What can Beyoncé, Radiohead, Chelsea Wolfe and James Blake teach us about how to use the Internet? Find out in this edition of the Augment Intelligence newsletter.
This week I investigate how musicians are using the Internet, both to promote themselves and sell records. The best practices covered here can be applied to other creative artists too – including writers, visual artists, game designers and film-makers. But professional musicians seem to have a special knack with digital media. Perhaps because they’ve faced more online challenges to their livelihood than other creative artists. From the early threat of P2P file sharing (in particular Napster, which famously riled up the rock group Metallica), through to the challenges posed in this era by YouTube and Spotify.
In this newsletter, I’ll analyse how various levels of musicians have adapted. From the mega-popular (Beyoncé and Radiohead), to highly regarded but not yet mainstream (Chelsea Wolfe and James Blake), to the Long Tail struggling away on Bandcamp (an indie artist I like called Eskimeaux).
Beyoncé & Radiohead
Both of these major artists have just released new albums, so it’s a good opportunity to analyse their online strategies. On Saturday 23 April, Beyoncé launched a “visual album” called Lemonade with a 60-minute film aired on HBO. Directly after, the album was made available for streaming on Tidal, the Spotify competitor owned by her husband Jay-Z. The following day, people could purchase the album on Tidal.
It was a masterful album launch and the Internet was utilised fully. In particular, Beyoncé used her enormous social media reach to create buzz. It started a week before, with a teaser video on her Instagram account (which has 70 million followers). When the movie aired, it attracted 696,000 tweets. The excitement continued after the launch too. Variety reported that the movie “set off a digital scavenger hunt among fans,” as they tried to decipher the imagery and lyrical clues – especially the lyrics suggesting that Jay-Z cheated on her. To put the icing on the cake, the album generated excellent reviews (review aggregator Any Decent Music calculated an average score of 8.7/10).
The Lemonade album launch was an online masterclass by Beyoncé, particularly in how to create Internet buzz and sustain it. Also admirable about this release is how Beyoncé mixed in social activism. Her #BeyGOOD Charitable Foundation (note the hashtag name, to encourage online sharing) is all about promoting equality, a theme explored at length in the album.
As for Radiohead, it’s had an up and down relationship with the Internet. Singer Thom Yorke regularly preaches the evils of Spotify and YouTube, and this can come across as whiny and over-privileged. At the same time, Radiohead has been very innovative over the years in both promoting and selling their albums online. From the groundbreaking 2007 “pay what you want” download of In Rainbows, to the new Radiohead album released just this week: A Moon Shaped Pool.
Radiohead is known for its attention-grabbing Internet gimmicks and their latest was a doozy. On 1 May, Radiohead began erasing its Internet presence! That day Pitchfork alarmingly noted that Radiohead’s website “slowly decreased in opacity until it went entirely blank [and] it appears that tweets and Facebook posts from their accounts have been steadily disappearing.” Cryptic Instagrams followed. Then a new song (Burn The Witch) and accompanying video was released on YouTube. Finally the album was released, which fans could buy direct from Radiohead’s website.
What Radiohead demonstrated – once again – with this album release is the value of clever, creative viral marketing. Its disappearing web presence was a neat stunt, which got people talking. It then utilised that very same Internet media (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) to post teaser videos and images. But Radiohead also backed the gimmicks up with a solid online sales strategy. Continuing to build on its In Rainbows experiment, Radiohead is selling the album through its website. I bought it and can confirm that it was an efficient and simple purchase – although I was surprised at how much personal data the website demanded, considering Thom York’s severe stance on privacy.
Before we move on, I’d like to note that Prince was a trendsetter in distributing his music online. He was one of the first to sell his music online direct to the public, starting in 2001.
Chelsea Wolfe & James Blake
Of course it’s all very well if you’re Beyoncé (64 million Facebook likes) or Radiohead (nearly 12 million). But what if you’re a musician who doesn’t have such mass appeal. Chelsea Wolfe (154,000 likes) and James Blake (807,000) are two good examples.
Blake is an interesting example, because he’s got a very solid Internet platform – yet he’s not in a position to get the masses talking like Beyoncé or Radiohead. Therefore Internet gimmicks won’t work so well, because chances are they’d not make the Trending lists in Facebook or Twitter. So you might think an intense campaign of Facebook posts and tweeting leading up to the release would be in order. But Blake didn’t do that. Other than hinting at something new, with a retweet at the end of April showing a mysterious billboard going up, Blake waited until earlier this week to modestly announce: “Tune into BBC Radio 1 this evening at 7:30pm (BST) to hear new music.” The album was announced and delivered straight after.
So that’s one way to do it: wait until your product – whether it be an album, book, film or whatever – is actually available before promoting it. That tactic worked well for Blake, because his album has been shared and discussed a great deal this past week. He let his music do the talking.
Chelsea Wolfe is a more consistent user of social media than James Blake. Her Instagram account is particularly good – it’s a fun mix of photos of Wolfe performing or artfully modelling, and the pics she takes herself from behind-the-scenes. Wolfe also gets fabulous support from her label, Sargent House. Its Twitter account includes plenty of PR, but it is useful information about the label’s bands: their music releases, tours and interviews. I also like the personal messages from Sargent House founder Cathy Pellow (on Mother’s Day, Pellow tweeted “I wonder if people understand just how difficult it is to raise a child on your own as a single mother. Hat’s off to my ladies. been there”).
Indeed, that’s one of the best ways for an artist or their rep to use social media: make it personal, yet professional. Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood and Paolo Coelho are three writers who achieve the same delicate balance as Chelsea Wolfe. (Incidentally, Prince was a master at that too. His Twitter and Instagram usage, although sporadic, was arty and at times personal.)
The Long Tail
As with everything on the Internet, there’s a very long tail of artists who don’t have anywhere near the reach of Chelsea Wolfe, let alone Beyoncé. That’s where a passionate indie label like Sargent House can help (it has 20,000 followers on Twitter). But having a solid Internet presence and using platforms like Bandcamp are also important. A great example is a young musician I came across this year called Eskimeaux, described on Bandcamp as “the songwriting and production project of Gabrielle Smith.”
Eskimeaux has a website that ticks all the boxes, a Facebook Page that chronicles their tours, and fun Instagram and Twitter accounts that appear to be entirely run by Smith herself. She may not be selling tens of millions of albums, but she has at least sold a couple of albums on Bandcamp to yours truly (and probably thousands of other people!). That said, discovery is typically the big challenge for artists on the Long Tail. So how did I discover Eskimeaux? Through my favorite music nerds, NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast. Which goes to show the value of passionate curators – they are key for Long Tail artists.
In conclusion, there’s no one size fits all approach to utilising the Internet as a professional musician; or indeed as any other type of creative artist. But the artists I’ve discussed in this newsletter are all making online lemonade, to paraphrase the great Beyoncé. It’s just that the lemonade recipes differ, depending on the artist’s level of popularity.