How Travis Scott used aesthetics to help book his ticket into orbit with ASTROWORLD.
An upcoming venture of mine (I'll speak on it more at the end of the article), is focused more towards media and culture than anything I've worked on thus far in my career. As a result of this, I've been able to focus on my passions and had more time to think about the intricacies of how they work. Most recently I was looking in more detail at the music industry, and it's relationship to other creative avenues, primarily art direction and design.
Design and music are two things that I've had a vast interest in for most of my life, and I feel that it is vital that the accord between the two disciplines developers further. A broader realisation is needed, that art direction and aesthetics are just as important in the music industry as they are in other emerging business sectors, be them in media and culture or not. It is often overlooked, but you can see how this dynamic has been build well in many of today's successful, or viral, artists. In today's article, we'll look at a great example of just how powerful this particular creative kinship can be: Travis Scott.
What got me deep into thought on this topic (as you can probably tell from the words at the top of this article), was ASTROWORLD, the newest album from Travis Scott. It's immense success got me thinking about how his body of work has evolved and how through the careful and curated addition of aesthetics to his brand he has driven millions of dollars in revenue.
Let's first look at Rodeo, the debut album from Scott in 2015. Despite having a relatively large team for design and art direction, there was very little in the way of a standout aesthetic. It was the raw musical talent and the ludicrous line up of featured artists that drew in rafts of new listeners and fans. But Travis and his team knew that this was just the first step and iteration was needed, with him quoted as saying Rodeo was just "The road to get to where I'm going."
It served as just that. Rodeo gave him that road and also gave him a platform. A platform he quickly jumped back onto with the 2016 album: "Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight”. Birds showcased a much greater foray into the visual side of things, without much of a progression in terms of sound at all. If it ain’t broke, don't fix it. Right?
But while it was more of the same sonically, it was the harmony between offerings and the display of Travis as a curator that captivated audiences. Again he showed his exceptional ability to take his ideas and work with a team to execute them and also presented his dynamic of not just being a musician. He was also a visionary and someone who wanted to accomplish those goals in tandem with his audible efforts. Something I personally think is vital in today’s attention based economy.
Despite Birds in the Trap being ultimately musically shallow, it did (slightly) better numbers concerning album sales than Rodeo, and showed how selling an entire aesthetic to people, rather than just a musical project was just as compelling.
This foray in only progressing solely the ocular side of things lead to Travis being snubbed by the Grammys for "Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight", something he has publicly cited as the reason for his hard work and boundary-pushing on his newest effort, ASTROWORLD. As he had expected recognition and received none. He intended to make something different and this time around it may have taken 2 years rather than one. But the results show.
Let’s start this out by showing how ASTROWORLD is a completely different beast. To put things in perspective:
- Rodeo - Week 1 AEU: 85,000.
- Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight - Week 1 AEU: 88,000.
- ASTROWORLD- Week 1 AEU: 537,000.
*AEU - Album Equivalent Units.
Notice a bit of a gap? - Me too, which is what prompted me to look at this in detail and share my findings. Just how did Travis Scott sell albums in quantities similar to someone like Adele? - Well, he didn’t, theoretically. The reasoning behind these numbers and the shift aren’t solely based in the music of ASTROWORLD being suddenly more commercially viable to a broader audience. Instead, it is through the leverage of another market, one based primarily on aesthetics - fashion.
The launch of ASTROWORLD was accompanied by a series of merchandise launches over the course of the seven days following the album’s release. Each day brought a new, limited edition set of items and also a big red timer counting down to the end of the sale of these items for the day and a promise they would never return. A great exercise in urgency and uncertainty. With different merchandise every day and a limited time to acquire them, you’re bound to make pretty good sales - the uncertainty leads to a fear of missing out and also builds the hype for what’s coming next.
