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cover story Features August 5, 2019

Pop artists are finally catching onto rap’s fast-fire release strategies

Pop artists are finally catching onto rap’s fast-fire release strategies
Image: YouTube / Ariana Grande

“My dream has always been to… put out music in the way that a rapper does,” Ariana Grande told Rolling Stone at the tail-end of last year.

At the time, she’d released a Grammy-nominated record in Sweetener and hit #1 in the US for the first time with ‘thank u, next’. That song would go on to be the title track of her next album which arrived just six months after the ARIA Platinum album.

It was an unprecedentedly quick drop for pop – a genre where most of Grande’s peers are typically taking two years to follow up an album.

“I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,” she said.

“Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t? So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.”

The tactic has worked for her. 2019 has been a landmark year for Grande. She added another US #1 to her belt with ‘7 rings’ and hit the top spot both here and in the US with the album. All 12 tracks debuted in the US and Australian charts in the week the album was released and it spent four months in the Billboard 200’s Top 10.

A few short days ago, Grande dropped her latest single ‘Boyfriend’ with hip hop duo Social House.

Grande is now the most-streamed female artist of all time and for the first four months of this year, she was the most streamed artist on Spotify. To put that in perspective, last year the most streamed artists were Drake, XXXTentacion and Post Malone. All operating in the hip hop sphere, these are artists used to releasing lots of material – a tactic which has proven to be a streaming winner.

In 2018, Drake dropped a 25-song album, a standalone single, and featured on multiple records with Bad Bunny, Travis Scott, Meek Mill and Lil Baby. XXXTentacion released one album before his death and another posthumously, while Post Malone’s output almost mimicked Drake’s scale.

The point is, releasing music quickly is working and, up until recently, hip hop was the only genre that had properly cashed in on that fact. Last year, rap overtook rock as the most popular genre in the US, according to Nielsen. The increase in popularity was “powered by a 72% increase in on-demand audio streaming”. There’s no doubt hip hop is popular but it’s also being consumed more often because there is more to be consumed. When Nielsen revealed this, eight of the Top 10 most consumed artists operated in the R&B/hip hop genre.

This year, however, that’s beginning to shift as pop is catching onto the value of having a consistent presence. “Traditionally artists would go a long time between album projects, disappear and then come back as a big event,” Robbie Snow, SVP of Global Marketing for Hollywood Records told Rolling Stone last year.

“In this day and age, we try to keep things flowing so artists almost never go away. Fans want to be engaged constantly with artists that they like.”

Pop artists aren’t releasing albums one-after-the-other like Grande though. Instead, they’re keeping the popularity going by releasing singles that aren’t specifically attached to an album. Currently, three of the pop artists in the Top 10 most streamed artists on Spotify are operating outside of an album cycle – Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and Justin Bieber.

Last May, Mendes dropped his self-titled third record but less than a year later he returned with ‘If I Can’t Have You’. The song immediately shot into the Billboard Hot 100 at #2, a career peak, and has more than half the streams of his album’s lead single ‘In My Blood’ in just 10% of the time.

He has bettered that with ‘Senorita’ alongside Camila Cabello which came just over a month after its predecessor. Globally, it’s the most streamed song in the world right now, outperforming the song in second place by close to 100%, and just notched up a second consecutive week atop the TMN Hot 100 Airplay Chart.

Both of Mendes’ recent singles have been added to his last album on streaming platforms, presumably to help boost the streams of other songs on the record. It, however, suggests that the songs aren’t attached to a forthcoming project.

Cabello has been teasing her second album but she’s kept herself in the public eye with a string of releases. On top of ‘Senorita’, she’s featured with Ed Sheeran on ‘South Of The Border’, Mark Ronson on ‘Find U Again’ and Bazzi on ‘Beautiful’. Cabello and her team have become masters at using streaming numbers to their advantage. Back in 2017, she released ‘OMG’ and ‘Havana’ at the same time only to take the latter as the official single once it started outperforming the former. ‘OMG’ was eventually left off her debut album.

Bieber was perhaps one of the first to catch onto the benefits of releasing songs out of album cycle in a bid to remain relevant. The pop giant made a strong comeback in 2015 with his Purpose LP and while he hasn’t released an album since then, he’s had some of the biggest hits of his career. His 2016/17 run was unprecedented. He nabbed two Billboard Top 5 singles with DJ Snake and Major Lazer before jumping on Luis Fonsi’s ‘Despacito’, taking it to #1 for 16 weeks.

Bieber then had another #1 with DJ Khaled on ‘I’m The One’ and followed it up the next year with ‘No Brainer’. Now, he’s part of two Top 10 records both here and in the US with Ed Sheeran’s ‘I Don’t Care’ and Billie Eilish’s ‘bad guy’. This is all without even teasing another album.

In all this, he proved that you can be completely present without doing very much at all. He’s managed to constantly remain one of the most-streamed artists without a traditional album cycle. He also hasn’t toured for two years. Despite that, he’s currently the sixth most streamed artist in the world on Spotify.

The quick drops are not entirely about remaining present, they’re also a chance for artists to quickly regain dominance after an underwhelming album campaign. Sam Smith’s second album The Thrill Of It All was certainly not a failure (it was a global #1) but it loosened his stranglehold on the charts. His debut managed at least four big singles while The Thrill Of It All only saw ‘Too Good At Goodbyes’ rise to the top.

Since then, he’s been in standalone single mode. ‘Promises’ with Calvin Harris was one of the biggest singles in Europe last year and he cracked back into the US charts this year with his Normani collab ‘Dancing With A Stranger.’ Earlier this month, he followed it up with ‘How Do You Sleep?’ and it’s already showing early promise. It was TMN’s Most Added To Radio as Australian radio jumped on the track in its first week, and it has just cracked the Top 10 of the global Spotify chart.

Katy Perry returned in 2017 with her fourth album Witness, four years after PRISM, but things didn’t go to plan. The album only launched one big single and the era was filled with mis-hits from an ill-conceived SNL appearance with Migos, to a tour that sold less than her previous shows, particularly in Australia.

This year, she’s done away with the album cycle and collaborated with Zedd and Daddy Yankee while also dropping her own standalone single ‘Never Really Over’. The song’s popularity continues to rise. It’s just entered the Top 10 of pop radio airplay in the US, is in the Top 5 of the TMN Hot 100 and is being streamed close to 2 million times a day on Spotify. It may not become one of her biggest hits but streaming gives artists the liberty of operating out of cycle and trying things until something sticks.

Perry even admitted, they’re testing the waters with this release: “We’d like to just put music out, and if there is a reaction — like, a good reaction, or a desire for more — there could be more,” she said during a YouTube fan event.

Last year, there was not one pop album or song in the Top 10 most-streamed efforts of 2018 on Apple Music. Similarly, Spotify’s end of year lists were dominated by hip-hop artists. A glance out the global Top 50 of streaming right now suggests that pop may be able to make a dent in hip-hop’s dominance.

This time last year, just two pop songs appeared in the Top 20 of Billboard’s Streaming Chart. This week’s chart features seven songs by pop artists in the Top 20. Maybe pop artists are starting to catch up to rap’s fast-fire release tactics.


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