What Is The New Music Business Model?

On July 2oth I published an article about the ways in which musician Imogen Heap is using the internet and social media sites to connect with her fans.  While many musicians are using the internet to engage with their audience, I profiled Heap because she is an exceptional case.  She has consistently used social media tools to reach her fans, in an integrated, and authentic way for the past several years.  Not only has she been sharing information about her life and the making of her latest record, Heap has been soliciting feedback, ideas, and creative services from fans. You can read my original post for more details.

The premise of the original article is: if musicians invest (time) in the relationship with their fans, their fans will invest (monetarily) in them.  Yes — people will still buy music (although I agree – don’t put all your eggs in this basket).  There are other ways to generate revenue, of course, some of which include giving the music away for free (e.g. Nine Inch Nails) and building greater interest among fans in touring, merch, and special projects.  The core component of what I’m calling the “new music business model” is true fan engagement.  How musicians choose to generate revenue beyond that is up to them, but connecting with fans in a meaningful, consistent way provides the foundation for the sustainability of an artist’s career.

On August 26 I posted a follow-up article, addressing some of the points that were raised in response to the original article and chronicling some of the early results of Heap’s efforts.  As of 11:00am the morning of release, Heap’s new album, Ellipse was #4 on iTunes Top Albums Chart, #2 on Amazon’s MP3 Download Chart, and #6 on Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers Chart.

I received quite a bit of feedback on both articles (thank you) and would like to address some of it here:

1. “What about the music? This article is about marketing, not about music at all. Why do I feel like there’s something wrong with that?”

Well, this is a marketing blog, not a music blog.  (That said, if you’d like to check out my music blog, visit RockIsAGirlsBestFriend.com.)

The other reason I didn’t raise the issue of the quality of Heap’s music is because music taste is generally subjective.  What I consider to be one of the best albums of the year may be un-listenable to others.  My article was an attempt to highlight some of the ways musicians can engage with their fans in order to support the longevity of their career; it was not meant to debate the merits of a specific album. Did Heap compromise the quality of her music while spending so much effort nurturing her fans? That’s something you can determine on your own after listening to the record.  In my opinion, Heap managed to release a beautifully composed album, all the while illustrating her ongoing commitment to her fans.

2. Is it worth it?

Some people questioned whether all the time and energy Heap expended in order to connect with her fans was worth it.  Would it generate revenue in the end?

First of all, even though this blog is about marketing, the reason artists are investing in their fans is not solely to make money.  As Heap has stated in previous interviews, she solicits the advice and help of her fans because she truly values it.  Heap reminds everybody – she makes music precisely for her fans.  So, involving the audience in the process of making music and releasing an album, is a natural extension of that relationship. It used to be the only time a musician could interact with their fans and receive feedback directly was when they were touring.  Now artists have the opportunity to engage with their audience daily and to apply the feedback they receive from fans in-real time.

But for the people who simply wondered whether or not the time Heap spent cultivating relationships with her fans would result in album sales, the answer is: YES, it did.  Heap’s album Ellipse debuted at #5 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart in the U.S. and at #4 in Canada.   This is the highest chart position Heap has achieved.  Her previous release Speak For Yourself reached #145.  It’s also the most records Heap has sold in any given week during her career.  More details at Billboard.

So what is the new music business model? As stated previously, the new music business model (one that is not reliant on radio play, traditional record labels, and video promo guys) is highly dependent on the artist’s relationship with their fans. In one sense, this is the only thing consistent about the “model” because the second core component is: authenticity.

This means that there isn’t one model or formula that will work for every artist.  Each musician must engage with their fans in a way that is authentic to who they are as a person.  This is also why it’s hard for major labels to replicate this relationship with fans – there’s something vastly different between the way labels and (most) artists communicate with their fans.  For example, Trent Reznor will sometimes tell his fans to “stop bitching” and “fuck off!” And you know what? They’ll “stop bitching” and “fuck off” for the time being and then they’ll pay $65 to see Nine Inch Nails in concert and are devastated when tour shirts sell out before they can get one.  Interscope Records, former home of NIN, would not have engaged in that specific dialog with fans – it’s something only an artist like Reznor can do.

