Early on the morning of March 4th, Kendrick Lamar unexpectedly released a surprise album, "untitled unmastered," on all the major streaming platforms and iTunes. The eight song collection featured two tracks from appearances from late night TV performances, as well as a song produced by the 5-year-old son of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, and Lamar described it as the demos from his highly-praised album "To Pimp a Butterfly."
Aside from being a talented musician, this move proves Lamar is a savvy businessman. In an age when many artists hold back albums from streaming services, or release exclusives, or are too conservative with their release schedule, he showed that you can put out rough content and reap the rewards. Plenty of musicians use platforms like Soundcloud to make demos available to the public, but Lamar was smart to partner with streaming services, both because he likely was paid more and certainly got a promotional boost.
If Lamar had only released a physical version of this project, or had only let one streaming service have access, it likely would have backfired and led to more piracy. Recent high-profile releases that haven't been made widely available have all been popular on torrent sites, and that leads to lost revenue for artists. In some cases, the artists decide that it's worth it, either because they got a great deal from their exclusive partner or because they wanted to take a principled stand against streaming. That's a right every artist has, but for many it seems counterproductive.
The fact is, fans are hungry for content, and they'll get it by whatever means necessary. Piracy is an objectively terrible user experience; it's hard to find what you're looking for, and files might be incomplete or corrupted. But if fans have no choice other than to sign up for a service they don't otherwise want to buy a product some of them might have no way to consume, then they'll find another way around it.
Those same fans also want more content from artists, even if it's a track produced by a child or a rough cut of a previously released song. Many artists are simply too conservative, releasing new material every few years and only in advance of an album. She's certainly a unique case, but look at what Beyonce did with "Formation" -- she released a single and then built an entire tour and Super Bowl performance around it. Even if you're not as famous, you fans will probably be really interested in hearing demos, or rough versions of tracks, or simply enjoying a new song without having to wait for an entire album. People these days have short attention spans, so releasing more content can keep you in front of your fans and make them less likely to forget you exist while you camp out in the studio. And while some may complain about the payouts from streaming services, releases like this- which in the past would have been leaked or on a mixtape-creates a new revenue opportunity for artists.
Music fans have a lot of choices, and if you don't make it easy for them to hear your music and get excited about new content, they'll just move on to someone else. We can't all be as talented as Kendrick Lamar, but we can learn from his release strategy and make sure the fans get what they want.