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Unleashing the Artist Within the Fan: Social Media Lessons From Imogen Heap

September 9, 2009

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Crowd-sourced concepts and products as well as those that simply elicit fan feedback along the course of the creation are a growing trend. But sometimes I question the intentions behind them — being more of a goodwill, look-what-we’re-doing tactic or a way to create buzz rather than for true inspiration.

Not the case with Imogen Heap (if you will consider how this talented artist has built herself into a stand alone brand). By nature, she’s fueled by comments from fans. And it was when she started blogging a couple years ago that she really began to embrace fan’s influence on her music.

Now, with the help of a number of social networking tools, she’s involving her fans every step of the way. In her Twitter bio she says:

I’ve been tweeting about making my new album, Ellipse (out 24th Aug). Now… I guess I’ll be tweeting about how it gets from my studio to your ears…

Yes, while working on her latest album, Ellipse, she would occasionally share 12 seconds of a track with her nearly 1MM twitter followers and ask for feedback. Admittedly she says (in an npr interview heard on-air) it didn’t really cause her to go back and change any part of the song. But it did give her positive reinforcement that she was moving in the right direction.

Asking For Feedback Through YouTube
Throughout the process, she posted sound clips in her video blog on YouTube as well as 12seconds. In vBlog#35,  she talks for 10 minutes in her home studio (as in most of her vBlogs) about how she’s working through the track “Tidal.” She goes into detail about her struggles with how to put the song together until she had an epiphany that caused her to change the song. She teases her fans with a couple short recorded clips.
Then she plays the first chorus of another new song “Swoon” as the clip shows her recording it. She goes on to play “Bad Body Double” while demonstrating the beat on a kazoo-like instrument. The video is raw and conversational. I felt like I was there in the studio with her. Like I was getting a private inside tour.
One video alone garnered 127,646 views, 5 video responses, 280 ratings and 184 comments. At one point she asked fans to send her their version of a song. 300+ fans responded and she plans to put out an EP of her favorites.

Letting Her Fans Write Her Story Via Twitter
Heap goes so far as to have her fans tell her story. Using @heaptweets, she asked people to send in short sentences about interesting aspects of her life. With the help of a journalist, Heap assembled it into a “biog.” She put forth 12 questions or topics as thought-starters. In her vBlog invitation, she even called out to some of her celebrity followers — Perez Hilton and Kanye West, just to name a few — to contribute. More than 1500 tweets were collected for the “first crowd-sourced press biography of a musician.”

Collaborating With Amateur Artists on Flickr
Artists presented their portfolios and told Heap a bit about what they’d create for her involving some part of her house. Heap agreed to cook, feed, play piano for, “whatever [they] want within reason” for one week in her home as a payment for collaborating on the design of her new album artwork. Pretty awesome payment, I must say, if you’re a fan. But more over, it’s a big savings for Heap as an alternative to enlisting a pricier professional artist who may want royalties. And think of all the friends and family of this artistic fan that could potentially purchase the album just for sake of his artwork. Oh, and it makes a good story too.

Maximizing Reach with Various Channels
Heap has her own blog, tweets regularly and maintains Facebook, YouTube and MySpace pages. Plus she’s used Flickr and 12seconds.

She’s definitely not missing out on fan connections. Though I find her social presence too overwhelming. I’d love to provide feedback, inspire and be part of the process, but I don’t have time to keep up with all of her scattered updates. So I pick Twitter, like the majority of her fans.

I just downloaded Ellipse. I liked her in Frou Frou, and now her entire, fascinating creative and marketing process has transformed me into a long-term fan.

It’s really about being vulnerable and having the guts to show your work-in-progress. To me, that makes you much more humble and likable. Fans everywhere must agree. In just one week, her album charted at #5 on the U.S.’s Billboard Top 200, #1 on the Internet Album Chart and #2 on the Digital Albums Chart, #4 on the Canadian Top 200, and #39 on the UK Top 40.

Who Should Take Note
Should more musicians use twitter or 12seconds as a sounding board? I’m not sure collaboration or in-process feedback is right for every artist as it could quickly turn disastrous if artists don’t cultivate their community like Heap does.

Some other artists could creatively use social media for fan feedback or collaboration along the way:
1. fiction writers: Use fans to help them develop characters or plot.
2. painters: Show work in progress and gather critiques.
3. fashion designers: Help with fabric selection or pairings.
4. red-carpet celebrities: Which outfit, asseccories, hairstyle should I wear?
5. movie producers: Should a scene make the chopping block?

Can you think of others?

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Threeminds.
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