Modern hip hop is remarkably business-driven and one element that’s particularly interesting is the knowledge that an artist needs to keep momentum with their audience which means regularly feeding the market with a release of some sort. The consequence is a veritable flood of single releases on iTunes, accompanied with the obligatory (and cheap) YouTube video, promoting a new mixtape being shoved out via download sites with a new one coming in four months time. Even if the official album release may take a lot longer there’s always product just out or just on the way permitting artwork releases, track listing releases, talk of collaborations and so on and so on – feeding the media.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, on my shelf I have The Beatles in Stereo boxset and it’s quite extraordinary thinking of the Sixties record industry where a band like The Beatles would still be required to hurl two albums out a year, plus a standalone double A-side single or two. Just like the modern hip hop label has adopted and updated the Motown model of inhouse production teams working day in, day out, to pass musical backing to the vocalists modern hip hop also adopted the approach to music releases and the concept that the audience must be fed almost constantly or many float away to the next ‘buzz’. Building the fanatical fanbase that is the bedrock of a long-term career, as well as taking advantage of the short-term broad-based peak of excitement that makes for multi-million sales, is the objective.
Intriguingly, there’s a suggestion that Nirvana may have been equally aware that succeeding meant keeping product in the market, keeping regular music releases out there to draw in fresh audiences and keep existing ones ‘warm’. Take a look at this graphic attempting to show the timeline of Nirvana releases (dark blue = compilation appearance, light blue = album):
Apologies for missing Sub Pop Rock City out (no confirmed month of release but sometime in 1989) and for placing Teriyaki Asthma in the wrong location. Essentially, for all the low amount of money available to Sub Pop the band’s only significant gap in the release schedule is from December 1989 to August 1990; eight months. There’s then a fairly steady drip of material emerging right through until another short gap from February to August 1993 in the run-up to In Utero.
It was already very clear that Nirvana’s record labels targetted specific markets — the Blew EP hitting the UK market to coincide with touring, the Hormoaning EP hitting the Pacific audience to coincide with touring. It’s also simple common practice to release a single to trail an album — Smells Like Teen Spirit for Nevermind, Heart Shaped Box for In Utero. In other words, it’s already clear that the timing of some Nirvana releases was dictated by commercial considerations whether regional or promotional; heck, Incesticide was their ‘Christmas album’. What interests me more is the way the gaps between albums are filled with regular releases, particularly on Geffen where there seems to be a sharp awareness of keeping music emerging. Certainly there was an awareness of the need for other outlets beyond the main singles and albums — In Utero was the first time Nirvana had staged an album session and made sure to record sufficient usable outtakes that they could fill other releases; Nevermind had relied on the remains from January 1991’s studio outing, plus live outtakes, but had still forced Nirvana back in studio in April 1992. For whatever reason, Nirvana’s method at Pachyderm Studios in February 1993 guaranteed they didn’t have to return to the studio anytime soon.
I’m not saying that the ‘master plan’ was flawlessly executed. Certain releases were delayed and so forth, decisions rested in the hands of a variety of record labels. But neither was the release schedule random given the significant investment to be made in pressing, promoting and distributing releases; the record labels didn’t pour out money purely for fun or without a desire to create an impact. Especially while on Geffen, there simply was never a gap of more than a few months.