The caveat here is that helped Travis’ album numbers so drastically is: Each individual item purchased from this merchandise store came with a few additional extras. The first being access to a pre-sale for tickets to a future tour, and the second (most importantly) - a digital copy of the album. And it adds up quickly. Say you had bought a couple t-shirts, a hat, some stickers, oh and a print for your friend... In doing this, you also bought 5 units of ASTROWORLD. Which you’ll probably never listen to because you use Spotify or YouTube to listen to your music anyway. It’s 2018.
But what this means to Scott and his team is that they’ve effectively diversified their revenue and units per person using this method, and it came off incredibly well. The album exceeded expectations across the board. It’s projected album sales the week before release from HDD (the people who predict these things) were around 300,000. Numbers that were called "astronomical" and "A-league". You can see from the numbers above, they’re considerably higher than even these seemingly huge projections. So what caused these projections that are usually so accurate to be so wrong?
You guessed it. The merchandise. With each item sold counting as a unit, those sales pushed Travis' album's numbers even further and the steps like the surprise full restock of all of the previous day's "limited" items on the final day created a perfect formula to exceed expectations as they did. The FOMO trigged by that red timer counting down to zero without a purchase was immediately actioned. It’s basic sales psychology. People are quick to leap on opportunities missed. All that on top of a week of PR worked wonders. With a low estimate of nearly 40% of his album units coming from the merchandise units alone.
Collate all this together with the streaming figures, and the result is millions and millions in profit. And with ASTROWORLD in 2018, Scott is second only to Drake’s “Scorpion” on AEU numbers for the year, which is a considerable step into the heavyweights for Travis.
As I mentioned above, it's crucial artists expand into other mediums and showcase their taste and skill as curators.
“Who put this shit together I’m the glue.” - SICKO MODE - Travis Scott, ASTROWORLD.
People buy into other's taste quite often, and humans love consistency. The artists on the bleeding edge know this. You can clearly see how this harmony has trickled down into other aspects of Travis Scott’s brand and public offering. From his consistent live set and stage design to aesthetically consistent recent collaborations with Nike, Jordan Brand, Off White and more, he has shown his calibre as a multidisciplinary artist, and that has helped him explore more verticals in which to promote his content and grow his audience.
This isn't a new or original method. It's a tale as old as time. Using art or other creative mediums to build supplementary products and experiences to things that have substantial built-in audiences - Such as creating a merch collection around an album and closely tying the two together. But rarely do we see it with the same level of cohesion as we have recently. Albums are becoming experiences and artists are attempting to build entire creative narratives around their albums to help integrate their music into other aspects of culture. And it's definitely needed. Just take a look at how the music industry has struggled and waited to for a solution. I believe that the creative industries need to focus more on banding together and leveraging that complementary nature to create high-quality complete experiences that push all our industries forward in tandem.
It’s incredible that artists are learning to correctly weaponise their influence and add further depth to through personal brand in this way. I believe that in 5-10 years it’ll be nuts to imagine a music project that doesn’t come with a fashion line, visual art experience or some kind of supplementary product. In a world that’s as noisy as ours, things must continue to progress forwards. Buying a shirt from an artist you like and it being printed on Gildan, or American Apparel will soon no longer cut it for the real demographics that are going to matter, and the ones the record labels and artists genuinely want. The value per user needs to continue to increase for music to remain a dominant industry heavyweight. By banding together with other creative talents and focusing on complete experiences, you create delight and delight sells. But is increasingly hard to achieve, so these often overlooked difference makers are required now, so you can be on the bleeding edge before they’re the standard.
You can see this becoming standard in places already. Spotify has introduced looped video visuals into their top playlists and has also started surfacing the full videos too in places. I believe soon this will become the baseline and interactive album art and experiences will rise to become the standout things. It’s moving fast, and it’s great to see. I’m excited for what the future will hold.
About that upcoming venture I mentioned. I'll share more details over the coming weeks. But at present, I'm looking to speak with some people in the music industry about upcoming launches and campaigns that are happening so I can ask a few questions about the process and problems encountered. If this sounds like you, get in touch, I'd love to ask you a couple questions.