Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

From B-sides to bonus tracks, music stars offer more to connect with fans

In this era of shorter-is-better, 16 songs sounds like a lot for one album. Ellie Goulding thought otherwise.

"It was very, very tough for me to take songs off," the British singer said of her 2015 album Delirium. "We didn't want it to be a long album, but it ended up being a long album, because I thought all the songs were meant to be together."

So she turned to the one place pop artists know more music is always welcome: Target.

The big-box retailer made Goulding an offer. In addition to a 16-song standard edition sold everywhere, she could release Delirium as a double album available exclusively in Target stores and online. The bonus disc offers nine additional tracks, including collaborations with Calvin Harris and Major Lazer. It is, in effect, a whole new Ellie Goulding album.

"People would say, 'Oh, why don't you just save them for the next album?' " she said. "I just wanted to put everything out there."

Delirium's bonus tracks occupy a curious place in the pop music landscape. The album, long considered the standard form for artistic expression in pop and rock, is morphing by the minute. Surprise releases, exclusive streaming deals and multimedia events have blurred how we consume and consider complete collections of music, whether it's U2 dumping songs into our cloud or Beyoncé debuting her latest via audiovisual tone poem.

Yet year after year, the biggest stars in music — Adele, Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Luke Bryan, Justin Bieber, Coldplay — still deliver thousands of exclusive, unreleased songs to giant retailers like Target, Walmart, Best Buy and iTunes in hopes of (get this!) selling actual albums.

These often overlooked bonus tracks represent links between the album's robust past and uncertain future. And with artists and retailers scrapping for every sale, they're increasingly valuable chips in the war on streaming sites like Tidal and Spotify.

"Digital has definitely changed the way that we approach music," said Target spokesman Lee Henderson. "We know that from our guests' perspective, they're listening to both the physical and digital options. For us, it's about finding that meaningful way to connect with those artists' fans in a deeper way."

• • •

Bonus tracks have been around for decades — we just used to call them B-sides.

Sometimes a B-side would pad the back of a single sent to radio stations or fan clubs. Other times it would head to Japan, where expanded editions of U.S. albums are common due to production costs and consumer demand. Diehard fans and collectors would track them down, and some even became hits. Led Zeppelin's Hey, Hey, What Can I Do, the Smiths' How Soon Is Now? and Pearl Jam's Yellow Ledbetter all started out as B-sides.

In the '90s, retailers like Target, Circuit City and Barnes & Noble saw an opportunity to enhance exclusive editions of popular albums with exactly those types of songs. Artists lined up to participate, eager for free publicity and the promise of a prominent retail display.

"If somebody like Target or Amazon or whoever it is says, 'Hey, we're also going to really make sure that you have excellent visibility if we get an exclusive on those songs,' then it's just a no-brainer," said singer Josh Groban, who has long offered extended editions of his albums through various retailers. "It winds up being a win-win."

Except for one wrinkle: the whole digital revolution.

File-sharing programs like Napster and digital storefronts like iTunes had a disastrous effect on sales of full albums, no matter how many extra bells and whistles were included. Streaming sites like Tidal and Spotify have changed the game even more. In April, Kanye West's The Life of Pablo became the first album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart on the strength of streams, not sales.

Across all platforms, album sales fell from 785.1 million in 2000 to 241.4 million in 2015, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"We are, as a retailer, well aware that people are getting their music from a lot of different sources, be it streaming or digital downloads," said Target's Henderson. "But there is still something special about having that physical CD."

He's not wrong. While physical music sales have plummeted, the CD is still the dominant format for sales of full albums. (Individual songs are a different story.) Mass-market stores like Target and Walmart still account for more than a third of all physical album sales in America, and part of the reason is these stores' continued push for exclusive content.

Each year, Target produces upwards of 100 albums augmented with bonus tracks as part of a campaigned dubbed #MoreMusic. In some cases, Target has built entire ad campaigns around such an album, filming commercials starring Swift or Timberlake or sponsoring high-profile Grammy Awards performances with Imagine Dragons and Gwen Stefani.

Sometimes, the payoff is huge. Last fall, Target struck a deal with Adele to sell a version of her blockbuster 25 featuring three more all-new songs. Within 10 days, Target sold about a million copies.

"We're in constant conversations with labels about what's coming up, who's working on what," Henderson said. "We know there are some artists who will resonate more with a Target guest, or whether our guests will have an appetite for that additional content. We want to sell great music, but we also want to work with great artists who are able to collaborate with us."

For example: Tori Kelly. Not only does the Target edition of her album Unbreakable Smile contain two exclusive bonus tracks, the singer visited the company's Minnesota headquarters to perform an acoustic set for employees and film another for a set of Web videos.

"Rather than my label kind of throwing my album onto the shelves, it felt like I was actually putting it there myself," Kelly said. "It's one of the perks of having a major label, is them being able to distribute the album in bigger places like that, which was totally new for me as this little indie artist."

Target's bonus-track program benefited Kelly in one other, unexpected way. A cover of her hit Should've Been Us is a featured bonus track on the Target edition of the latest Kidz Bop collection.

"I did hear that," she laughed. "That's awesome."

• • •

For many artists, these partnerships offer more than just a marketing platform. They're also a good way to get music they're proud of to the masses.

Groban wanted every song he recorded for Stages, his 2015 collection of show tunes, to see the light of day. Instead, he and his label agreed to a 13-track standard edition, with four more tunes, including songs from Les Misérables and Man of La Mancha, going to Target.

"These are not songs that I viewed as table scraps," he said. "I would've just done a double record if I could get away with it."

Does that mean the Target version of Stages is somehow a more definitive representation of his artistic vision than the "standard" album?

"Part of me wants to say yes," he said. "If a reviewer wants to review all 17 or 18 songs, I welcome that. That is absolutely fine. I'm proud of each and every one of those songs."

Other artists aren't so sure. Claudio Sanchez of the alternative rock band Coheed and Cambria, whose new album The Color Before the Sun featured two tracks exclusive to Best Buy, said there's a difference between an overstuffed compilation and a proper "canon" album.

"The record is the record," he said. "That collection of 10 songs is the statement we're trying to make. But if you want more, if you want the paragraph, well, here's the deluxe edition. This gives you all the blemishes, so to speak, and the dirt that we had to dig up to create this piece."

For Goulding, the most important thing about her Target partnership was the opportunity to get as much Delirium-era material into the world as quickly as possible, as a document of this creative period in her life.

"When I start an album, it's a different world," she said. "I can't just replicate what I've been through for this album for another album. My next album, I don't even know when it's going to be, next year or a few years."

Whenever it drops, retailers will line up to sell it. The more songs, the better.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

     
             
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