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What Content Marketers Can Learn from the Music Industry in 2016-17

So, every December, I love reading and learning what popular (and super secret, of course) music blogs, publications and journals have decided upon as the most influential and impactful albums of the year. There’s Stereogum’s list, The Guardian’s list and Highsnobiety’s list crowning Beyonce’s Lemonade as #1, and then Pitchfork’s list nominating Beyonce’s sister Solange and her album A Seat At the Table as the best of 2016 (all in the family, eh?). And Billboard’s renowned critics? They’re obviously part of the Beyhive.

Lemonade was a musical and visual powerhouse of an album.

Though 2016 may have been a rough year with the loss of many talented artists and impactful cultural creators, it was also a year where musicians and artists became effective, powerful and impactful content creators, cultural communicators and curators for their communities and fans. So, no matter what your favorite album of 2016 was, let’s review some of 2016’s biggest musical (content) campaigns and how marketers can leverage a similar creative juju to create meaningful and enjoyable experiences for consumers and cultural communities.

The ‘Best of 2016’ Takeaways for Content Marketers:

  • Visuals and video ruled.

From Beyonce, Drake, Frank Ocean, to Kanye and even David Bowie (RIP), many of the greatest albums in 2016 were either visual albums or had visual elements that supported the overall album campaign and messaging. Though visual albums changed our understanding and consumption of musical albums differently than actual music videos, music videos were still highly streamed and consumed as an integral supporting detail in any album’s release and campaign.

This meant that music videos acted as efficient PR briefs and releases for many artists and their albums. For example, Beyonce’s single Formation was dropped unannounced right before her Superbowl performance and before an album was even expected, thus stirring rumors and fan’s excitement that a new album was surely on the way.  Some other notables were David Bowie’s Lazarus and the symbolism connected to his sudden passing. Kanye West’s headlines-hitting Famous and Fade had film critics and super fans alike buzzing over his experimental styles, use of celebrity endorsements, and creepy precursory messaging (he totally called the 2016 election).

And let’s not forget the long-form visual album as an extremely strong piece of content in 2016. Though Beyonce’s Lemonade was not the first visual album, it was certainly one of the most extensive, creative and collaborative. The musical production leveraged multiple different musicians from different genres (directly and indirectly; see the album credits) and the video portion worked with over 14 different creative talents (directors, writers, poets and cinematographers!).


Frank Ocean’s Endless was the first of two albums the R&B artist released (the other being Blonde) and was not only an experimental film but a marketing experiment using banner advertising on Apple Music that was used to target artist-filter user base. In the case of Frank Ocean, the ads were used to target his fans who had been waiting for his album to drop. Though Drake didn’t necessarily release a visual album, he did release a 20-minute short film, ‘Please Forgive Me’, based on his album Views.

Though the easiest takeaway would be to focus on ‘video’ and ‘visual’ content for your brand, the largest takeaway should be that your video and visual content has to be good. Content people will want to watch will have a compelling story that matches the overall messaging of the entire campaign. Make sure your content is cohesive, comprehensive, curated and calibrated to your community goals, and it’ll help convert new fans (see what I did there? A modern twist on the ol’ 5 C’s of content marketing!).

  • Users want a fulfilling digital and tangible experience.

Many big album releases of 2016, even those non-visual albums, relied on providing a carefully crafted and curated experience for their fans. Solange released a digital art and lyric booklet online after giving 86 of her fans a hardcover version for signing up on her website. The e-book (and actual hardcover book) not only supported the release of her album A Seat at the Table, but supported traffic to and from her social channels, website and aesthetically-curated blog. Take note, folks: Solange and her team centered their content hub around how accessible it was for fans.

Frank Ocean also created a physical piece to support his double-album release. He gave out a 366 page zine for free to lucky fans at pop-up shops around New York. The Observer’s Justin Joffe noted that the zine was Ocean’s way of ‘using the format to deepen his fans’ understanding of his creative headspace over the last four years’ and was full of personal photographs, essays and poetry.