Reznor is another great example of somebody who’s using the available platforms to connect with their fans.  As he points out, this is actually nothing “new” — Nine Inch Nails has always paid attention to fan feedback — there are just more tools to facilitate this.  On NIN.com Reznor writes:

Twitter seemed like an interesting way to quickly reach a large number of people, and people that seem to exist outside of the nin.com world of fans. For a while, I found it useful to read replies and get a sense of what people are thinking / saying, and this worked well for a while. As I’ve mentioned in other letters, the key to understanding your audience / fan-base is to engage them and understand them. The results of me doing this with NIN include the way we sell tickets on nin.com, the way we’ve distributed the last records, the multi-tracks available for free download for you to remix, the Creative Commons licensing, the open camera / recording policy for live shows, no fan-club fees, the tour music samplers, the open design of nin.com, etc etc etc. I could keep going because pretty much everything we’ve been doing with NIN lately has been based upon what you as an audience think would be a cool way to do it.

Most of these policies and approaches have nothing to do with Twitter, but it was another tool to see what people think about things and get feedback.

In another post Reznor elaborates on his perspective about using online communities to engage with fans:

It’s been an interesting experiment over the last couple of years or so. Faced with leaving the infrastructure of traditional record labels and figuring out what the right thing to do is in this new world – I found myself realizing that for me to have any concept of how to interact with the community and know what they might want / what they find appropriate, I need to immerse myself in that world and live it for a while.

The reason no record label knows how to market anything to new media is they don’t live there. They don’t get it because they don’t use it. What you’ve seen happen with the marketing and presentation of NIN over the last years is a direct result of living next to you, listening to you, consuming with you and interacting with you. Directly. There’s no handlers or PR people here, it’s me and my guys – that’s it. There’s no real plan, even – it’s just trying to do the right thing that respects you the fan, the music, and me the artist. That’s the goal – a mutual and shared respect.

When Twitter made it’s way to my radar I looked at it as a curiosity, then started experimenting. I thought it through and in light of where I was / am in my career I decided to lower the curtain a bit and let you see more of my personality. I watched some of you get more engaged because you started to realize there’s a person (flaws and all) back there, and I watched some of you recoil in horror because I’m not what you projected on me. All expected. I’m not as concerned about “breaking” your idea of NIN at this point. It is what it is and I am what I am. The relationship between artist and fan is changing if you haven’t noticed, along with the way we consume and experience music and even communicate since the internet arrived.

Reznor “gets it”.  He understands the importance of engaging with fans. While he’s since canceled his Twitter account, Reznor still engages his fans and has a very “open” policy when it comes to how fans interact with NIN and their music.  NIN encourages the remixing and posting of their songs; they have a relaxed camera/recording policy at their live shows (the final NIN shows take place in LA this week); when trying out new things (i.e. allowing ads on NIN.com), Reznor explains the change to fans and also asks for their feedback/objections; when fans are hassled by venue security who may not be aware of NIN’s relaxed policies, Reznor has an NIN representative resolve the situation. Each time NIN releases a new album it’s in conjunction with some underlying activities created for the most die-hard fans. NIN also gives fans freedom to use their content (especially consumer generated live audio and video recordings) as they wish, so long as they don’t sell it.  This has facilitated projects like This One Is on Us, a fan-driven, open-source DVD project documenting the 2008 Nine Inch Nails “Lights in the Sky” tour.

Reznor has also managed to do something very difficult — maintain a sense of mystique around the band, while simultaneously acting with transparency. When NIN.com began hosting advertisements, Reznor posted a note explaining the actual cost to run NIN.com, along with multi-media and interactive plans for the future that were going to require additional funds in order to be sustainable, so that he can continue to offer them to fans for free.  Additionally, Reznor openly communicated about the process of getting NIN’s iPhone app, Access, approved by Apple and his frustrations that current cross-platform technology limitations prevent NIN from offering the app in its full capacity on other devices.

