The Changing World of Record Label Marketing

The Changing World of Record Label Marketing

On Jan. 7, YSL/300 Entertainment released Gunna’s third official album, DS4EVER, which became his second straight LP to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And almost immediately, the record’s second track, “pushin P” featuring Future and Young Thug, became a rallying cry among his fans online, becoming a trending topic on Twitter as fans debated and had fun with the concept of what it meant to be pushin P — and what P even was in the first place.

But very quickly, the trend began to grow beyond the core Gunna fan base, and even beyond the music sphere as a whole — less than two weeks after the song came out, brands like Nike, iHop, Wingstop and even the official Teletubbies Twitter account were using the phrase and Gunna’s preferred blue emoji, turning the song into a cultural touchstone as it rippled further and further outward. The song became Gunna’s third Hot 100 top 10 single, peaking at No. 7 — 11 weeks later, it still sits in the Hot 100’s top 20, currently charting at No. 19.

“Good marketing leaves fingerprints in different places,” says 300 senior marketing director Lallie Jones, who worked on the Gunna campaign with 300 senior vp Rayna Bass and has worked on marketing projects for artists like Young Thug, $NOT and Highly Suspect, among others. “What we would judge as a great marketing campaign is about how much it dominates a certain timeline that’s relevant to that artist, but then the really great ones echo past that and ripple to the most unlikely places.”

Not every marketing campaign reaches quite as far as the Teletubbies Twitter account, of course. But as the music business continues to evolve, with some 60,000 songs uploaded to Spotify daily and a lower barrier to entry than ever, record label marketing campaigns have had to adapt in order to help artists cut through the noise, with campaigns changing on the fly and become broader, more digital and more global with each passing year.

“There are just more ways that you can get exposure for your artist now,” says Jones, pointing to 300’s work with rock band Highly Suspect, one of the company’s first signings when it launched in 2014. “They built everything brick by brick, fan by fan; their touring and radio dictated their success. Back then, it was very formulaic — get the right press, get the right co-sign, get the right tour and then you have a shot. The fate of whether an artist would break felt more dependent on gatekeepers and associations rather than now, when it feels like there are so many other avenues and roads to get to success.”

Over the past two decades, as digital media and web 2.0 — and, now, web3 — have risen to prominence and cultural ubiquity, the role of a marketer has also shifted, with traditional outdoor and in-person campaigns buttressed by creative, digital-first initiatives that can manifest themselves in countless ways. In a continuing series tracking how record labels have and continue to change, Billboard spoke to six label marketers about how they do their job, how the role has evolved, and what is coming next. (See prior installments on A&R and radio promotions.)

“It almost seems like every year to two years there’s something new that’s changing how we consume and expand on our audience,” says Chris Atlas, executive vp of urban music and marketing at Warner Records. “We just need to stay nimble with the changing needs of consumers based on their hobbies and interests.”

The Job

It’s been over 20 years since Dave Bell, now the executive vp/head of marketing at Epic, was told by a boss that he needed to have a working knowledge of the various configurations of a CD case: soft pack, jewel case, O-card, J-card.

“It was very physical-oriented,” he says of his time as an assistant at Elektra, just before Napster ushered the music business into the digital world. “I’d be out in the hallway with a tape gun divvying up this massive amount of stickers into 20 boxes to go to certain markets for street team reps.”

But while CDs and stickers may not be the biz’s go-to ways of getting music and messages to the masses these days, the job of a marketer is still about awareness and interest, telling a story about an artist, an album or a song in a way that can reel a potential listener in.

“The biggest thing in any role in marketing is communication,” says Peter Kadin, vp of marketing at EMPIRE. “When you’re putting together campaigns and trying to tell a story, you have to be able to communicate it properly. Say I’m putting something in front of an artist that I would like for them to do as part of their marketing campaign — I have to communicate it to them in an effective way so that they’re gonna be on board and excited about it, and I also have to execute and communicate that campaign publicly so that everyone is happy with the results.”

But before communication comes the marketing plan, and that starts with the artist and what they are trying to get across. “The importance of relationships and understanding the artists [is key], understanding the artists’ vision and really seeing that through and keeping that at the forefront of everything we do,” says Sharon Timure, senior vp/head of marketing at Island Records. “Brainstorming, problem solving — it’s constant communication between marketing and all the other departments just making sure everyone is working towards that same global end game.”

