In most cases, it’s a no from me, dawg.
On May 24th, 2018, John Peter Bain AKA TotalBiscuit sadly passed away after losing his three-year battle with terminal cancer. The British video gaming commentator, critic, and long-running YouTuber was widely known for constantly voicing better consumer support within the games industry. This ranged from Bain calling out the bullshit business practices of larger companies and publishers; covering as many games as possible in terms of optimization to inform buyers of what quality of products they were buying into; and perhaps most importantly, his strong stance against pre-ordering new titles. While his questionable position that GamerGate was about the ethics of games journalism and not the gross levels of harassment and sexism in gaming does leave a bad taste in many a mouth, his staunch position that you shouldn’t pre-order was noble. (A viewpoint that really took after the shoddy releases of the first Watch_Dogs and the disastrous Aliens: Colonial Marines; titles that revealed how much deception sometimes goes into trailers, marketing, media coverage and so on).
Now, this here op-ed has sprung forth from my mind due to some recent rumblings I’d heard via a little birdie. What I’d been told was that an Australian label representative – who shall go nameless – mentioned that a certain Australian band had a new album out this year that did very well in the ARIA charts; adding that that happened because fans pre-ordered this new record before fully hearing it. This rep somewhat implying that the record wasn’t that good and that said high-charting success wouldn’t be the case in terms of sales if fans had had the chance to hear the entire album before dropping their cash on it. Please excuse the vagueness of all that, but yikes. That’s pretty fuckin’ galling for a higher-up to admit that about the music of their client(s), but also of how fan pre-orders work towards overall sales as well.
Of course, people can do whatever they please with their money – it’s their money, after all – but paying for something upfront with no guarantee you’ll enjoy everything about the final product is, well, illogical. While you can do you, as you’ve gathered by now, I’m personally of the belief that pre-ordering anything is just not a smart move in most cases. Simply as you can never be sure you’ll actually feel entirely satisfied with the final release of whatever it is that you pre-emptively dropped funds on. Hell, most times when you pre-order, there are disclaimers down the bottom of the page indicating that what you’ve been shown may not be indicative of the final product’s quality. Music or otherwise. I don’t pre-order video games or albums for this very reason. (With KYS, I rarely ever link to actual pre-order pages too. Which, honestly, I do think annoys some bands and labels out there).
Sure, I might love the pre-ordered thing once that download code hits my emails or it physically shows up in the mailbox. Yet the key word there was ‘might’. However, what if I don’t like it? Well, tough shit. I can’t ask for my money back at that point. It’s why I wouldn’t ever pre-order a movie ticket. Because that’s just really fucking silly. Plus, you’re gonna be pretty damn annoyed if you end up leaving the cinema disappointed with the film overall, having wasted twenty or so bucks and 90-120 minutes of your time. You ain’t getting either of those back, friends.
Now, some people would be smart and wait for more than just one single from an album to drop before opening up their wallets. Or maybe hope that an advance premiere stream is locked in with a publication so you can get a feel for it and then pre-order. Or maybe even take advantage of the brief previews that iTunes allows for upcoming albums shortly prior to release before you pre-purchase anything. Some will just wait for the album to inevitably leak, suss it in full, and then maybe pre-order to show support and feel morally better about nabbing it for free through dubious methods. Whereas other privileged music media folks like myself have probably been sent said record early already – whether via labels, PR, or the artist themselves – and is sitting in our emails listed under “Promo Invitation” or in a Dropbox link somewhere. (God, you have no fucking idea how many of my emails are titled that nor how many terms and conditions or login details I have to agree to for some of these advance streams to work. Noisey’s Dan Ozzi really said it best about all of this behind-the-scenes stuff back in January).
Some bands like The Midnight or Frontierer can simply just reveal their new EP or album and it’ll rack up so many digital pre-orders it’ll send them right to the upper tier of Bandcamp’s charts or even break their PayPal account – as was the case for the latter. I personally love both bands, but I didn’t pre-order anything from either one. With the exception of Frontier’s vinyl eun for this year’s massive second full-length ‘Unloved‘, I still wasn’t enticed at all to pre-order.
Back in 2015, well before I was editor and owner of KYS, I actually brought this pre-order topic up with In Hearts Wake frontman, Jake Taylor, during an interview. Here’s how it all went down at the time:
Me: So my final question regards pre-orders. There are about 17 different pre-order bundles for ‘Skydancer’ on the 24Hundred store. I’m a big gamer and I never pre-order as I find the idea of laying down money for a product that hasn’t come out yet very odd and am unsure of the final product. Sure, music is different, and there are singles out and whatnot, but there’s still a full album left for me to hear. So what are your thoughts on pre-orders in that regard?
