If you're in the music business -- an industry whose revenue and distribution model has changed completely over the last decade -- you basically have two choices:
- You can complain about how the business just isn't what it was, or
- You can go out and kick ass.
The multi-platinum-selling rock band Avenged Sevenfold chose the latter course, eschewing a traditional album release and "surprise-dropping" their critically-acclaimed new album The Stage in both digital and physical form -- likely an industry first for a rock band -- moments after a live show atop the iconic Capitol Records tower in Hollywood, a groundbreaking 3D/360-degree, live-streamed, virtual reality event.
Embracing new technology makes sense since The Stage, their first for Capitol Records, is a concept album exploring artificial intelligence and what expanding technology might mean -- good and bad -- for the future. (Lead singer M. Shadows was initially inspired by this article written by Tim Urban.)
And to up the ante further, the album's closing track, "Exist," is a 15-minute musical interpretation of the Big Bang that features a spoken word performance by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson written specifically for the album.
So yeah: definitely not (music) business as usual.
(And not coincidentally, The Stage is both really good and really smart. How often can you say that about a hard rock album? And it debuted at # 4 on the main Billboard chart and #1 on Billboard's Rock Albums, Hard Rock Albums, and Alternative Albums charts.)
Talk me through the marketing around the release of The Stage. Rooftop VR, surprise release... why not just go the conventional route?
The world is changing and the way we consume music is obviously changing. I was one of the biggest CD advocates you will find, but when Apple music and digital options came out, like for everyone else it was more conducive to my lifestyle. The way I was getting and listening to music had changed. It's changed for everyone. So why not embrace that?
Past that, the three-month lead up to the release of an album had gotten boring to us. (Typically a record label will start releasing individual songs in advance of the release of an album to spark interest, generate pre-sales, etc.) That doesn't light a fire under us.
So we decided to do the things we want to do and give it to our fans the way we want. What artists like Kanye, Radiohead, and Beyonce had done intrigued us. Their albums came out of the blue and there were no preconceived notions or reviews affecting the opinion of the record buyer before they even got a chance to listen to our music.
This way, everyone listened to our album on the same day. It was a fresh experience, one that wasn't affected by reviews and speculation and noise. This way you got to hear it and decide for yourself.
All those factors played into the decisions we made. And of course we needed to make a big splash and to get attention, so that's why we came up with ideas like performing on the Capitol Records rooftop, having the VR experience, live streaming... we're trying to do things we've never seen bands do before so we can give fans a new experience.
I hadn't thought about it until you mentioned it, but I'm so old that's the way I "experienced" a new album. When, say, Back in Black came out, you went to the record store on the day it was released, raced home to listen to it... you had no idea what the album would sound like.
One thing I loved when I was growing up, you maybe saw one review from a magazine like Rolling Stone... but now there are 150 reviews before an album even comes out. There are so many opinions out there, but the only one that really matters is your own.
Even with The Stage there were reviews 15 minutes after it was released. I was thinking, "How did you manage to review 70 minutes of music in 15 minutes?"
We're in a position where we don't have to do things the conventional way, so we don't. And the response has been great.
How tough it was to plan and pull off the release without news leaking?
It wasn't as hard as you might think. Some of it was due to luck but a lot had to do with our ages. When I was 22 I would have told all my friends and family and it definitely would have leaked, but with us being in our 30s and being parents, we're just really involved in the art, in writing songs and keeping our heads down and doing the work.
Plus, it's not like we ran around talking about strategy. We focused on making the record we wanted to make.
Since digital makes up the vast majority of sales, how important is releasing a physical album?
I really don't know how important it is. Physical isn't the same as it used to be. And it won't be around for that much longer. But we needed to do it because compared to, say, country or hip hop, rock fans tend to buy much more physical product.
Releasing physical product on day one -- without people finding out it was in the works -- was a big challenge for Capitol, but they pulled it off.
One thing about doing a surprise release is that it changes the metrics, and not in your favor, definitely not from a perception point of view. Even so, The Stage debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts.
We have mixed feelings right now. We know we could have done a boring lead up and taken the number one spot. When you do a three-month buildup you roll pre-orders, singles, etc. into your first week.