Bottom line: even though they already had a large, established fan base when they broke ties with Interscope Records, NIN realizes the relationship with their fans is integral to their sustainability (in the business sense) as a band. Breaking from the label and all their “people” has also allowed NIN to have a more direct relationship with their fans and to utilize all emerging social media platforms to do so.

Imogen Heap, on the other hand, has been building this relationship from scratch, with support of social media networks, since she moved from Frou Frou and into her solo career.  She’s at a different phase in her career than Nine Inch Nails so how she navigates this space varies from NIN.  Heap is also a very different person from Reznor and this comes across in her interactions with her fans.

What about the “new” artist? Or musicians that never previously had major label support? Yes, there is a lot of documentation about bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails forging the way in this changing environment.  And yes, they have the advantage of an existing fan-base and previous support from major labels. But remember  each of these bands had nothing when they began – they’ve been building this relationship with their fans for 20 years. Yes, the funds and infrastructure of major labels helped boost awareness for these bands, but now that they’ve moved off major labels, the relationship with their fans (along with their music) is what they own.

So new artists — you can learn from some of the veterans and along with making great, consumable music, prioritize your engagement with your audience.  What’s refreshing about innovators such as Thom Yorke and Trent Reznor is that although they’ve been in this business for 20 years, they’ve kept up with the changing atmosphere and are often ahead of it.  This is what differentiates them from several record label veterans who have not learned how to evolve with these changes in how music is consumed.

Imogen Heap, on the other hand, falls somewhere in the middle.  She is on a major label, but she doesn’t have the radio hits, flashy music videos, or stadium-scale tours that the larger artists have.  Imogen Heap has music.  And she has fans (a base that she’s built herself). That’s all she needs because she knows how to bring the two together – the music feeding the fans and the fans feeding the music.

If you’re looking for an example of a truly independent artist who has gained success and maintained a career without the help of a label, radio, or video, check out Ani DiFranco.  DiFranco has been building her fan base for 19 years through consistent touring and the use of old-school newsletters (the kind that come in the mailbox).

See, the thing about not having a record label is that the pressure for that “quick radio hit” subsides and musicians have the time it takes to develop themselves, their music,  and build a base of dedicated fans.  And it does take time – so be patient and understand this likely isn’t going to happen overnight.  I first saw Matt Nathanson open for Lisa Loeb at Largo more than 8 years ago.  I thought his music was catchy and wondered, as he was selling CDs out of his backpack and going person to person in the audience soliciting members for his mailing list, “how long will this kid stick around? How long is he willing to work at this, on his own?  Will he ‘make it’ before he gives up?” Well, many years and a lot of hard work later Nathanson’s song “Come on Get Higher” spent 30 weeks on the US Airplay Top 100 charts and 20 weeks on the US Singles Charts.  It takes time.

Another thing to recognize is that when you do cut the major label out of the equation, more weight of the “business” aspect of your career rests on your shoulders. For many artists this is especially challenging – their talents flourish because they are creative, right-brained individuals and the more tactical, left-brained aspects of running a business are foreign or frustrating to them. But, if you want to make your living making music, then indeed it is a business. Thankfully, there are platforms and services that help make the business aspects of your career more efficient and allow you to do much more to support your craft than you could have done 10 years ago.

With the changing environment (not just in the music business), comes great opportunity for innovation and creativity.  Several companies have emerged, created to support the independent musician.  There are highly publicized companies like Top Spin that provide independent and established artists with the tools to directly market their music and merchandise to their fans. There are also some lesser-known companies like Pledge Music that allow fans to invest (financially) in the making of an artist’s next record, and Zoxsy that helps artists get radio airplay, top concert spots, film/tv/video game placements, and record deals. Companies like TuneCore provide digital music and video distribution to iTunes and Amazon, allowing artists to retain 100% of their rights. One of my clients, LP33.tv, has an in-house A&R team and more than 100 A&R reps around the country, dedicated to finding the best new music out there. LP33.tv works with artists (new and established) to create original video programming and promotions around their music, and with the help of the marketing team, syndicates this content around the web, generating millions of impressions for artists and video views in the hundreds of thousands.  Bands Under The Radar also helps filter out the noise and highlights some of the best emerging talent out there.  New artists can submit their music to Bands Under The Radar for consideration to be placed in one of BUTR’s podcasts or sold through their direct to fan digital download service (powered by Topspin).