Jake: “When we announce pre-orders, we release a single before so people can get a taste for what the album will sound like. People can choose to be a part of it; it’s up to them. But in a dying industry, without pre-orders or any of that, it can be very hard for a band to do what we do. At the end of the day, if the audience likes it and the band’s message, then that’s totally in their hands; it’s the consumer’s choice. Like, with video games, it’s all based on hype – the title of the game and a trailer and maybe without any gameplay yet. You’re really banking on experiencing it before most others with everyone else who also pre-ordered. With music, I think it’s about really being a part of something. It’s kind of a different ball game. With the games, which mainly big companies back, and they need support too; it’s far more commercialized then bands. So, I always encourage pre-orders. I think it’s a wonderful thing; it’s preparing to launch something. It’s an exciting time for any band.”
I regret that was my final question in that IHW interview, as we were out of time and their publicist was on-call too; informing me know my time was up and that Jake needed to get onto the next interviewer. As I would’ve loved to have gone much deeper with the vocalist on this topic. Because hype works in any sense, regardless of the industry. A band releasing a single, revealing album artwork, and putting out a release date? Well, that helps create some kind of buzz and interest for this new record – AKA hype – whether it’s big or small. Like it or not, that’s what is happening. EA or Ubisoft revealing the trailer for the next installment of whatever dead-horse-beating series their flogging at E3 or another event? Yep, that’s all apart of the hype too. Music and games are two different industries, yes, but the idea here remains the same: show off a snippet of a wider release first, have merchandise and pre-orders go live, and then roll into the pre-release build-up.
If that all sounds very mechanical and lifeless, that’s because it is. Yet that’s simply just the business process at work here. It doesn’t mean I love music any less for stating so or for not pre-ordering, nor does it make you love a band more than myself or another if you pre-ordered their new album based off one track alone. We can talk about the artistry of music all damn day and how it’s not a product, but when you slap around $50 or so on a pre-order merch bundle, then your music has become a product.
I definitely don’t do pre-order nowadays, but full disclosure, I’ve actually pre-ordered a couple times in my life before. Two of those times were for, at the time, new upcoming albums. The only other two instances were actually for crowd-funded band DVDs. (Another form of pre-ordering when you really break it down. Anyway, the first two were pre-ordered merch bundles for Stray From The Path’s ‘Rising Sun‘ (CD/poster/shirt/hoodie) and Comeback Kid’s ‘Die Knowing‘ (vinyl copy, digital download, a few shirts). All of the items in the former pack were still being sold on the Sumerian Records merch site years after release; nothing exclusive there. My parents at the time bought then 16-year-old me it as a gift, but was it worth it? Well, it was very kind of them, yes, but not really worth it. (Although, ‘Rising Sun‘ was thankfully a fucking sick record and is still one of Stray’s best moments as a band too). As for Comeback Kid, I don’t wear any of those shirts anymore and haven’t for some time, but I do still have the ‘Die Knowing‘ LP in my vinyl collection. Even if I rarely ever go back to that indeed solid record nowadays. (‘Somewhere In This Miserable…‘ is an absolute barn-burner, just an FYI).
Regarding those two crowd-funded instances, both turned out very well and I’m actually really glad in retrospect that I ordered them when I did. The first one was for Architects‘ 2013 documentary, One Hundred Days. It’s an incredibly well-shot and superbly edited experience about a great band budding right beneath the surface circa ‘Daybreaker‘, right before they blew up into the massive successes that they are now. The other was Your Demise’s The Kids We Will Always Be; a great doco capturing the U.K. hardcore group’s last moments as a band and their final show. (The last time that I did any kind of pre-order too; 2015 at the latest). Perhaps hidden somewhere on YouTube or tabs deep into some foreign torrent site you’ll find them available. Yet you won’t find tangible copies of either DVD’s for sale on Merch Now, Impericon or 24Hundred. And if you do find them, you’ll be hit with an “out of stock” message. So in that sense, sending some money upfront towards both bands to nab proper physical copies was so worth it. Because now I have a piece of their history that not every other fan will have in their possession. The actual music is readily available for everyone to enjoy and consume, but other items and merch – such as those DVDs – sometimes aren’t. That’s probably a little competitive but that’s also when pre-ordering is genuinely incentivized.