Beyond the printed product, Bon Iver and Kanye West both planned real experiences for their fans. Kanye West leveraged his foray into the fashion world to plan his fashion show ‘Yeezy Season 3’ to act as a huge listening party in Madison Square garden for his album The Life of Pablo.  People with a Tidal subscription were able to livestream the event, and anyone could have purchased a ticket. Bon Iver planned a special way to drop his new album 22, A Million by organizing world wide ‘boombox’ and cassette listening parties, printing a special collectible newspaper for fans and leaving instructions on Twitter:

  • Digital and streaming partnerships create campaigns that distribute ‘disruptive’ and ‘exclusive’ content to users.

All the really big album releases this past year had some hefty partners in the form of a streaming or broadcast platform. These ‘collabs’ increased viewership for both artist and partner, drove traffic to certain channels/hubs, and generally made the experience for fans special and ‘exclusive’.

Leading the pack, Tidal was the first music-streaming platform to offer exclusive content and artist access for subscribers. Since its induction (with a hefty amount of celebrity support), Tidal has held exclusive streaming rights for artists like Prince (his entire catalogue), Rihanna (Anti), Kanye West (The Life of Pablo), Beyonce (Lemonade– still only available on Tidal!) and Jay-Z. The platform also has ‘video series’ and concerts that can be streamed on the platform.  This model has since been replicated by Spotify and Apple Music for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Taylor Swift, among others. Though this model may be frustrating for fans to choose certain subscriptions over others, it does bring results for the platforms, even if short-lived.


When the ‘streaming only on X’ model is integrated with other channels, however, explosive results and experiences are created for fans. Beyonce, for example, dropped Lemonade not only on Tidal, but for a limited time on HBO. HBO’s partnership with Beyonce also gave free access to viewers the whole weekend Lemonade was dropped, giving potential users a taste of what it was like to watch HBO hits like Game of Thrones as soon as episodes were released.  The Saturday Lemonade was dropped had over 787K subscribed users watching (and that number is probably low considering it did not take in trial users and folks who watched it on Tidal).

Long story short, having musical acts and their content releases partner with various streaming and digital partners allow for exclusive-feeling access for fans. These particular partnerships support all parties involved, so not only do artists get credit for creating an engaging experience for fans, but their partners see an increase in usage and awareness.


What to Expect and Practice in 2017:

After reviewing what some chart-topping artists and their album releases accomplished in 2016, here are a few pointers to help develop strong content campaigns in 2017:

  • Video is a best practice but visual content pieces should be aesthetically well planned and developed.

By now everyone knows incorporating video and digital visuals in a campaign is just best practice. These can be photos, memes, GIFs, short videos and UGC. However, these visuals should be planned and curated with a mood, tone and aesthetic in mind. Tied with storytelling, these visuals must act as vehicles to help the campaign’s story and message move forward comprehensively and while keeping the look and feel consistent.

  • Keep experiential activations and participatory events user first. Add some swag too.

2017 is the year for experiential marketing and activations. Partnered with a few exclusive pieces of ‘swag’, these events don’t have to be expensive, but they do have to be special. Remember to keep your audience in mind and their specific cultural nuances.

  • Consider partnerships with digital and streaming platforms.

Partnering up with a streaming platform will require some creative thinking, collaborating and curating, but the results are worth the work and risk. Plus, users won’t feel like they are being ‘advertised’ to, but rather being given the opportunity to experience something special.

  • Impactful marketing means partnering with artists and platforms and stepping away from just owning a :30 spot.

In the age of the subscription model, users can now opt out of listening to your hard-earned :15 or :30 spot by buying a subscription to their favorite music streaming platform or by simply muting you. To get into that market, you’re going to have to think ‘collaboration’ rather than just ‘media buying’. For example, BMW created an in-app experience around the all-American road trip. From branded playlists to artist sponsorships, the creative partnership can be very useful and entertaining for users.


So, if in 2017, you’re looking to be a record-topper-show-stopper-partnership-aficionado like the mega-artists of 2016, keep digital and user experience as leading details. Also, partnering with a streaming platform or creating a music-focused campaign can definitely support your reach, impressions and overall engagement. Just remember to keep it fresh and interesting for users. Marketers and strategists who decide to leverage musical collaborations/platforms with their brands must always consider what users like to engage with and how to retain cultural relevancy for users.