“You wear so many hats as a product manager,” says Jones. “You could be a big sister, a friend, a teacher, a mentor, a therapist — whatever is called for and needed, because you understand that it’s a moving organism.”

What goes into actually building that marketing campaign entails research and coordination across the entire label — and sometimes requires convincing those inside the label to support a plan, too. “You have to market the artist inside the building and then you have to market the artist outside the building,” says Bell. “You have to be the primary conduit for many things for the artist and manager inside the label. They’re looking to you to be their cheerleader inside the building. The best product managers are still giving direction or giving the artist proposition, the ‘why,’ to the rest of the company for them to build off of.”

The actual role in putting together a plan, as each person detailed, is wide-ranging and varied: making introductions, formulating budgets, bringing in external brand partners, putting out fires, finding creatives for cover art or video or photo shoots, combing through TikTok and social media to see what is reacting — the list goes on. “Marketing plans and strategies need to impact and include all the revenue streams and promotional platforms of artists, from catalog campaigns, sync and brand opportunities, collaborating with booking agents and tour promoters creating cross-promotion campaigns that impact music and ticket sales, premium content development — everything,” says Esteban Geller, senior vp of marketing and artist relations at Sony Music U.S. Latin.

And that all needs to be “cohesive and part of the music,” adds Kadin. “Rather than sporadic things happening here and there, you want it to feel like part of a campaign with the same feel as the artist who is pushing it.”

And even with all of that, the best laid plans do not always guarantee success. “I don’t think anyone in marketing goes into a project knowing exactly how it’s going to play out,” Kadin says. “You have your tried and true methods that you’ve succeeded with in the past, or the building blocks to get to the next step, but you never really know if it’s going to work.”

How It’s Changing

The rise of digital has been a game-changer for marketing, starting with its sheer scale. “[My job] started out very domestic-focused, and I was worried about what was happening in separate U.S. cities vs. what was happening around the globe — now, we have to view everything as a global campaign and structure it like that,” says Timure. “Streaming alone changed everything so dramatically — the days of having different release days, or working different singles in different countries, are long gone. Ten years ago I was not speaking to international on a daily basis in the same way. All of that is in tandem now. There’s no way you could ever do something that’s not on a global scale.”

And digital marketing, compared to the traditional model, has allowed for a real-time assessment of how a campaign is going, a major shift. “Technology has changed the job tremendously,” says Atlas. “Throughout the years we’ve been able to benefit from the data, the insights, the rapid feedback that you can see on any level, whether it’s from a product, an artist, or a campaign. You can see the response, how it’s working, what the engagement is, what the comments are, what the most reactive markets are, and you can see it in a matter of minutes or hours. It allows us to pivot and make decisions accordingly based on what we’re seeing.”

“My job is much more fluid and reaction-based, and it’s exciting because you’re able to call these audibles and make decisions in real time and you just know that you’re going off-road on your marketing plan,” Jones puts it. “So you’re just a little bit more agile, you’re throwing caution to the wind and you’re getting a little bit more creative.”

That’s also meant a change in the timeline of how a marketing campaign rolls out — rather than developing a strict plan and executing it, there are variables built in to a campaign to allow for adjustments, which changes the emphasis. “As soon as a campaign launches, it’s not over, it’s just starting,” says Bell. “You plan for the best case scenario, but you gotta be prepared to pivot at any time, and that’s the case more now than it’s ever been.”

At the same time, as the music industry’s business model has shifted from the dominant revenue stream being sales to streaming, “You went from the transaction business to the attention business, and it’s completely different,” Bell adds. Meanwhile, “The pandemic accelerated an already quickly-growing trend towards digital becoming the dominant factor of marketing,” he continues. “It’s at scale; most traditional marketing is not at scale. Think about billboards — everyone wants the Times Square billboard, but the real power of it is in the post on socials, the grandness of it and showing it off.”

Yet as the pandemic recedes and the world cautiously moves back towards an embrace of live events, marketing has started to move back outside, too, with pop-up shops and experiential events returning for the first time in two years. “Especially over the pandemic, it went heavily digital, and I think right now we’re seeing a transition back into IRL experiences and trying to get an audience to appreciate and understand a project and an artist in person as opposed to just doing it online,” says Kadin. “If we do a pop-up event, where fans get to see what the vision is, it’s more impactful for the long-term growth of the artist and the longevity of a person being a fan. That being said, you might end up spending a lot more money per fan for that experience, but it might also travel a much further way because they could be a fan for a much longer period of time. So right now it’s especially important to have a happy medium of both.”

