Last week I caught up with Warner Bros. Nashville SVP of Sales and Marketing Peter Strickland to chat about the strategy behind Blake Shelton’s new six-track album release, and about what a successful launch of the “SixPak” brand could mean for a struggling music industry. Here’s the transcription of that interview.
JIM MALEC: Why is physical product a part of this new marketing strategy?
PETER STRICKLAND: Well, physical, in our format, represents ninety percent of the business. It wouldn’t make sense for us to eliminate that part of the business. It’s just how our consumers shop for music. Digital is growing, but it just made sense to do it on both platforms. And, with it being new, you want to be able to gauge the success in both areas—whether we grow in physical, whether we grow in digital, or whether we don’t [grow].
JM: Are you confident that you’ll have shelf placement for Blake’s first SixPak, Hillbilly Bone?
PS: Yes. It was very well received by all digital partners and all retail partners.
JM: What does a SixPak look like?
PS: In its current release state, it looks exactly the same as a regular CD. There are branding points on the piece that will describe it—down the inter-window of the spine it shows a SixPak copy layout, and we also have a SixPak logo on the stickering (where we call out the hit track and other things we want to message).
JM: In the press release that went out with the advance for this, there’s a quote from Blake that says, “The fact that people will be able to get the new music for less money is a gift to my fans who have been behind me every step of the way.” What advantages are there, cost wise, in releasing two smaller albums as opposed to one album, and how does this format lower costs on the label’s end so that it can lower costs on the retail end? Or, I guess another way to ask this question would be, is the savings that Blake is talking about really anything other than a nominal reduction in retail price?
PS: I can’t get in to the financial structure of how we put out our music, and additionally, we can’t tell our customers—not our consumers but our customers—what to sell music for. We sell it to them at a certain price, but they could sell this thing for $20 if they want. I doubt that’s going to happen (laughing).
I think that what is making this initial launch successful is that retail is embracing it, and I think they’ll price it where it could attract additional consumers to the project. If it’s being sold for less, but you’re selling more volume, ultimately you’re going to end up in a better place.
Now, as far as on the manufacturing side, yes. Instead of manufacturing or developing a product once–and all the art that goes along with that–you will have that cost twice or three times or whatever it might be. That’s if you look at it as an album cycle.
What we’re looking at it as is a six-track album that would release every six months, to infinity. That would just become a normal release schedule for a body of work. We’ve talked with Blake that we could potentially see three of these, which will give us enough time to see what the consumers’ shopping habits are gonna be based on this type of release. We’ll learn from it and alter some things if we have to. But if it’s a huge success, the best thing we could do is just to learn what we did from that and then launch another one.
JM: How does this change the way your music is marketed, from a label standpoint? It seems like you won’t be able to invest the same amount of money into three release cycles over the course of a year-and-a-half period as you would be able to invest into one.
PS: Here’s one way to look at it. And this goes off of some philosophy that I’ve been preaching for a while. An artist should not be promoted solely on an album cycle. There will be people who want to go to an artist’s website no matter what the time is in an album cycle. So, that website should be a representation of the brand, not the body of work. The body of work should always be filtered through it and promoted on a continual basis, but the brand should be there at all times and promoted at all times.
So, now we shift that philosophy to a music release cycle. The SixPak falls right into that concept—the fact that you continually make music, you continually write music, and, now, rather than blocking out a certain time of the year for someone to stop what they’re doing to go record an album, you can continually record music. The artist could be coming through town with a couple of new songs he wrote, or with a couple of songs that he found in the pile of things that have been fed to him, and record them at that time.
I think it could become a much healthier way, a healthier process.
The most important thing, though, is that you always deliver quality music. No matter whether it’s six, eight, 10 or 12 tracks, right? You’ve always gotta look at what you’re giving to the customer. It’s got to be the best body of work that you can give.
This is a healthy process because it always keeps you delivering fresh music, and it keeps your brand going regularly. Rather than saying, “ OK, I’m done with this cycle. 18 months have gone by. Stop the touring. Stop all the press. Let me go in and record a record.” And, you know, that can be a problem since some artists take a year to record a record.
JM: It sounds like you’re saying that artists, in this new process, will have to work harder and will have more responsibility.
PS: I do agree with that statement. And I also feel that there will be artists for whom this is a second nature. For them, this is exactly what they want to do. I think a number of artists don’t want to stop what they’re doing to get a record going. They don’t want to have a void in their career where they have to stop to record an album and get it out in the marketplace.