So the good news about all this change is that there are more and more ways for a musician to support his or her craft and more and more ways for artists to reach their fans.

To answer the question “What about the music?” again:  of course, the music needs to be good and a musician’s primary focus should be on creating music that people somewhere will want to hear. But the other part of this equation is having an audience to begin with. Some artists have endorsements from other artists or filmmakers (Zach Braff has helped launch some careers) and others find support from brands.  But more often than not, musicians are building their fan base one by one as they meet them, on the road or online.

The new music business model isn’t really new. It’s about stripping away everything else and getting back to the root of what music is to begin with: artist communicating with fan.

Imogen Heap vs. Bob Lefsetz – Early Results Are In

A few weeks ago I wrote an article detailing some of the ways Imogen Heap has been engaging with fans and building excitement for her new album Ellipse.  A little while later, Bob Lefsetz featured commentary about my article in his Lefsetz Letters.

If you speak with enough people in the music business, you’ll find that Lefsetz is equal parts respected and hated.  But even the haters admit to regularly reading Lefsetz’s columns and agreeing with some of his insights.  So perhaps he’s more respected than hated.

In his article, Lefsetz raised some concerns about Heap’s methods of engaging with fans:

  1. Is it worth it? How does the time Heap invests in engaging with her fans result in real revenue? In a follow-up article, Lefsetz again questioned the way Heap spent, or as he put it “wasted”, her time: “But many expect all these activities to pay off.  That’s what bothered me with Ms. Heap’s efforts, not only how much time and mental energy was wasted, but whether she was generating revenue!”
  2. Is the artist becoming a personality instead of a musician? “What about practicing, gigging, getting good?”

Imogen Heap Ellipse #4 on iTunes

Imogen Heap Ellipse #4 on iTunes

Is It Worth It? Lefsetz’s point is that rather than build up to “one event” – the album release – Heap should have been focusing on generating revenue all along. First of all, the premise that this is all leading up to one event, is a bit flawed.  In reality, the connections Heap is making with her fans will actually pay off many times over, well beyond the release of Ellipse.  There will be tours and merch sales, perhaps side projects and special events.  I’m willing to bet that all of these future activities will benefit from the enthusiasm and support Heap has ignited in her fans by maintaining contact with them throughout her career (not just when she’s trying to sell something).

That said, were Heap’s efforts worth it for the sake of the release of Ellipse? Well, as of 11:00am this morning (release day), Ellipse was #4 on iTunes Top Albums Chart, #2 on Amazon’s MP3 Download Chart, and #6 on Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers Chart.

Lefsetz also suggests that Heap should have been selling tracks one-by-one, as they were ready, “If only she had put tracks on iTunes as she completed them, when the desire was still white hot.” I agree that makes sense for some artists during various stages of their career. In fact, Heap may do this some day. But for now, Heap actually created more desire and lasting value by involving her fans in the making of the album, track by track. Heap did something that is very difficult to do – she maintained desire throughout the entire process of making the album and through the release date.

Just 2 out of hundreds of Tweets from excited Heap fans

Just 2 out of thousands of Tweets from excited Heap fans

This is something many major-label as well as independent artists fail to do – they release an album, go on tour, go home (or disappear in the woods somewhere) and record another album.  Then, a year or several years later, they release the new album and need to build excitement for it within a much shorter time-frame leading up to its release. There’s no continuity. The momentum they gained from one release or tour doesn’t carry through to the next. They then have to revive old mailing lists (at which point many email addresses are no longer valid) and inactive communities on their social networks.  If fans haven’t had a reason to come back to an artist’s online communities for a sustained period of time, it’s difficult to re-engage them when you have an important message (such as the release of a new album) to communicate.

