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7 Ways to Bring Back the Physical Album Experience in Digital Music

I’ve been meaning to write this article for a looonnggg time, and I am finally finding the time to get around to it. It really irks me whenever I hear somebody say they are dissatisfied with digital music. It doesn’t have to be some boring, robotic thing, people! Despite what some industry folks may tell you, there are still tons of music fans out there that prefer the experience that a physical music item can provide. I am one of them. Believe it or not, there are ways that artists can bring some of the physical album experience to digital music. Some of it is common sense, and some of it takes a little “out of the box” thinking, but it is indeed possible.

1. Re-thinking album artwork

Nothing beats gazing at a nice vinyl gatefold…right? Actually, you can do some pretty creative visual things with digital music. For example, you can attach a different image to each song on your album. If you have a ten song album, you can provide fans with ten different pieces of artwork! When the song changes, so does the artwork that appears in the listener’s player. For the mathematically inept…that’s ten times more things for fans to look at while listening to your album.

There is also the idea of “synchronized artwork,” something that Arcade Fire used with their latest album, “The Suburbs.” Instead of including a static .jpg image with your album, you can use the .m4a format instead, which allows you to tag different images to particular moments during an audio file. This basically turns your static album cover into a dynamic slideshow, where you can display things like live photos, song lyrics, and even hyperlinks. Although not tangible, introducing these ideas to a typical digital download can make for a visual experience that rivals its physical predecessors.

2. Detailed meta data (aka liner notes)

Don’t you just love seeing “Track 01, Unknown Artist” after adding a new song your iTunes collection? Yeah, me neither. So many bands still forget to do this, and in 2011 there is no excuse for it. FILL IN YOUR META DATA! We are living in the Information Age, aren’t we? Meta data makes life easier for your fans, and gives the artist an opportunity to describe the digital music file accurately. You can even add the song lyrics to your audio files before sending them off to iTunes, so when a listener plays the song on their iPod or computer the lyrics will display so they can follow along as they listen.

3. Keep the costs low

It’s important to make some money if you want to have a sustainable career as a musician, but also understand that the perceived value of music has dropped considerably over the last decade. In the 90’s, nobody enjoyed paying the bloated price of $16 for a new CD that usually contained one or two decent tracks. Music was more affordable for fans back when vinyl records were the mainstream listening format. The same goes for digital music today. Although it means less revenue from music sales, it also means happier fans. Happier fans stick around for the long haul. Happier fans attend concerts. Concerts will make you money. Also, the cost of producing and distributing music today is a fraction of what it was ten years ago. Since costs are smaller (virtually zero in some cases), most independent artists keep a larger percentage of each music sale they make. Keep your fans in mind when coming up with a pricing model for your music products.

4. Make your music shareable

Whether online or offline, word-of-mouth recommendations are still the most powerful way for people to discover new music. In real life, it starts with a tap on the shoulder, and online, it starts with a status update or a tweet. Either way, there needs to be something interesting tied to your music in order for people to want to share it with their peers. There also needs to be tools (e.g. share buttons) in place to make it easier for your fans to share your music.

5. Build an experience around one album/song

Another way to bring the physical experience to digital music is to create an interactive web page based upon one album or song. A band that does an incredible job of this is More Hazards More Heroes. The web design team that they hired really nailed this one.

Currently, their entire website revolves around their latest record, and provides an experience that is very similar to looking at a CD booklet or vinyl gatefold. The website is one page, a hub where fans can stream the songs, read the lyrics, look at photos, download the entire album, and contact the band directly. You can also provide the same sort of experience around one song. The incredible team over at Viinyl makes this ridiculously easy, and the end result is an immersive fan experience that blends visual elements, information, music, sharing, and downloading.

6. Include bonus material

Whenever I purchase a new vinyl record, I get really happy when I open it up and find things like posters, download cards, and other bonus material inside. While not tangible, you can provide this same experience with digital downloads too. Include stuff like bonus tracks or b-sides, .pdf booklets with extra artwork, imagery, biographical information, and maybe even a few high resolution images so fans can print their own posters and memorabilia if they are into that sort of thing.

7. Write music with the intent of creating an album

Rather than stringing together a bunch of random songs that you have lying around in notebooks, you can try to write something that is cohesive and follows a theme. Many of the greatest albums ever written were done so with the format of an album implanted in the back of the musicians’ minds. It’s no easy task, but if you are used to writing and releasing singles, taking on an entire album can be a fun and challenging project that you can release as a full body of work and create an experience around for your fans.

Chris Bracco is currently the digital marketing manager and web designer for Intrigue Music, LLC, a boutique music management company in NYC. This post was originally published on Chris’ music blog, Tight Mix.

Image credits —
#1: Click here
#2: Screenshot I took
#3: Click here
#4: Screenshot I took
#5: Click here

Reader Comments (16)

For example, you can attach a different image to each song on your album ... When the song changes, so does the artwork that appears in the listener’s player.

Please don't.

