SZA, SOS, and what sets great music apart
Staying power should be a key performance indicator for any music release in 2023. In a world of nonstop releases, big marketing budgets, and streaming optimization tactics, the “perfect rollout” is now table stakes for most major record labels and their top artists.
But lasting endurance is harder to master. That’s what sets great music and great artists apart.
An album with staying power is like a startup with market pull. Its customers want the product without requiring an extensive push from the company. Sure, paid marketing helps maximize the product’s reach, but many customers would still buy the product in the absence of Instagram ads or massive billboards. It indicates true product-market fit.
The market pull of SZA’s SOS
I’m not surprised that SZA’s latest album SOS is a big release with staying power. As I mentioned last month, her 2017 album CTRL had a bigger streaming week in 2022 than Lizzo’s opening week for Special. Fans have checked for CTRL ever since it dropped. SZA also headlined several music festivals in 2022, dropped new singles, and stayed present with big guest verses. Despite her past record label drama with TDE (… or thanks in part to it), she’s on pace for a big 2023 with her first arena tour.
But I wouldn’t have guessed SOS is TDE’s biggest release of 2022, especially when her labelmate Kendrick Lamar also released his first album in five years! I also wouldn’t have guessed that SOS would have a similar first week album sales number (318,000) to Beyonce’s Renaissance (332,000).
To be fair, SOS has 23 songs—more than Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers (19) or Renaissance (16) — and SOS includes already proven singles dating back to 2020. To say it’s more popular than Renaissance is too early to call, but it’s safe to say it has more legs than Kendrick’s new polarizing project with some songs that are tough to listen to.
“We Cry Together” is hip-hop’s version of Marriage Story. One time was enough, and I’m not alone. Even good kid, m.A.A.d city has more staying power than Mr. Morale.
Drop when others aren’t dropping
SOS has been the #1 album in the U.S. for the past four weeks and counting. That’s partially due to its release on December 9. It dropped at the start of a historically quiet time for the music industry. But as TDE President, Punch, said in a recent Billboard interview, timing is less of a concern in the streaming era:
“To me, if everyone is thinking the same thing about NOT dropping during the holidays, that just means it’s wide open… The main issue was radio during that time, but with streaming it’s different; you don’t have to wait on programming, etc.”
The seasonal streaming surge and chart-topping status for Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” doubles down on Punch’s point. In recent years, the most popular song this time of year is a holiday song that’s almost 30 years old and now gets around 300 million Spotify streams each year. It’s a reminder that people still stream music during the industry’s holiday break so there’s opportunity to be had. New Music Friday is a little less crowded when Michael Buble’s 2011 Christmas album is rising up the charts.
But it’s not like SOS is topping the charts with low sales numbers. Its fourth-week numbers (162 million streams) are still higher than the streams for at least 32 of the 52 number-one weeks of 2022.
Identifying artists with market pull
SOS has several important factors that highlight when an artist has market pull:
– Fans still check for their most recent music even if the marketing push is limited
– Her singles or guest features since the last album are well received
– There is limited competition on and after her release date
– Fans are bought into some drama surrounding the artist (e.g. past drama with TDE)
SZA’s 2022 is up there with some of the biggest names of the year in music, entertainment, and culture: Bad Bunny, Beyonce, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, BLACKPINK, Burna Boy, the Encanto soundtrack, James Cameron, Tom Cruise, and anyone else who delivered on high expectations this year or proved any doubters wrong.
The next goal for her is to sell out this 17-city arena tour. It’s a big step, but SZA’s market pull convinced agents and festival promoters that it’s doable. SZA isn’t an “A-List” celebrity the way some other arena and stadium acts are, but that may work to her advantage.
Flashy features can exaggerate an artist’s true fandom. The fact that she isn’t one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People or on the cover of British Vogue is further validation that her fans will show up without the push. And plus, that’s not SZA’s style anyway.
Similarly, market pull doesn’t care if your company’s co-founder made a 30 Under 30 List or if your startup is a Y-Combinator alumni. Those things can help, but the core product still needs to add value and excite your customers, especially when it’s harder than ever to command consistent attention.
This is about substance over style. SZA’s career is a testament to that.