What we have to do now, as the marketing team behind Blake, is determine things like what the best time to book the TV is. Is it the launch of the SixPak? Or do we do it whenever we think it’s best, based on the time of year or the TV hit. Is it the one [TV hit] that’s gonna make the most impact? Rather than trying to jam it all into one area, now we have to look at it differently. What’s the best time of year to do this based on a singlecycle at radio, not necessarily an album cycle.
JM: I’m curious as to how this kind of marketing strategy works with country radio’s current gestation period for singles. Blake has this EP coming out, and then another EP in August—
PS: I have to correct you there.
JM: By all means.
PS: We’ve been very, very direct…not direct, but correcting of the term. It’s not an EP. It’s an album. What is an album nowadays, right? In the digital world, what is an album?
JM: What do you think it is?
PS: Digital changed everything. You could have five songs and call it an album. You could have two songs and…I guess you couldn’t call it an album, but…
The definition of an album is quite broad, based on digital. EP, to me, is a dated term. And it’s just my personal feeling that I don’t want to use that term. And I definitely don’t want my SixPak being called an EP.
JM: Understood and noted. So, getting back to the question: There a difference of six months between the two scheduled SixPaks. That’s hardly enough time for one single. Is there a danger of releasing these albums too quickly, and thereby running yourselves off the charts? And how important is radio play in this new formula?
PS: In Blake’s case, because this is the very first launch, we wanted to give it the best platform. And that would be, as I told people here from the beginning, a Top 5 single before we launch the album. Then I wanted to build a plan around that. All that seems to be coming together. But the game changes from here. It depends on the artist. It depends on the song. It depends on the time of year.
I don’t know if the next one will come in August or not. That’s what we have earmarked right now.
The current single from Blake took 20 weeks. But the next single that we’re gonna go to radio with—which will happen sometime in April—might take 35 weeks. I can’t imagine it’ll take 15, but if it does I’ll be extremely happy. But that next single’s the one which will drive the next SixPak. And, you know, I might want to release that SixPak when the single is Top 15, because I’ve got some other things happening at that time. But it’s not etched in stone. [August] is just a place-mark right now.
But, I get what you’re saying. We have debated that continuously here.
JM: Why has a new marketing strategy like this taken so long to formulate? Sales have been declining for a decade.
PS: There have been other releases like this one in the market. They would fall under that other term that I mentioned to you. It’s a new strategy because we’re marketing it that way. If you’re going to go out and try something new, you have to put a marketing campaign behind it. No one has come into the market with such a strong marketing campaign around it, in this form and fashion. It’s branded. We’re all delivering the same message to the press. And we’re doing all of this with a major artist to launch it.
Most of the other examples that you can pull are from a developing artist, or whatever. The attitude has been to give it to a developing artist because it’s a good entry point, since the consumer doesn’t have to make a commitment of $15 to an artist they’re unfamiliar with.
To me, the sales are declining so rapidly that I’m not sure why we wouldn’t adjust to that, rather than keeping things at the same place. Why don’t we give people more music, more often and at a lower price? And then we have more music in consumer’s hands. Ultimately, I want more music in people’s hands. And I want them to buy it, too. That’s how the strategy came about.
But, to answer the main question, you know, it’s been done in a different way. It just hasn’t been done with this commitment to marketing the brand. But people have tried different things. If you look at how some bands have put out deluxe packages, you know, they’ve given consumers more. That has seemed to have run its course. The scenario there, of course, was usually with an established artist, so you could put more on the release and charge more. What we’re doing now is the opposite end of that. We’re breaking it up into smaller chunks, and you’re paying less. Consumers won’t have to make that full commitment, and they can get the music regularly.
JM: Do you think you’ll eventually aggregate those smaller chunks? 18 months from now, will we see everything together in one package?
PS: You know, once we find out what the consumer wants, that might be the case. I think what we’ll do for Blake’s fans is provide them with a collector’s box that could hold ten or five SixPaks. As they buy ‘em and collect ‘em, they can put them in the collector’s box. We’ve talked about that, and to me, that’s an example of continuing to build the brand. We’ll look at those things. Maybe if you get a t-shirt, you’ll also get a collector’s box which you can put your SixPaks in.
This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.