First things first: a disclaimer. I’m an obsessive fan of Sufjan Stevens and his music, and this inevitably extends to the way the record label he co-founded, Asthmatic Kitty Records, operates and behaves. Nonetheless, this doesn’t detract from the message and the lessons that can be learned from the way it choose to market its artists.
This piece is by no means a hyperbolic opinion, but instead a realistic view and a best practice case study of how I think indie record labels can thrive in a competitive market. Would I have preordered 2 vinyl, a CD and tape of Stevens’ new release, Carrie & Lowell, if Asthmatic Kitty hadn’t had such a good release strategy?
1 – Build a Sleek and Responsive Website
Asthmatic Kitty decided to build a Squarespace-powered standalone website for Stevens’ new album. This means that CarrieandLowell.com acts as a hub for all things related to the album – preorder information, tour dates, new singles, and more. Giving a new release its own unique site means that the label has a place that it can communicate information to fans directly.
This also extends to choosing the best services to sell digital and physical formats. Asthmatic Kitty favour Bandcamp, and its interface and array of customisation options makes it easy to see why.
2 – Use Social Media to Tease and Respond
Asthmatic Kitty have a strong social media presence and choose to use these channels to promote its artists and reach out to fans. Such posts have included teasing the limited edition clear vinyl edition of Carrie & Lowell through Vine and answering fan questions about the release. This activity gives the label a personality and shows that it takes a genuine interest in its fans and what they have to say. Twitter is a means of starting a conversation with customers but also lets them peek behind the curtain.
3 – Interact Directly with Fans and Tastemakers
Asthmatic Kitty is active on Reddit and often contributes to Sufjan-related threads, as well as to more specialist subreddits including /r/vinyl. It’s here that they posted an in-depth account of how Carrie & Lowell was pressed on vinyl, respond to fan questions, and contribute to opinion threads. Take at look at AKR’s user history to see everything.
These posts won’t be seen by huge volumes of people, but the users on these subreddits are often the more hardcore fans and tastemakers of certain musical genres. They can often have an influence on how an album is received in more alternative circles, and getting them on your side is a big positive if creating musical ambassadors is an aim of an album’s release plan. Converting a few hundred tastemakers can amplify the reach of positive sentiment and generate a spillover effect into other corners of the internet.
4 – Use Traditional Media Channels Effectively
Traditional banner ads and email campaigns should not be forgotten when trying to raise awareness and to touch base with pre-existing fans. They help to broadcast messages to the masses and build hype around a release.
This has also included a Spotify ad campaign that features adverts spoken and recorded by fans of the album. Asthmatic Kitty asked for submissions to be sent to them directly and the best were selected as adverts. More details about the competition can be seen here and a selection of the best adverts can be heard below.
5 – Get the Artist to Engage with Fans Directly
Stevens has his own self-styled “Tumblr Ghetto” that visitors to Sufjan.com are redirected to. Here he has a place to post his thoughts about everything and anything, but also tour dates and new single releases from Carrie & Lowell. It’s not engaging with fans in the traditional sense, but the often personal nature of the posts gives the illusion of it being so.
6 – Think Outside the Box (Experiential Events)
Asthmatic Kitty organised listening events in independent record stores across the world prior to the release of Carrie & Lowell. This gave fans the chance to put on a pair of headphones and hear the album in its entirety, sitting amongst other Sufjan fans with a lyric sheet in hand. I attended a #SilentSufjan event in London and it was as strange as it was memorable. Unique events like this help to reward more hardcore fans and generate hype prior to an album’s release. For such a personal and sparse album, a silent listening event suited Carrie & Lowell perfectly.
7 – Facilitate Press Coverage and Interviews
Interviews with Stevens in the build up to the album have been in short supply but impactful in their content. The centrepiece is a piece on Pitchfork entitled “True Myth: A Conversation with Sufjan Stevens” that goes into detail about Stevens’ motivations behind Carrie & Lowell. At the time of writing this one particular article has been shared over 20,000 on social media channels.
Further interviews have appeared on Uncut and Guardian Music – two outlets that fans of Stevens’ music will be frequent visitors to.
8 – Have a Strategy to Deal with the Leak
Carrie & Lowell leaked online on Saturday 7th March – almost a full month before its official release date. Instead of taking a combative approach, Asthmatic Kitty decided to acknowledge the leak and encouraged downloaders to preorder the album if they enjoyed it. In an age of piracy crackdowns, it’s refreshing to see a label not try to contain a leak but understand that it’s an inevitability. Fans that choose to download a leak are likely to be eager to hear the music, so why not be frank with them and make the most of a bad situation?
This obviously isn’t an approach that fits all record labels and new releases, but it’s astonishing how some new music releases don’t get the marketing budgets and strategies that they deserve. There is also more than one way of doing things. Back in 2010 Asthmatic Kitty decided to experiment with a surprise release of Stevens’ All Delighted People EP, and that also proved to be successful.
There are also further questions, including how the upcoming release date change of new music will impact release campaigns. And what about major label releases? There isn’t a right or wrong approach, but Carrie & Lowell has been given the best possible chance of succeeding by Asthmatic Kitty. I’m already eager to see how it will approach upcoming potential breakthrough releases by its other artists, including Lily & Madeleine and Helado Negro.