By Colette Weintraub
[UPDATE September 2, 2009: Imogen Heap's album Ellipse debuts at #5 on US Billboard top 200 and #4 on Canadian top 200! Also, related article posted here: http://ow.ly/lmIB]
It’s been a while since someone in the music business impressed me. Finally, somebody has impressed me so much that it inspired me to launch my long-overdue company website and marketing blog. This is the story of how one woman and 700,000 (and climbing) followers on Twitter are creating the new music business model.
During the past ten years we’ve seen dramatic shifts in the music business. Since the launch of Napster and other peer to peer sharing sites there’s a growing sense among consumers that music – at least the songs – should be free. We’ve seen record label executives struggle with the changing environment, we’ve seen some independent artists thrive, and we’ve seen some major-label artists go independent and take advantage of this turn. Is it that we must give the songs away for free? Or is there some other asset of perceived greater value that we can offer fans, and still successfully sell music?
Enter: Imogen Heap. Some people may recognize Imogen as the beautiful vocalist of Frou Frou. Others may be familiar with her song “Hide & Seek” or the song she wrote for The Chronicles of Narnia, “Can’t Take it In.” But even if you’ve never heard of her, it’s time to pay attention — Imogen Heap is changing the way business is done. Or perhaps she’s just bringing music back to its roots — the relationship between musician and fan — and exploiting all the technical advantages available. In a time when some music industry veterans seem to be afraid of the way technology is changing their business, Imogen Heap is using these technological advances to her advantage.
Chapter 1: Along Came Twitter: This is not to say Heap began her online relationship with her fans on Twitter. Prior to the emergence of Twitter, Heap maintained a healthy MySpace profile with more than 14 million profile views and 350,000 fans. She often posted blogs and bulletins and called for fan participation and feedback.
However, Twitter allowed Heap to efficiently update her fans about the making of her new record, Ellipse (release: August 25, 2009). When I first began following Heap on Twitter she had just over 20,000 followers. It was the early days of Twitter and while most people were posting their daily whereabouts or the progress they made doing their chores, Heap was chronicling the making of her album, a process that took 2 years. During this time she also purchased the home she grew up in and built a recording studio. Heap documented all of this on her Twitter profile, making fans part of the process along the way.
Heap not only shared clips of music in progress, images of her recording studio, and the day’s triumphs, she also shared her frustrations, her insecurities, and often sought advice from fans. In response to the many @replies Heap often received, she thanked her fans repeatedly. She also made it a habit to circle back with fans to let them know what decisions she ended up making upon hearing their input and would often show them the results with pictures, audio, or video.
Chapter 2: vLogging: To complement her dialog with fans on Twitter – and to tell a story with more than 140 characters – Heap maintained a regular video blog on YouTube. In total, she posted 40 episodes, during the past 2 years, each running between 3 and 12 minutes long. Although, they’re publicly available, Heap’s vLogs make viewers feel like they’ve been invited into her home (indeed, most vLogs are shot in Heap’s home) for an intimate conversation. The vLogs capture Heap’s personality, her fun and celebratory nature, and allow fans to really get to know Heap even though they may never have met her in person.
The vLogs are not solely focused on the making of Ellipse — they include Heap’s adventures in learning how to drive (and passing her driving test); remodeling her childhood home and turning her former playroom into her studio; and her New Year’s celebration. Each time she posted a vLog, Heap notified fans via Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace.
In March 2009, Heap posted a vLog calling for fans to help create her new press bio. The challenge – all submissions had to be made via Twitter, in the standard sub-140 characters. The final product is quite impressive and can be downloaded here. Heap makes sure to give credit to the 81 Tweeters who helped co-write (or co-tweet) her new bio.
The result of Heap’s diligent vLogs and authentic fan engagement is a YouTube channel with more than 519,000 views and individual videos with as many as 122,000 views. Most important, each video is accompanied by hundreds of comments from fans expressing their excitement about Heap and the upcoming release of Ellipse, as well as their gratitude.
As fans became more and more engaged in the making of Heap’s album and the virtually, real friendship they shared with her, Heap allowed them to participate even further in the making of Ellipse.
Chapter 3: Flickr: In May 2009, Heap asked fans to submit samples of their work in order to be considered to collaborate with Heap on the album artwork and packaging. 3 fans were chosen to help create the artwork and all fans were asked to submit photographs that could potentially be included in the album packaging. Heap created a Flickr group and asked fans to tag and submit all entries there.
Specifically, Heap was looking for images that capture the feeling or meaning of specific lyrics from the songs on her new album. She posted the lyrics for reference, along with detailed instructions on the Flickr page. After sorting through more than 1,000 entries, Heap chose 11 fan-submitted photographs to be included in the final album artwork. Winners receive a cash prize, plus credit on the album.
Chapter 4: Building it Together: What Heap accomplished, all the while making a record, is truly brilliant. She now has more than 735,000 followers on Twitter, each of whom feels invested in the making of Ellipse and is eagerly awaiting its release. They’ve been there every step of the way, offered their opinions and insights when asked for advice about songs, helped create Heap’s bio and album art, and were the friends who were always willing to lend an ear… and a hand.
