Jul 28, 2015

How Wilco Used MailChimp Automation to Release Their New Album

Wilco is celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, but no one can accuse the band of resting on their laurels. This year they’ve played 50 concerts (with more to go), headlined their own music festival, and released a book of concert posters. And that was all before July 17, when they dropped their 9th album as a surprise release.

The announcement alone was enough to awaken the internet, but throw in a name like Star Wars and cover artwork featuring a creepy blinking cat, and the whole thing seemed destined to go viral. In 2 weeks, the album has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and they used marketing automation to make it happen. Here’s how it all went down.

The element of surprise

Several big artists have released surprise albums in recent years, from Radiohead’s 2007 pay-what-you-want experiment with In Rainbows to the force-feeding of U2’s Songs of Innocence into iTunes libraries last year. But Star Wars’ release was a little bit different. Unlike some other big surprise albums, it didn’t immediately show up on online for purchase or streaming. Instead, it was only available for free to fans who signed up for a special email list on Wilco’s website.

Behind the scenes, Wilco and their management team set up a new list within their existing MailChimp account specifically for the album release. They designed a landing page for the album and added a signup form, and configured an automation workflow to immediately send new subscribers an email with a link to download the album.

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As soon as the announcement went live, signups to the list skyrocketed. Within an hour, tens of thousands of download links had been delivered via our automation emails. And even though Star Wars has since been added to streaming services like Spotify and Apple, we’ve continued to deliver hundreds of thousands of copies of the album to fans all over the world.

Taking advantage of a powerful platform

Here’s something else Wilco and their team did differently here: They chose not to use the album release as a way to boost numbers on their main mailing list. Instead, they set up a separate list for the giveaway and communicated their intentions in the opt-in messaging.

“By clicking this link you will receive the album Star Wars by Wilco for free,” it reads. “We will not share your contact information and will only email you regarding information about this album.”

So far, beyond the message delivering the download link, Wilco’s new subscribers have received just one message, a note thanking fans for downloading the album and recommending 17 records by other artists—an acknowledgement that most artists can’t afford to give their music away for free.

That points to a crucial fact about the Star Wars giveaway: This sort of thing may work for a band (or business) of Wilco’s stature, with a catalog spanning 2 decades, a regular touring schedule, a Grammy award, and legions of fans already hungry for their new music. Bands already in a position to make a big splash with a surprise album probably don’t have to think as much about building their email list.

But for most bands (or businesses), you might prefer to use an email-for-download giveaway as a way to beef up your email list. And that’s A-OK, too.

Delivering music and more

Wilco isn’t the only music group to use MailChimp for an email-for-download campaign. In 2014, hip-hop legends De La Soul used our automation features to deliver download links for their entire back catalog as one-day-only Valentine’s Day treat for fans.

And one Friday night last year, Killer Mike and El-P—the pair behind rap duo Run the Jewels—sent out their own surprise through MailChimp, announcing that their highly-anticipated second album was available for free download. For the release, Run the Jewels teamed up with CASH Music, a nonprofit organization focused on educating and empowering artists and their fans, who has a great email-for-download integration of their own. Through the CASH integration, Run the Jewels was able to sync their MailChimp list and Amazon S3 account, allowing a smooth download of the album and double opt-in signup to their email list. Since then, Run the Jewel’s email list has grown by more than 66%.

"Offering RTJ2 as a free download was a cornerstone to the campaign and a priority for El-P and Killer Mike," says Run The Jewels co-manager, Amaechi Uzoigwe. "By helping us deliver the album for free in exchange for just an email address, and being incredibly circumspect about the data we collect, we’re able to maintain the integrity of the dialogue and value exchange with our audience. Plus, our email newsletters are easily one of the most potent marketing and messaging tools we use, so to have the MailChimp integration with CASH is incredibly beneficial as well."

It might seem funny to think of bands as small businesses, but we do, and we love to see how effective our automation features have been in helping them grow. Whether you’ve got some new music to give away or something else in store, we think they can help you, too. Check out our guide to working with automation or read more on marketing automation feature page.