In October of 2019, the stage development of our holiday musical TRUE NORTH: A MAGICAL NEW HOLIDAY MUSICAL (previously known as Come Find Me), felt bright and promising. We had just completed a 29-hour equity reading as part of the York Theater’s Developmental Reading Series and had forged deep relationships with a cast and creative team who were excited about moving forward with us.

When the world stopped in March of 2020 and theaters closed down, the development of our show—as well as most of yours I’m sure—felt like it was coming to a halt. Albeit we had newfound time to focus on several rounds of rewrites, the sting—and stall—from the impact of COVID-19 was very present.

Determined to push through, I brainstormed on creative ways to keep our momentum going. Knowing a production would be years away, the most reasonable goal to me was to build brand familiarity in the marketplace. TRUE NORTH is an original story, so there’s no previous fan base or story recognition. I decided quarantine was just the time to work on that part.

My first idea was to create a children’s holiday book version of the show. I completed a draft and sent to an editor to get the ball rolling. That’s a long process, so I slated that to hit the market in 2021. For 2020, my goal was to release a holiday single.

Validating ideas

To validate these ideas, I ran them by several producers (whose time was more available than usual). I didn’t actively solicit buy-in or promote the show, I just asked for insight on this idea in light of COVID. I received very positive feedback, and it didn’t hurt that they all said “that’s an amazing idea…way to stay moving forward during a difficult time. Keep me posted.” So my idea was validated, plus I built a little ingenuity and resourcefulness cred with the powers-that-be. That’s a win-win.

Excited to move forward, my first step was to decide on a song.

MusicalWriters Festival speakers Macy Schmidt Drew Gasparini

TRUE NORTH is a Christmas show, and we needed a song that could work both on stage as well as in a mainstream Christmas audience. However, we didn’t have an existing piece that could be lifted from the show and have meaning on its own.

We began writing a new song while in quarantine (our first draft in Finale was from March 24, 2020). The despair the world was feeling fueled our drive to write a song of joy and hope, and it also filled a spot in the show that needed a strong emotional climax. Thus, “You Can’t Outgrow Christmas” was born.

Broadway Records released the song last week, so I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned from our first experience of releasing a single.

1. Have a clearly defined goal for releasing a single.

Important: Your goal is not to make money.

We knew from the start that our purpose wasn’t financial success. An entire album could generate more revenue, but a single is literal pennies on the dollar. If you’re looking to release songs from your show, know that you’re going to invest a lot more than you’ll get back financially. For us, releasing a single was a “loss leader.”

Here’s a good overview of what a loss leader accomplishes, specifically in the music industry:

A general rule of commerce is this: You cannot demand money until you have generated demand, or at the very least, the perception of demand. And a sure way to generate demand is by using a loss leader.

Your music is your business. And in business, in order to spike sales and increase the bottom line, you have to pick and put into play a loss leader. A loss leader is a part of your whole product offering that you will lose money on (or not make money on) in order to get potential customers through the door. Once they are in, their experience with your “brand” should cause them to buy other products you also offer as well as become repeat customers. This adds to your bottom line. This is what a loss leader does.1

While our immediate goal was to create a nice, warm, fuzzy ear worm that would enter the holiday music canon, the ultimate goal was to create a public awareness of our show and of us as writers.

2. Be sure your show is ready to release a single.

Consider: Where are you in the timeline of development?

Releasing a single is a bit of a risky move if your show is still in development. While the hope is a single will reflect a lasting, signature musical moment in a show, there’s always the risk of developmental change and the song going out the window. We had a “signature” song in our show a year ago, that, if we had to pick a single to release then, would have been the obvious choice. After our 29-hour reading, months of rewrites with our director, and the feedback of professional Broadway actors, we cut that song. So be sure your show—and song—is ready to release something lasting.

Remember the single version and the show version will be different.

The single version of our song is different than the show version, because their purposes are different and therefore each has unique requirements. The show version has internal dialogue, additional reprises and motifs from previous musical moments, and a soaring ensemble section. The single version had to be stand-alone, “radio-cut” version. Because we were creating both at the same time, crafting the show version informed the single version, and the single version informed the show version. Both benefitted.

3. Start seeking collaborators early.

I knew releasing a single by the end of 2020 would require us to do things efficiently and effectively, so I sought help from the very beginning. I turned to our fabulous director, Ilana Ransom Toeplitz, for help defining the song moment and asked for lyric feedback from the word goddess herself, Amanda Yesnowitz. Whatever you do, seek feedback from reliable sources. It will save you heartache, headache, and money in the long run. DO NOT try to do this yourself. Your perspective on your own work is biased, narrow, and skewed. You MUST have help.