Chapter 5: Taking it Back (With A Little Help From My Friends): The story doesn’t end with the completion of the album. A new load of work begins when the record is done – promo tours, interviews and radio shows. As part of the promotion machine, labels often send out advance copies of albums to music critics. In early July one such promo album made its way to eBay. How did Heap find out about this? Twitter, of course.
A fan sent Heap a Tweet and notified her about the eBay auction for her as of yet unreleased album. Heap was outraged, as she puts it, not because she doesn’t want the music to get out there (she wants her fans to have the music), but because some opportunistic person who had nothing to do with the album stood to make a lot of money from its pre-release sale on eBay. In fact, the man who posted the auction could have made $10,000,000, if only…
After Heap verified that her unreleased album was indeed posted for auction on eBay, she presented her Twitter followers with a little challenge — to make Ellipse “the most bidded-on item ever on eBay.” In typical form, fans responded en masse, bidding Ellipse up to $10,000,000. Later Heap said, “it was going to be the most expensive album ever bought.” Soon enough, eBay got wind of this and pulled the auction down.
During a time when many music fans are clamoring for free music, Heap’s fans actually helped ensure her music wasn’t prematurely leaked. As usual, Heap thanked her followers with a Tweet: “Well that was fun! Will get it removed and make sure none of you get bumped off eBay for helping me out there. Love to you! Heap sleep now.”
Chapter 6: Heap TweetUps: Although Heap enlisted her fans to help stop an unauthorized, early release of Ellipse, she continues to do what she can to make sure her fans remain part of the process and hear the music first. During a recent trip to the US, Heap launched “TweetUps” in New York and Los Angeles.
As she said during the Los Angeles TweetUp in early July, for Heap, the final part of the process is when the fans get to hear her music for the first time. Usually, the artist isn’t present in the homes, cars, and offices of fans when they’re listening to the album. Heap wanted to change this and to experience Ellipse through the ears of her Twitter followers. Heap created the TweetUps so that she could preview her album for the fans who helped make it and who provided support and enthusiasm along the way.
The Heap TweetUps took place in small venues in New York and Los Angeles. The time and location of each TweetUp was announced one day prior to each event, on Twitter. At The Hotel Cafe, in Los Angeles, Heap greeted fans who waited in a line that rounded 2 corners and stretched beyond a city block. Once inside, fans were treated to an open bar (it was a 21+ event) and then invited to hear Ellipse for the first time.
Heap introduced and discussed the inspiration for each song’s genesis before pushing “play” on iTunes. Then, she stepped out of the light as fans listened for the first time. While music fans can often read or listen to an interview about the making of an album or the inspiration behind their favorite song, it’s rare that they get to sit with their favorite artist, listen to her introduce the music, and be in the room with her while the songs are playing. . . all before the album is publicly released. Beyond just playing the songs for the first time, Heap shared what, for her, and her fans was another pivotal experience, bringing the making-of Ellipse full-circle.
After previewing a handful of songs from the album, Heap offered to meet and sign photos for everybody who attended the TweetUp. When the venue announced they needed to clear the room so they could prepare for that evening’s shows (the TweetUp took place in the afternoon), the long line of fans awaiting autographs didn’t seem concerned. Through the process of making an album with Heap, they learned she wouldn’t let them down. True to form and putting her fans first, Heap moved the meet & greet to the alley outside the venue. After a busy week of radio interviews and countless meetings, Heap took her time, speaking with and thanking every fan who was there.
Chapter 7: Cafe Heap: Now that the album is finished, the making-of vLog series has obviously come to an end. However, there’s still more to do between now, the album’s official release (August 25, 2009) and Heap’s upcoming tour (TBD beginning November) which means there’s still more for Heap to share with her fans. What else could she possibly do?
Last week Heap announced Heap Cafe – a live video chat that will take place (likely in her living room) weekly. During the making of Ellipse Heap held a few live chats on uStream, but now she’s formalizing that into a weekly meeting. During her most recent video chat on uStream, Heap played piano and asked fans to chime in and tell her what to play. “Play it faster,” “play it in the key of A,” “play anything!” the fans furiously typed in their suggestions. It was a fun experiment and another opportunity for fans to literally shape Heap’s music in real-time. All the activity, coupled with uStream’s integrated Twitter application, made #heapstream a trending topic on Twitter.
Heap Cafe will debut this week on a new platform, Vokle. They’re set to take place every Sunday, but there’s been mention that the first chat will take place Thursday, July 23rd. The best way to make sure you don’t miss Heap Cafe? Follow @imogenheap on Twitter.
Chapter 8: The Beginning: With over a month until its official release, Ellipse is currently #39 on the iTunes Top Albums chart. Heap seems to be gaining 1,000+ followers per day on Twitter. Fan enthusiasm continues to climb, with people Tweeting: “I would pay any price for Ellipse,” “finally had to cave & get twitter so i could get @imogenheap ’s beautiful video,” “Thank you so much for allowing us to download Canvas. It’s such a lovely video. I would have paid many times over to get this.”
People are Tweeting about paying for music?! Imogen Heap has started something…