Is the artist becoming a personality instead of a musician? Lefsetz says, “But suddenly, you’re no longer a musician, but a personality.” Well, I don’t want to be the one to tell Bono, Madonna, Mick, Prince, Bruce, Thom, and Trent that they’re no longer musicians, so I’m going to say that it’s possible (and in fact, beneficial) to be both a musician and a personality.

Here’s the deal — when an artist leaves a record label, the fans don’t stay with the label, they go with the artist. The more musicians can authentically and consistently connect with their fans, the more emotionally invested the fans become. As they did with Heap, not only will they buy your record, they may help you keep it from illegal distribution; they’ll be your eyes and ears and inform you about things in the periphery of your career you otherwise may not have known; they’ll tell their friends to buy your music; they’ll buy your music as a gift for their friends; they’ll be at your shows; they’ll offer their talents (design, tech support, photography, etc) to help you succeed; and as they do for Amanda Palmer, they’ll open their home to you when you’re passing through town.

Building your persona and your fan base isn’t just important in case you leave a record label (or the label drops you) – it’s equally important if you’re one of the artists who actually still wants to get a major label deal. Record labels want to sign acts who they think can sell records.  They want to see some evidence that people actually give a $h!t about your music.  They look at the number of profile views and audio streams on your MySpace. They get a sense of the “scene” at your live shows. You don’t have to amass an enormous fan base, but if you can show that you have a loyal following and that there’s a “buzz” about you, people will pay attention. The Arcade Fire, Taking Back Sunday, Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Katy Perry, The White Stripes and countless others know this to be true.

What if you’re truly independent – you’re not on a major label and you have no intention of ever signing to one?  Well in that case, investing your time in building a relationship with your fans is as important as the music itself.  One benefit of the current state of the music business is that indie artists no longer need a middle-man to handle distribution.  However, it then becomes solely the musician’s responsibility to create the desire for their music and to build a base of fans who will purchase the music, buy some merch, or attend the live shows. Ani DiFranco has built a very successful career this way.

What about practicing, gigging, getting good? Lefsetz makes a good point – you can build the largest fan base in the world, but if your music isn’t good, then you don’t have anything.  Oh wait… have you listened to the radio lately???

In his follow-up article on Heap, Lefsetz says: “If you release music the public loves, the public will spread the word, you don’t even have to.” Ok – but how is “the public” going to get exposed to your music if you don’t communicate with them? Putting your song up on MySpace doesn’t mean that all 125 million users will hear it.

I’ve sat in Chris Blackwell’s den, in his house outside of London, while he played me some of the best music from around the world that I had never heard (nor have you).  Every time I said, “Wait! Who is this? Where can I get this?” Blackwell would politely tell me who the artist was, where they were from, and how I wouldn’t be able to get it… These artists put their music out there, but not enough members of “the public” knew about it, so they couldn’t sustain.

Yes, musicians should “practice, gig and get good,” but all of that means little if they don’t have an audience. Luckily Heap is good and she has the audience to share her talents with.

So what does this mean? Lefsetz says, “If this is truly the future, we’re fucked.” Do you need to speak with every fan one-to-one? Do you need to build a huge following on every social platform known to man? Do you need to invite your fans over for dinner? No. No. And no.

The most important thing you can do to build a relationship with your fans is to be yourself and give them a glimpse of who you are.  Authenticity is key.  If you ordinarily wouldn’t be on Twitter, then don’t just throw up a Twitter profile because it’s “the thing to do.” If you need help managing your fan communications, that’s ok too – but make sure whoever is interfacing with your fans is doing so in a meaningful, genuine way.

Your interactions with your fans should absolutely reflect your personality.  Look, Trent Reznor built up a Twitter following of more than 800,000 people too.  And then –  just like Trent Reznor would –  he closed his Twitter account.  While some fans may be disappointed by that, they’re certainly not surprised.

