Concept Albums: Creating An Immersive Storytelling Experience

What is a Concept Album?

A concept album is an expanded approach to an album, often utilizing a single narrative or theme across all songs. Whether the tracks are unified lyrically, instrumentally, or compositionally, it is believed that the whole of a concept album is greater than the sum of its parts.

Concept albums are worth exploring because they offer a variety of ways for the album to impact the listener. Whether it be in the form of visual media, a themed tour, or album-specific merchandise, the story of the record no longer ends after Side 2.

The Evolution of the Album

Up until the late 1940s, the average playtime capacity on the standard vinyl record was just 2-5 minutes per side. Without the room to experiment, records were limited to few, often unconnected songs – hardly the vision of a cohesive album experience we’ve now come to expect from our favorite artists. 

As technology progressed into the 1950’s, improvements in music recording helped usher in the rise of concept albums:

  • Long-Play Records – Allowed artists to stretch ideas beyond the traditional single and B-side and nearly quadrupled the total playtime to 48 minutes of music.
  • Multi-Track Tape Recorder – Let artists experiment new arrangements with diverse instrumentals.
  • Synthesizers – Opened up a world of new sounds for future prog-rockers.

With the potential for more listening time per record, artists now had a new opportunity for in-depth storytelling within their works. Artists like Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, and Frank Zappa took advantage of these improvements in technology to pioneer some of the very first “concept albums.”  Over time, these artists’ pioneering records led to modern classics like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who’s Tommy

The Concept Album Comes to Life

With the growth of concept albums in the 1970’s, bands took themes beyond the songs included in the LP, bringing them to life in creative installments. David Bowie continued his characters’ journeys in the press photos, promotional material, and live performances of the record. If you went to a Bowie show in 1972, you weren’t seeing David Bowie… you were experiencing Ziggy Stardust in the flesh. 

Despite declining popularity in the 1980’s with the rise of MTV, concept albums are still an active part of the music industry. More recently, Beyonce’s Lemonade and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer both celebrated GRAMMY nominations for album of the year, while giving their fan bases a visual journey to embark on. While concept albums still play off themes discussed from the 1950’s, the digital landscape has opened new ways for marketers to get involved. 

Over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to work on and be inspired by our fair share of concept album projects. We’ve highlighted a few recommendations and examples to share with you as you plan out and market your next concept album release. 

Match the media platform with the overarching theme

As artists get creative with their concept album releases, it opens up the opportunity to be equally creative with which platforms to utilize. 

Coldplay’s latest release Everyday Life is an experimental concept album based around the idea that the band has been writing it since 1919. Along with a photoshopped press photo of the members from the early 20th Century, the band announced the album tracklist via old-school classified ads in local European newspapers.

Coldplay's photoshopped press photo
Coldplay announces album using classified ads in local European newspapers.

While unconventional, the idea was successful, leading to significant reach from organic fan posts, along with features on Good Morning America and morning news in the UK.

Utilize Social to Engage Fans with the Concept

By tailoring ad copy to the themes of the release, we offer a unique user experience for those seeing our ads. Core fans familiar with the album will feel “in on the joke”, and more likely to organically share screenshots. This tactic moves beyond just using the artist’s voice and helps establish a stronger artist-fan connection.  

In 2017,  Arcade Fire released Everything Now, a concept record covering the line between a genuine object and a marketed one. Using this theme of consumerism as a guide, the band used a satirical marketing strategy to bring the ‘Everything Now Corporation’ to life. 

At one point in the album cycle, the fictional group “took control” of the band’s socials, releasing music videos, along with other promotional material. In addition to organic posting, they used paid banner ads to play off the theme of what’s real and what’s fabricated. After Stereogum jabbed them in a review, they took the quote and ran it with placement ads on Stereogum’s site. Whether it was a joke or serious is uncertain, matching the lyrical takeaways of Everything Now

Arcade Fire used banner ads on Stereogum's website using quotes from an unfavorable review.
Everything Now Corp assumes control of Arcade Fire's socials

Look for interactive digital opportunities to engage fans with the theme

Thinking creatively about digital opportunities could mean the difference between your content making an impact or getting lost in the timeline.

Twenty One Pilots latest release Trench tells the story of “The Banditos”, a group of liberators as they fight back against the bishops of Dema, a fictional city created by the band. 

Taking the high-concept into action, the band teamed up with Spotify to release an immersive visual experience for their track “Bandito”. Here, fans could digitally interact with the world of Trench, and further engage with TØP’s content.

Screenshots of the immersive visual collaboration between Twenty One Pilots and Spotify
Image result for twenty one pilots trench album art

Bring the experience of the album to the real world

Concept albums often take listeners through an audio journey. With in-store pop-ups and experiential marketing, this journey can become a tangible one. Think about ways to move beyond conventional out-of-home buys, and consider immersive experiences.

Billie Eilish celebrated the release of her debut album ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ with “The Billie Eilish Experience”, in partnership with Spotify. The exhibit let fans listen to each song in its own interactive, themed room. This included the ability to look for monsters underneath Billie’s bed, uncover invisible-ink messages, and journey out a plane window into the skies. 

Image of Spotify's Billie Eilish Experience
Image of a room within Spotify's Billie Eilish Experience

The Future of Concept Albums

While the importance of playlisting has never been greater, a well-written concept album tells a story that is hard to ignore. These comprehensive works can bring added attention to an artist through online music reviews and word of mouth, and drive listeners to engage with an entire collection of an artist’s songs, rather than just their standalone singles. As American Rock Critic Robert Christgau explains, “Concept intensifies the impact”. 

Whatever the future might be, it is the responsibility of the marketer to stay up-to-date on the latest methods to reach new audiences and build artist’s fanbases. We offer the unique opportunity to expand an artist’s voice beyond their existing followers, and that message should not be lost as we target users unfamiliar with the music.

Compelling records are bound to make an impact with users, and the ad type, copy, and content should capitalize on that storytelling. By looking at concept albums with a creative eye, paid media can be the difference in securing the connection a fan shares with their next favorite record. 

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