The Future

While all departments of a record label are affected by changes in technology, marketing teams are often the ones on the front lines of adoption, looking for ways for content and campaigns to cut through the noise.

“TikTok alone changed everything as far as campaigns are concerned in a lot of cases; it didn’t just affect the digital department, it affected everybody,” says Timure. “So I think it’s just gonna roll with whatever that next TikTok is. And not necessarily in the digital space, but whatever that next thing is that really shakes up the industry, we’re just going to have to adapt to it.”

Another change: as the digital space continues to shift, particularly into the Web3 world but also as social platforms continue to be the primary way artists can connect regularly with their fans, marketing departments are getting more sophisticated at building teams to specifically match that growing importance.

“My mission is to dissolve the term ‘digital marketing’ at a record label,” says Bell. “Now it’s, what is our fan engagement plan? What’s our social plan? What’s our interactive plan? We’re having teams or groups treating them as different aspects of digital that, collectively, is a plan. We need to become more sophisticated. Artists want to go to agencies all the time — we need to be that agency that they want to come to.”

But digital campaigns, as important as they may be, will never fully replace in-person brand events and other types of real-world marketing — for the best, several people agree. “I’m a big proponent of experiential and lifestyle marketing and I think that’s going to come back because we’re back outside,” says Atlas. “Festivals are happening, tours are happening, people are back out in the clubs, experiencing music and entertainment as they did before the pandemic. Now, I think our interactions within it are different, because the world has changed, but I think we’re gonna see that return to artists getting back in front of fans. Which, to me, is the best part of marketing — that’s always a key element to how you can grow an artist organically and develop the artistry behind them.”

What Are the Keys to a Great Marketing Campaign?

Chris Atlas: That’s always the million dollar question, right? But I think a great marketing plan encompasses all of the attributes that can break or build a successful artist. Marketing is not just reflective of advertising, digital and social. A great marketing plan understands holistically all the tent poles that need to be in that plan, which is inclusive of radio, brand and synch activations, understanding the social aspects, which social platforms that can resonate for an artist. TikTok has become a key component in recent years of artist breakthrough and success. And then I think where you can find those brand elements that can enhance the reach of an artist and an audience for your artist and campaign that really connects with the music.

Dave Bell: Consistent look and feel and messaging is where it starts. You really need to hone in on that so that every stakeholder at the label, management, partners, understand the DNA of the artist and the project and what we’re trying to achieve. That also makes it crystal clear and easily digestible for the consumer. It all starts right there. And it’s everyone firing on all cylinders at the same time. It doesn’t all have to happen at the same time, but you have to be agile.

Esteban Geller: Time to plan. In this dynamic market we live in, it’s sometimes hard to get assets on time. Things as basic as delivering the music to the DSPs; a proper video to start working a pre-marketing campaign; a TikTok teaser campaign; a proper social media posting schedule where the artist gets involved. That’s another key aspect for me: artist involvement in all aspects. The perfect storm needs the label and the artist. If the artist doesn’t push, the engagement lags. Songs can’t just be supported by playlisting. And, for me, traditional marketing — PR and editorial — is still essential.

Lallie Jones: It always starts with the artist. It’s either things that they say, things they’re obsessed with, something that they naturally do so there’s no dissonance between the message you’re putting out there and how they get down every day on socials. You want to pull quotes from them, sentiments from them, and then also something that really connects with the fans. Making sure that you’re really paying attention to the fans. And it’s something that can be felt by that relevant audience, but that can also echo with audiences a couple steps removed.

Peter Kadin: You really want it to be cohesive. So if an artist is really into, let’s say, anime. Is your photography covering that kind of style and look? Are the music videos touching on that aesthetic? Are you doing press where the interviews line up with publications in that space? Are you looking at what YouTube channels or Instagram pages or popular folks on Twitter are in that world? Really connecting the dots top to bottom with what the artist and their fan is interested in to make an effective campaign.

Sharon Timure: Having a great strategy and a great vision.

Additional reporting by Leila Cobo.

The Changing World of Record Label Marketing On Jan. 7, YSL/300 Entertainment released Gunna’s third official album, DS4EVER, which became his second straight LP to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. And almost immediately, the record’s second track, “pushin P” featuring Future and Young Thug, became a rallying cry among his fans online, becoming…