The way we did it, our numbers are just for one week. Like Kanye: his first week numbers were low compared to what they could have been had he done the traditional release.
And that makes it easy for critics to say, "Their new album only sold..."
We knew that could happen, but we felt it was worth the risk.
We also take a longer-term view. The average album following a three-month release model typically sees sales drop as much as 80% for the second week. We expect some drop off, too... but we also expect our album sales to continue over a longer period of time.
It's mixed feelings, but I'm very excited to be doing new things. I would be depressed if we had done the old buildup process. That feels very 2009.
Right now we have an album that sold less copies in its first week than the last one. And that's okay: you can't break the rules and expect the same result.
I would think this release model is more fun for fans. I used to get a huge kick out of walking into a record store and finding something I didn't know was out.
A lot of people will walk into a store and say, "What the heck, a new Avenged Sevenfold record?"
That's cool. You try to create buzz but you don't get to everyone, and the album will be a surprise to some people. This way we let a lot of people discover it.
And feedback has been very positive. People say, "Thanks for sparing us the bread crumbs."
Bands make money in a variety of ways. How important are album sales?
People consume music differently. Ultimately, though, people hearing our music is very important.
As for buying records...it's hard to say how important that is, but you definitely want to keep the label happy and involved.
We wouldn't have a problem selling tons of records (laughs), but we see the realities and challenges of the fact that people can get music everywhere.
If people respect us as artists, they know we'll give them something different every time, they know we're pushing ourselves... even this surprise release helps people know we're still trying hard to be innovative.
If someone said to me, "Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing spoken word on a rock song," I would have rolled my eyes... but it really works.
It's funny because when I talked to him he said, "Are you sure you'll want three and a half minutes? John Lennon wrote "Imagine" and only needed a few words...."
But we were doing a Big Bang, big ideas kind of song. Neil was like the cherry on top for the artificial intelligence and space exploration concept, and he wrote some really cool stuff for us.
When we did it we said, "People are either going to turn it off, or it will touch them," and so far the response has been great.
I imagine you started out as a musician and over time became a businessperson, marketer, etc. What was that process like?
There wasn't a formal process. It was just slowly learning about the business.
First things first. You don't do it for the money -- but if money is going to be made, it's either going to you or to someone else. When you realize that, you definitely get interested in the business side.
Plus, I've always had an interest in the economy, the stock market, digital currencies... I'm into all that stuff.
It's important to know the ins and outs of the music business, but you can also dive too deeply into it and forget that you're really here to make music.
That leads me to another question: your lawsuit with Warner Brothers Records. (The band is attempting to sever their contract, claiming that staff turnover led to a deterioration of the working relationship between the band and the label. They band exercised the "7-year rule," a California statute that allows artists to exit a personal services contract after seven years if certain circumstances exist.)
We had been at the label for quite a while. Tom Whalley was the CEO, our A & R guys were people like Andy Olyphant... we had about 10 years with that team in place. They were really open with us. It was a great relationship.
After Tom left we went through a few different regimes, the direction of the label changed, decisions changed... and we felt they were no longer the label we signed with and knew. It didn't seem like they were behind us. We were one of the biggest-selling bands on the label but that didn't seem to matter; they were focused on other bands and other acts.
Once that really sunk in, once we knew they weren't going to be the label for us, we exercised the 7-year rule that allows us to opt out of our contract.
So now they're suing us for damages, and they don't want to lose the suit because if they do, a lot of other bands will walk.
Leaving the label is definitely a risk but we're not going to be bullied. We're going to do what matters to us and is right for us.
You only had one album left on that deal. Why not just put out something to satisfy the contract?
We're not going to put out a record that a label doesn't know what to do with. And we're not going to do a "fake" release either, even though that's what some people recommended we do.
We always want to make music that touches us, and touches other people.
I asked Roger Penske if he still gets a kick out of seeing one of his yellow rental trucks drive by. Does it ever seem surreal to you that you guys have sold over 8 million albums and played for hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people?
I've honestly never taken the time to let it sink in.
We try to stay grounded. We're a bunch of guys with families and kids. Playing the shows is great, but when you get offstage and have 2 year olds or 4 year olds that just want to play ball at the park... that keeps you grounded.