In Imogen Heap’s case, her online efforts are not merely a ploy to sell records.  Heap genuinely cares about her fans, she knows who many of them are, and she values their ideas and opinions.  That’s why her online networks are growing exponentially daily – people understand that Heap genuinely cares for them; that she’s making music precisely because of them; that if they encounter a problem with one of her products or platforms, she will fix it; they know she may ask for their help, and that she’ll appreciate it.

It’s also beneficial to engage in a two-way conversation with your fans.  This doesn’t mean you need to address each individual personally.  It means you ask them collectively for their feedback. And you listen. You let them know that you heard them and how you plan to (or not to) incorporate their ideas. Instead of bombarding people with “Buy this!”, “Sign up for that!”, “Come to this!” messages, ask, suggest, and invite. As you notice trends in questions or suggestions, you address them.

I profiled Imogen Heap because she is an exceptional example. She uses practically every network online, as appropriate, with an integrated approach.  She’s consistent. When her fans finally do meet Heap in person, they realize she’s quite the same as her online persona – this isn’t  some bad JDate. That’s not to say that every artist has to do every thing that Heap is doing in order to be successful, but it certainly doesn’t hurt and I don’t think Heap nor her fans would consider it a waste of time.

You can listen to full streams of all songs on Imogen Heap’s Ellipse here.

Fans expressing excitement for Heap's tour

Fans expressing excitement for Heap's tour

Imogen Heap “Ellipse” Full Album Streaming Here

For those of you who read my article The New Music Business Model: Imogen Heap and responded by asking, “What about the music?!”

Well, here you go – full-streams of Imogen Heap’s forthcoming album Ellipse:

Influencer Marketing

You might be wondering why it’s been 3 weeks since my last post (The New Music Business Model: Imogen Heap). . .

Initially, this entry was going to be about the benefits and differences between using Facebook and Twitter to share articles.  I’ve been tracking traffic across multiple blogs, looking at referring sources, and trends in the ebb and flow of visitors to each blog or article.  As we know, social media platforms and search engines often continue to breathe life into stories long after they’ve been published.

What I initially set out to do was offer tips for maximizing the reach of your content online, specifically leveraging Facebook and Twitter.  But in the midst of all this research something happened and traffic to a blog I posted 3 weeks ago skyrocketed.

The graph depicting traffic to my blog originally included spikes as more and more people re-tweeted and shared the post.  There were additional spikes when Imogen Heap’s PR Twitter account, @HeapWire, Tweeted my story and then again when @ImogenHeap sent a Tweet reminding followers that PR stories could be found at HeapWire.  Then, Monday morning, what was previously charting as significant traffic had been trumped and now the graph looks like this:

Daily Traffic to The New Music Business Model blog post

Daily Traffic to The New Music Business Model blog

What happened? Bob Lefsetz, arguably the most influential (and often controversial) writer in the music business, and Scott Perry whose New Music Tipsheet is a must-read for anybody who’s trying to stay on top of music news – found, responded and linked to my blog. From there, Josh Groban re-tweeted Lefsetz’s link and several other established sites (including Hypebot) requested to re-publish the post.

I was instantly reminded of the important role influencers play in spreading content.  Influencer marketing and relationship building is a core component of almost every campaign I conceive.  That said, I was not actively “pushing” my own blog nor did I send it to Lefsetz or Perry. Yet as a result of their attention, I decided that a blog about influencer marketing is probably more meaningful at this point than a blog about maximizing your reach via Facebook and Twitter.  Let’s face it – there are numerous platforms available that effectively support the viral distribution of your content, but those are merely delivery channels.  The most beneficial thing you can do is leverage each network to reach the people who matter most — the influencers.

Who is an influencer? It’s important to define “influential” because it is often confused with “the person who can reach the largest audience.”  While it may be the case that the person with the most “friends” is also the most influential, what truly defines “influence” is the ability to incite action.

