“Astroworld” was backed by an impressive promotional strategy, but it inadvertently stalled the impact of “Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight”
One of Travis Scott’s claims to fame is the mid-song beat switch. In his gritty masterpiece “90210” and the summer jam “Sicko Mode”, the Houston rapper layered in multiple beats from different producers within the same track. Each beat is strong on its own, but the first beat can easily get eclipsed by the second, where the song’s complete production often shines brightest.
Unfortunately, this approach repeated itself in the wrong place when Travis Scott promoted two albums at the same time. His sophomore album Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight (2016), got eclipsed by Astroworld (2018) before it could truly define itself. While a multi-beat song can bring a track to new heights, a multi-album promotion strategy can reduce the eclipsed album’s run to a tepid crawl.
Travis Scott announced Astroworld in the middle of Birds’ promotion run—less than four months before Birds was released. He inadvertently squashed Birds’ runway to hype an album that was still more than two years away. Birds sold 88,000 units in its first week and missed its sales projection. It sold only 3,000 more units in its first week than his debut album Rodeo (2015) and less than Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho (2017), his joint mixtape with Quavo. Despite the lackluster performance, Birds still made several lists for the best albums of 2016.
When the 2016 Grammy nominations were announced and Birds was left off the list, Travis let his frustration known in an interview with Billboard. “Maybe I don’t speak loud enough. One day, hopefully, people might finally catch on. I just want the music to speak for itself.”
If La Flame felt that his voice was not heard then, he was loud and clear this summer. Astroworld sold 537,000 units in its first week, nearly 2-3 times what several reddit threads predicted. This year, only Drake’s Scorpion had a better first week than Astroworld. Scott’s label and team executed a comprehensive plan that rivaled a major movie studio’s campaign to sweep the Academy Awards.
Despite its success and Scott’s ascension to superstardom, the Birds-Astroworld rollout is an intriguing “what if?”. Birds could have performed better and received its due recognition had Astroworld not been promoted when it was. And Astroworld could have been even more successful had it not stunted the impact of its predecessor.
Astroworld was massively successful despite the cannibalization of Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, not because of it.
The Osborne Effect
The cannibalization of Birds began in May 2016 at Rihanna’s Anti World Tour stop in Houston, Travis’ hometown. The “goosebumps” artist made the announcement during his opening set. “The name of my new album after Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight is now going to be called Astroworld.”
Understandably, media outlets were unsure whether Birds would be an official studio album or a mixtape to tease us before Astroworld. While Travis is known for playing by his own rules, the lack of clarity was still surprising. He already proved with Rodeo that he can prime an audience for upcoming work. His 2014 mixtape Days Before Rodeobegat a 23-city Rodeo concert tour, which begat merchandise pop up shops, two summer singles released—” 3005” and “Antidote”— all before the album dropped in September 2015.
Alternatively, the rollout for Birds was subdued to a fault. Most of the promotion came several months after the album dropped: The pop up shops, the accompanied Birds Eye View Tour, and this 14-minute short film called Birds in the Trap. To make matters worse, Travis released a music video for “90210”—a song from Rodeo—two months after Birds was released. As a great person once said, where they do that at??
Three weeks before Birds dropped, Travis doubled down on his promotion of Astroworld in an interview with Apple Beats 1’s Zane Lowe:
“Astroworld has always been the album I wanted to do. Birds is just my little stepping stone. My next tour is called Astroworld. It will be one of the illest tours of all time… I already have 4-5 songs off Astroworld, I already have the single too.”
The “little stepping stone” was a cannibalizing statement that’s better known as The Osborne Effect: the consequence of announcing a future product ahead of its availability, negatively impacting current product sales. For Travis, the consequence was Birds’ underperforming and him watching the Grammys at home like the rest of us. Birds was a critically-acclaimed project that suffered from a self-defeating prophecy.
Working on multiple albums at once is common, but downgrading an upcoming album in favor of a future album will stifle demand.
Companies make this mistake far too often. In 2017, Tesla announced the highly anticipated (and relatively “affordable”) Model 3 when its luxury-minded Model S was still establishing itself in the market. Tesla’s stock price dropped 4% the day after the announcement, forcing the company to run a press release to reassure customers that the Model 3 will not replace the Model S. Despite the PR effort to fix the issue, the Tesla has reduced the supply of its Model S fleet by more than 11% this year, driving speculation that the dip was driven by the announcement of the Model 3.
The Osborne effect impacts both sales and recognition, but that didn’t stop Sickamore—Travis Scott’s A&R—from expressing his frustration when Birds did not get the Grammy nod. Here’s part of his 2018 interview with Rolling Stone:
“A real driver on [Astroworld] was when we got snubbed for the Grammys in 2016 [for Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight]. That was a real dark day for us. We felt like we really worked hard and we really made a great album with Birds and we just got snubbed. We were like, man, are they not respecting us?”
He’s right that they made a great album, but a rising star—like Travis Scott in 2016— still needs promotional support to make sure his great album gets heard. This response seems driven by the hindsight of Birds’ positive reviews. Nevertheless, their team shifted focus to ensure that Astroworld was ready for takeoff.
Could Astroworld have been even more successful?
Rodeo was well-received but was still evaluated as a debut project. It was loaded with big-name features, as many debut rap albums are. Birds was an opportunity for Travis to promote his own talent. Had Birds shined without being thwarted by the Osborne Effect, Travis could have solidified his place in hip-hop much earlier. Long before the Astroworld hype machine, and long before Kylie and Stormi Jenner’s promotional support.
Let’s assume that the Osborne Effect negatively impacts product sales by 11% like it did for Tesla’s Model S. If Birds got its fair due and sold 11% more units in its first week, then it would have met its original projection and sold just under 100,000 copies. That would have bested Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and placed Birds in the top 20 for first week album sales in 2016.
It’s been well documented that top selling albums are more likely to get Grammy nominations. Of the six albums that were nominated for Best Rap Album in 2016, two of them outsold Birds by less than 10,000 albums. Birds could have bested them both with that 11% bump. The nomination was within reach. If Travis Scott became “Grammy-nominated Travis Scott” after the February 2017 awards show, the well-known “Grammy bump” would have boosted sales for all of Travis Scott’s music throughout the summer.
Had Travis announced Astroworld in August 2017—when the aforementioned “Grammy bump” tapered off—he could have still rolled out the same promotional tactics for Astroworld. He could have still performed at the same music festivals to build demand, used the same ticket sale bundling strategy, and still asked his partner Kylie Jenner (the 8th most followed person on Instagram) to promote on his behalf. With the same exact album promotion plan, Astroworld could have been even more successful if it followed a Birds album that made a bigger splash and got the recognition it desired.
Astroworld was a massive promotional success, but its two-year rollout had room for improvement. The two are not mutually exclusive. The record-setting album was successful despite the cannibalization of Birds, not because of it.
We’re less than a month away from the Grammy Award’s cut off date for this year’s nominations. Travis Scott is in the driver’s seat to get his first Best Rap Album nod, but the expectations are now higher. He would join a competitive field. J. Cole, Cardi B, Drake, Eminem, and Kanye West all released albums in this 12-month period. There’s also the Black Panther soundtrack, which is essentially a Kendrick Lamar album.
It’s not an impossible task. Astroworld is a great body of work. But it’s hard to deny that the road to Best Rap Album would have been easier had Travis Scott already gotten a nod for Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.
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