On that note, YouTuber and games critic Jim Sterling has a similar yet less aggressive stance to that of Bain’s/TotalBiscuit’s view. Sterling’s position is that if there’s some form of actual exclusivity in the pre-order, then go for your life! There ain’t nothing wrong with paying for cool collector’s items, exclusive merch, or extra perks that you couldn’t get anywhere else – before or after the fact. This is where I think the pre-order format can be used to it’s best degree product-wise, whether in music or any other sort of media.
In music, as you’ve probably guessed, this is where one-off vinyl prints, exclusive T-shirt runs or limited tapes can come into play. Offering die-hard listeners who want something physical and something that’s truly rare that they can cherish makes it all the more special. In another aspect, for some folks, even if they don’t think a band’s newest record will be their best or AOTY, nabbing that limited vinyl variant or that rare test pressing can be a great addition to one’s ever-growing LP collection. (It can also even net the buyer a solid return down the line. Hence why people used to snag up UNFD releases right off the bat and flog them for triple or quadruple the price on Gumtree or merch swap/buy/sell Facebook pages to the hardcore sweaters out there with far too much disposable income).
The negative to all of this is when pre-orders are used like any other post-release purchase. Take for example the standard CD/vinyl/T-shirt/hoodie pack that most bands and artists opt into. Obviously, the size and popularity of the specific band will matter and the resources they themselves have on offer, but most of the time, neither that shirt or CD you’re getting posted with your pre-order is going out of stock soon. High chances are that the merch and physical album copies you just dropped $30-50 on will be sold at the band’s upcoming tour, on their merch pages, and in the case of CDs, potentially at your nearest JB HI-FI too. Hell, the record will be all over Deezer, Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify (and maybe Tidal or Bandcamp) on release day or within a week or so, anyway. Ergo, you’re rarely ever missing out these days; you’re just giving someone else your money early… for some reason.
Some people will always want to support artists that they like outright, and I get that – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with supporting creators that you genuinely like. But when you’re just pre-ordering a digital copy or the CD version, and maybe a T-shirt or hoodie on the side, those purchase options will most likely still be there a week or more after the record comes out. Oh, you pre-ordered a digital copy of a band’s new record off iTunes or Bandcamp? Cool, so did a butt load of other people. For most releases, they’re just ubiquitous come release and you’re not at all special, sorry. Patience truly is a virtue.
Of course, people will chime in that if I buy a ticket before a gig, then I’m “technically” pre-ordering something. The difference there, though, is that that live show is a finite thing. It’s a moment in time. Before Silent Planet hit up Australia for the first time last month, you can bet I was bangin’ both ‘The Night God Slept‘ and ‘Everything Was Sound‘ aplenty; even watching whatever live videos I could too. But the $35 I dropped on a ticket was more than worth it to see them perform in the flesh. All because of how great that bands songs and because they put on such a great live show too with a solid set of both newer and older material; a better experience than watching live YouTube videos, that’s for sure. (With Make Them Suffer were headlining, who are really on top of their game right now, snagging a ticket for that tour was all the sweeter. Well, minus a truly terrible performance from Oceans Ate Alaska).
I’m sure some labels, managers, and bands will see this and think: “Alex, you fuckhead, you’re going against a method that helps support our art and keep us afloat“. To that, I say: pre-ordering isn’t all bad. It’s just used in really lazy and uncreative ways more often than not. Besides, those core fans are gonna pre-order your stuff no matter what. If you think outside the box, make an interesting product, then there’s no real issue. As you’re making the best use of the pre-order model while doing so. This may even result in wider attention acquiring behind your new music and art too.
One of the best examples of making an awesome, interesting and exclusive pre-order option for a band’s music came from Gravemind. The Melbourne deathcore outfit, for the release of this year’s killer new single ‘Lifelike‘, actually put together an impressive test press bundle. Alongside a 7″ of the song and a lyric page typed by vocalist Dylan Gillies-Parsons, each package came with a pretty fancy laser-cut wooden box, with the lyric page itself being made of plantable paper. Once the page was made wet, it could actually be planted – and after some time and care – you’ll get some flowers growing from those roots. Not only did this play into the lyrical theme of ‘Lifelike‘ of not getting a say in your own creation and birth, but the box sets were limited to only 10 copies too. And guess fucking what? Even at $100AUD a pop, they all sold out in well under one minute’s time. This outlier example of a local Australian band thinking harder and deeper about nifty pre-orders proves my point: if you offer fans something genuinely different and exclusive, you’ll (hopefully) see said product getting snapped up before you know it.
So, in closing, let’s have more of that kind of pre-order and branding creativity, thanks.