A person with 500,000 “friends,” followers, or email subscribers may be able to communicate a message to a wide audience.  But is that audience actually paying attention? Are they moved by the message to take action? Are they even reading the message? Conversely, a mom who has 10,000 dedicated blog readers, who are excited about her blog daily, forward her advice to their friends, and buy the products she recommends, is certainly influential. Influencers are trusted members of a community, who have perceived expertise.

Another thing to keep in mind is that influence varies among different target audiences.  In niche or exclusive communities even fewer members hold greater influence.  Within a broad community (i.e. pet owners) there will be one set of influencers, but as you drill down into specific sub-categories (i.e. dogs) and then further (i.e. German Shepherds) there will be a different set of influencers altogether. The more targeted you are when connecting with influencers, the more likely your message will be “heard.”

Similarly, each platform or network tends to have its influencers.  This is particularly visible on Digg and Twitter. To get a sense of somebody’s overall influence on a target audience, you need to look at all of the places that member is engaging with the audience (Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Digg, etc.).  Often it’s easier to find the most influential people within one network and then dig further to find the most influential people within a target audience on that network.

When it comes to entertainment marketing, sometimes the most influential sources are not the official ones.  During a recent music campaign we found that 2 super-fans were able to drive more views of an artist’s video than the artist herself.  Similarly, the more commercial or corporate the campaign, the more likely the most influential and trusted sources will not be the official representatives of each group.  People are looking for trusted, third-party validation which means we need to find the trusted “validators” — they have been proven to drive awareness, adoption, and sales.

Who influences the influencers? It’s important to remember that no matter how influential somebody is, they too have their own trusted network that they turn to for information and recommendations.  The influencer’s influencer may not be all that influential in the larger community, but by having the ear of the recognized influencer, this additional source is actually a key enabler in the chain of influence.  For example, if you really want to reach a celebrity (a primary influencer), it helps exponentially to have a good relationship with their personal assistant or management team.

There are numerous occasions when it is difficult to gain access to the primary influencer.  So don’t just know who the influencers are — know who their influencers are! Twitter can help give you some insight into this – find the influencers and then look at whom they’re following.  On Facebook you can look at whom the influencer is engaging with most frequently (via wall posts and comments) as well as their “Top Friends” (if they’re using that app).  At Digg there are a group of very influential members — if enough of them Digg your article, you will end up on the front page. Look at who these influencers are Digging and get to know them as well – chances are they’re the ones feeding information to the primary influencers on Digg.

Where can you find influencers? It depends on your target audience.  Some communities are more active online than others, some audiences prefer one social network to another, and some influencers have private social network profiles but publicly accessible blogs.  It’s not only important to understand where your influencers can be found, but also the best way to reach and engage them.

A real world example: the yoga community. According to a study published by Yoga Journal magazine, “Yoga in America,” Americans spent $5.7 billion in 2008 on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media such as DVDs, videos, books and magazines. 44% of yoga practitioners in the US have a household income of at least $75,000.  24% earn more than $100,000.  An estimated 15.8 million people now practice yoga in the US. This is undeniably a group of people many brands and advertisers would like to reach.

The thing about the yoga community is – the most influential members are not online all that often (speaking relatively of course).  One of my dear friends is a very well known yoga teacher — the auto-reply on her email currently states she’s away until July 18th.  Nearly a month later even the auto-reply is out of date (and by the way, she is no longer “away”). Several of her students (and my friends) are members of Facebook, but compared to other audiences who log on daily or multiple times daily, the yoga community seem to participate less frequently.

This is not to say you can’t reach the yoga community online.  I’m merely pointing out that many of the most influential people in this group are traveling the world, leading workshops, and participating in offline gatherings.  So, if you really want to connect with the influencers in the yoga community, grab your mat and hit a class or attend a yoga conference or workshop.

Generally speaking, influencers in most target audiences can be found across multiple online platforms including: Facebook, Twitter, Digg, YouTube, WordPress, etc.  But keep in mind that it may also be beneficial to reach influencers offline, and authentically connect with them in the physical world.