This is one of those ideas that makes sense from an artist's perspective but can be incredibly annoying for the consumer.

Think about how, as a listener, you use album artwork in itunes (or whatever); how it lets you instantly identify a record without reading. Do you really want to mess with your listeners like this?

I suppose if you had song artwork that was so thematically connected that it was still instantly recognisable as part of a set of related artwork this could still work.

So on second thought, I retract the "please don't" and instead urge you to be careful. :)

The one song/album dedicated webpage concept, I like this a lot.

July 27 | Unregistered Commenterfelix

Thank you for sharing these ideas! We'll keep these creative concepts in mind as we work on our next Eclectic Verve album!

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Musil

#7 is my favorite. Easier said than done. But I'd also say there are more listeners out there who could care less about the "album experience" than those who do.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I like these ideas. For example, if you did a photo shoot for a whole album or just a song, the m4a idea would work since the theme of the photos will continue along with the music. I also love themed albums. Not neccessarily 'War Of The Worlds' but showing a consistency and a flow in the objective. Yes, that works well for me. Good stuff guys.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterGuy

The lyrics in the metadata is such a brilliant idea! I always loved that about CD's, and missed that about digital. I'll have to stick that in any files I end up working on.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Wagner

Great thoughts on improving a struggling format.

Some of my past bands have tried these endeavors and they do work. It all depends on the type of music, knowing your demographic/market and proper (in context) execution.

Thanks for the article.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterBradley

@felix - I see what you're saying there, and you're right. I was thinking more along the lines of what Arcade Fire did (they were on the brain at the time of writing, lol) with multiple album covers, except for single tracks instead. All the artwork looked similar and identifiable, but had subtle differences that gave each one character and made them more interesting.

July 27 | Registered CommenterChris Bracco

In the 90’s, nobody enjoyed paying the bloated price of $16 for a new CD that usually contained one or two decent tracks.

Actually, they did. $16 wasn't any more expensive than albums were in the Seventies after allowing for inflation, and albums weren't any more filleristic than they had always been. What happened was that Napster came along, and people needed a rationalization for free downloading. Voila: the myth of the overpriced CD was born. Music fans also developed a touching concern for the way record labels treated their artists around the same time--what a coincidence!

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterTim Walters

Great points, all of them. Except that they don't take into account how people listen to music. The beauty of the original vinyl album was that you HAD to sit down and listen to it. Today, with such an emphasis on individual tracks and direct access storage, people have (slightly) less incentive (technology-wise) to listen to an album from start to finish.

Having said that, different times call for different measures, so it's all relative. I will say that trimming the running time of albums back towards the 40-50 minute mark would also be a helpful start. Regardless of the quality of so-called "filler" tracks, for me at least, simply finding the time to listen to a full hour plus of music uninterrupted is pretty difficult at the best of times.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Kenny

This is great! Exactly what I've been discussing with friends and interviewers lately. Point #5 is excellent. I'm in the process of adding pages to my website for each song on my new album, with lyrics, photos, and exclusive content.

Also would love to see mp3s sold with a zip file of artwork and track credits in a text doc. So many track contributors have lost their identity without a CD folder credit.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterNeara

Great article - thanks.

I wonder if in a world of

-tv programming that expects you to be on a "second screen"
-of 15 sec YouTube clips
-services like Spotify

the album experience is still desired by the masses.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterLars Deutsch

I really like these ideas! With so many musicians being talented artists as well, it gives them yet another layer to work with ie. photos, artwork, paintings. And another outlet to bring some ever needed cash into band. Sell the original artwork online! And give the listeners the option to "join" extras or not. How hard can it be to offer them a choice of bonus photography, or whatever they are going to offer?
Sharing the article with all of my musician friends!

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterGall Lindsey

Great ideas Chris! Ironically, I think the "album as app" phenomenon will bring some of that physical sense back. Let's see how it works out for Björk first. :)

July 28 | Registered CommenterBrian Hazard

Really good article and ideas. I love the album experience and it's true it gets a little lost digitally. There are some really interesting posibilities though and I'm glad Brian Hazard (above) mentioned Björk. The app concept is very exciting as a way of delivering an album, as well as a more engaging experience digitally.

August 1 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Lawrence

I'm really big on the idea of PDF booklets & I'm not sure why they have never become a common thing with digital downloads. I have them included with all the digital downloads I sell at Silber. The only one in the free release series that's got a somewhat in depth booklet is Sarah June's Beneath Black Robes, but the one Remora digital download has a fifty page booklet that could never happen with a physical release.

It also might be worth noting that since I opened my own digital shop about half of my digital download earnings come from it & it only cost me $50 to put up, contact me if you want more info on it.

Great reading of a good blog.

There are a couple of download site's that already issue whatever you wish with each sale, one that sticks out is bandcamp - which actually gives more money back to the artist than ANY other (85-90%).

We issue bonus images, all artwork and if we wish could also add a couple of pdf's - but decided against the pdf's for the average sale, but using for press.

August 23 | Unregistered CommenterDixie Fried

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