Chicago band uses digital savvy to promote album
DENVER (Billboard) - Progressive jam band Umphrey's McGee is capturing the attention of the music industry with the pre-order campaign for its upcoming album.
Such strategies are nothing new, and many offer an incentive to buyers -- a free download of the first single or access to early ticket sales for concerts. But Umphrey's McGee has gone to far greater lengths for its January 20 release "Mantis," which the Chicago-based band hopes will bring it mainstream success after 11 years building a nationwide base of loyal supporters.
The group has a variety of content that it's making available to anyone ordering the album now, including digital singles, rare live performances, behind-the-scenes video footage and photos. But in an innovative twist, the band is not releasing it all at once. Instead it's releasing tiers of content based on how many pre-orders are sold. Each time the number of pre-orders reaches a certain threshold, a new tier of content is released. (There are nine tiers in all.) The idea is to engage diehard fans as evangelists who will convince their friends and family to pre-order "Mantis" so the next tier of content can become available.
So far, it's worked. According to band manager, Vincent Iwinski, Umphrey's McGee has sold more than 2,400 pre-orders since it launched in late October, including a $50 deluxe package that contains a bonus DVD and vinyl copy. That may not seem like a lot to mainstream acts, but it's twice the number of pre-orders that the band logged for its last album, 2006's "Safety in Numbers," according to Iwinski.
Already, Umphrey's McGee has released six of the nine content tiers and had to raise the sales requirement for the remaining tiers to avoid running out of content too soon.
"We're realizing that doing things the way we've done the last few years is not going to keep people's attention," Iwinski says. "What's important to us in this day and age is to give people a reason to buy one copy of the album in return for all this free stuff."
The campaign could serve as a template for how emerging and established acts alike can kick-start interest in a new release. But it's not as if this idea came out of nowhere. For more than a decade, Umphrey's McGee has built its fan base through the strategic use of free content and fan engagement.
The band, which plays some 120 shows annually, sells out 4,000-capacity venues by charging a core group of eight to 15 fans in each market with the task of giving away free CDs. It then lets attendees freely tape shows; and it sells the sound board mixes for $15 per CD after the concert or $10 for a digital download available 72 hours after each gig. It sells upwards of 300 CDs per show and to date has moved 750,000-plus tracks online. It also has a podcast series that releases two 75-minute recordings of live material every month to more than 20,000 subscribers.
The demand that this has created among fans is such that the band began holding onto certain content rather than making it available immediately. Select shows were not available for taping or post-event purchase. Umphrey's McGee also stopped performing some of its songs, particularly those to be included on "Mantis." This content, combined with tracks from early out-of-print releases and 11 years of rarely seen photos and videos, is driving the demand for the presale.
"Because we're a band that has always recorded everything, taken photos of everything, used video as much as possible and doing that for such a long time, we have a lot of stuff," Iwinski says.
What's more, Umphrey's McGee isn't frontloading all of this content into the presale. The CD will contain an electronic key that will give anyone buying it -- presale or otherwise -- access to a site where even more material will be released monthly for a year after the arrival of "Mantis."
The combined strategy has gotten the attention of several digital music experts, including Gartner analyst Mike McGuire, who cites the initiative as the perfect way to implement a pre-order campaign. While far better-known acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have raised the bar for generating interest in upcoming releases, Umphrey's McGee has become an unlikely role model for a music industry still struggling with the conversion to digital distribution amid rampant piracy.
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