How do you identify influencers? Companies such as BuzzLogic and Nielsen BuzzMetrics offer services that tell you not only who is talking about your brand or a specific topic, but who the most influential communicators are. There are also several sites that attempt to measure influence on Twitter based on various criteria (# of followers, influence of followers, # of RTs,  etc).

All of these services are helpful and can make the process of identifying influencers more efficient. At the same time, the most essential element of successfully tapping into influencers is building authentic relationships with them. While a service may point you in the right direction, at the end of the day you still need to do considerable work to really understand individual influencers and how they engage their followers.

Personally, I still identify influencers manually. I look at who’s writing about various subjects (social media search tools like Who’s Talkin? make this more efficient), look at who their audience is, and monitor audience engagement with each person’s communication. People ask, “Well, doesn’t that take a lot of time?” Yes, it does.  But through this process I also learn a great deal about each member of the community – their preferred methods of communication, the types of content they’re most interested in, how they communicate with their followers, how frequently they engage with the community, and probably most important – what they don’t like.

Working with influencers: This is where the real effort kicks in. Working with influencers requires that you have solid, relevant, and interesting content and exceptional relationship-building skills.

As previously noted, often the most influential people are those who are very difficult to reach directly – celebrities, athletes, highly respected writers and industry leaders like Bob Lefsetz and Scott Perry. Furthermore, the top tier influencers typically do not want to be told what they should be paying attention to.  They’re influential because they know what to pay attention to.  Again, this is why it’s important to maintain good relationships with the people the influencers are watching and ultimately, to become one of those people yourself.

Do not assume that since you’re one of the biggest brands or that because you created a once-popular product, people are going to care and be excited to hear from you. The most influential people are bombarded with similar requests and although you may think otherwise, you’re nothing special. They also tend to pride themselves on their credibility and their inability to be “bought” (although most will be happy to offer you advertising on their site).

Building these relationships takes time and requires patience. I once worked for somebody who was frustrated that influencers weren’t signing on to our promotion as rapidly as he would have liked.  Not understanding what it takes to develop these relationships, he said, “Well, just tell them you work for the guys who created MySpace.”  To which I responded, “These people hate MySpace.”  Next, he suggested we modify our communication and tell people we worked for News Corp.  Ummm… see the previous paragraph… and have an understanding of how your brand (and its parent company) is perceived.  Authentic relationships are built between individuals.   It’s okay to tout your brand to the right people. It’s even better to reach out with humility and gratitude and recognize you need these relationships more than they need you.

After many years of working with influencers, I haven’t found a fail-safe formula. However, there are some things you can do to increase your chances of success:

  • Understand the audience you’re trying to reach. Make sure you “know” them.  If you’re not familiar with a particular target audience, find somebody who is a member of that community or shares their interests and let that person handle communications.
  • Provide relevant content – something people will want to re-publish or respond to.
  • Make sure the content you offer is of value to the people you’re trying to reach (again – relevancy, quality, and knowing your audience)
  • Be aware of the boundaries of the relationships you create and what you do and don’t have permission to do.  Lefsetz’s response to my blog includes a link to a helpful article about Permission Marketing written by Seth Godin.
  • Maintain good relationships with everybody you encounter – you never know who has the ear of the most influential people in their community.  Don’t underestimate the power and influence of bartenders, personal trainers, the hotel concierge. . .
  • Be patient and respectful. Building relationships takes time and if somebody isn’t interested in what you’re offering, thank them for their consideration and remember you may have something down the line that they will be interested in
  • Instead of telling people what you want, invite conversation.  Let them know what you have to offer and remain open to suggestions.  Influencers likely know their audience better than you and chances are they’ll offer better ideas and even help you optimize your content.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. But it is possible to build sustaining relationships with people who ultimately help support the longevity of your brand. I believe it’s worth it.

The New Music Business Model: Imogen Heap

[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.

Fans line up for Heap TweetUp, Los Angeles

Fans line up for Heap TweetUp, Los Angeles

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 introduces each song

Heap introduces each song

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.

Imogen Heap signing autographs for fans after the TweetUp

Imogen Heap signing autographs for fans after the TweetUp

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…


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