanclub initiative around the Spotify pre-save functionality to prime fans for Franz Ferdinand’s return.
When an artist returns to the fray, their social media will also need to be ramped up or revived to take advantage of the new interest. Sometimes the artist’s absence can even play to your advantage.
“An artist like Charli XCX never seems to take any down time,” says Beautiful Digital’s Quinn. “She is born of the social media era and her fans love her for her fun, authentic daily updates which go way beyond the subject of music and music making. On the other hand, an artist like Kesha does have quieter periods of activity. This sends fans into overdrive when activity picks up. We played on that with her latest High Road album campaign using the ‘Bitch, I’m back’ phrase to announce her return with a bang.”
Avoiding a bumpy re-entry to a changed landscape
Any artist who returns to pop in 2020 will most likely have to get to grips with TikTok. Madonna launched the #medellinchallenge on TikTok in May 2019, to coincide with her single of the same name, while Ed Sheeran launched his own TikTok channel in July 2019, with fans invited to upload videos using the hashtag #BeautifulPeople.
Fun it may be. But this kind of promotional leap is fraught with difficulty, given that TikTok can occasionally be something of a mystery for people outside of its key demographic of 16-24, while users who have grown up on social media are sensitive to any perceived cash in. Justin Bieber was widely – and perhaps unfairly – criticised for his attempts to create a TikTok buzz around ‘Yummy’ which Forbes said “feels engineered with the express purpose of appearing in more TikTok videos than any other song”.