As mentioned, we (my husband/composer and I) started writing the song in March—with utmost confidence that we would release the song for the holiday season of 2020. That is very ambitious, and were it not for COVID and the slowdown of everyone’s careers, I’m not sure we would have made it.

Anything worth doing in life takes a village. While releasing one single into the world seems like a simple task, to achieve our goal, we knew we had to enlist a team beyond ourselves.

We needed pros. These included:

  • orchestrator
  • musicians
  • vocalist
  • music producer
  • record label
  • distributor
  • marketing resources
  • listeners

4. Use your (and make new) connections.

We had big plans for this single, which meant big players. I’m not afraid to stick my neck out there, so I did my best to seek out people I respected who could help us get this where we wanted it to go.

Finding an orchestrator

Our first need was an orchestrator. My husband could have done this himself, but we were seeking exposure in a more competitive market than we’ve been in previously. We love the sound of a soaring, cinematic orchestra and knew seeking a professional orchestrator would be key. I started seeking connections on LinkedIn, and my husband, who follows music professionals on social, started looking at his favorites.

Serendipitously, Kelvin saw a recent social post from Grammy award nominee Chris Walden (who has worked with Josh Groban, Idina Menzel, Usher, and a host of other A-listers). Chris and I had a mutual friend and client, Ryan Anthony, who had just passed. Ryan, a principal trumpeter for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the founder of CancerBlows, made a significant impact on both Chris and I. I reached out to Chris through LinkedIn sharing this common thread, and an instant friendship was kindled. In talking about what we both did professionally, I asked Chris if he had any advice on how to get a single orchestrated and if he’d be willing to take a look at our song. He was overly generous in asking me to send a demo so he could listen. At that point, we didn’t even HAVE a demo! (Sometimes I’m a little like….”Aim…Fire…Ready.”)

The next morning a demo was in Chris’ inbox. Self-recorded by me with Kelvin’s Finale™ output and mixed in GarageBand. It wasn’t fancy, but it did the trick. Chris responded with encouragement and wanted to be on the project.

Chris orchestrated the piece in July and then in August directed the orchestra recording (in Budapest!) via an online streaming platform. We were able to watch and comment. It was pretty amazing. Here’s a short clip of the recording session.

Finding a record label

In the meantime, I knew reaching our broad intended market was beyond my capabilities. I sought the expertise of Van Dean, president of Broadway Records, both asking for feedback on the demo, as well as delivering a soft pitch. In a wave of gracious generosity, he agreed to release our song if and when we had Broadway talent involved.

Finding a vocalist

Chris had a session singer record a demo with the new orchestra track, and then we sought our final recording talent. After weeks of working with industry connections and talent agents, we secured the stunning Jackie Burns to perform the vocals.

Another serendipitous tidbit…

The theater bug bit me at a little Broadway show called Wicked. It changed my life, my career, my goals, and my self-image (it’s even the reason I have MusicalWriters.com), and I pay homage to the Gershwin every time I’m in New York. I’ve seen Wicked many, many times. But guess who my first Elphaba was….the one who snagged my heart and changed me [for good]…? It was Jackie Burns.

Don’t be afraid to meet new people and to go ahead and knock on that door. You never know who will say yes. 

5. Be smart in your marketing efforts.

Marketing anything can be a full time job. There are analytics to evaluate, target audiences to consider, and then when and where and how to get the message out there. However, the marketing piece—in 2020—may just be the least expensive part of the process if you use social media channels to do it.

It’s important to remember your goals when you start marketing. Do you want downloads and streams? Or do you want to build your audience? Those are different goals with different marketing plans. Since I do this all the time with my day job, I did it myself. If you’re not savvy to creating Facebook ads and audience targeting, you might enlist someone to help with that.  The tools aren’t difficult or expensive, but again, you want to be efficient and effective. Get help if you need it.

Here are 2 tips for marketing:

    1. Know your target audience (it’s not EVERYBODY!)
    2. Give yourself a timeline for marketing. Indefinite is not sustainable.

“You Can’t Outgrow Christmas” – the final product

If you’d like to hear our single “You Can’t Outgrow Christmas” performed by the stunning Jackie Burns, click here.

You Can't Outgrow Single Release Holly Reed

Questions about releasing a single? Leave in the comments below!

Remember, releasing a single from your show is a big project. It’s not the same as placing a song demo on your website. It has a bigger goal and a bigger life, and therefore bigger requirements. If you have any questions about our process, I’m happy to answer. Just leave your question in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to help!

Footnotes

  1. Generate Demand for Your Music By Rightly Using A Loss Leader