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:
- 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!”
- Is the artist becoming a personality instead of a musician? “What about practicing, gigging, getting good?”
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.
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.