Yesterday was one of the most enjoyable – and surreal – days I can remember.
Certainly it’s the first time I’ve ever dressed up in a reflective silver toga and gazed meaningfully into the depths of a mirrorball whilst trapped inside a giant plastic bubble pumped full of oxygen…
I’ll come to exactly how this happened soon, but for the time being let’s rewind.
I’m an Imogen Heap fan. If you’re a regular reader you’ll already know this – I’ve written posts inspired by her several times before. I usually manage to make a useful comment as a result (including this time, hopefully !) but it’s really just a transparent attempt to disguise the fact that I’m a huge fan.
Now I enjoy a really wide range of music, but there aren’t many artists that I follow quite so closely – where Imogen is concerned I’m one of Kevin Kelly”s “1000 true fans” who will buy anything she produces, and help pretty much guarantee she’ll be a long-term success as a result.
So what’s the difference? What is it that marks her out over the many other musical acts I listen to and enjoy ?
Well, partly because she’s essentially my ideal musician – meaning she’s a classically trained pop artist who writes catchy, emotional music built from found sounds, electronica and good-old-fashioned Real Instruments – someone who samples and loops herself live onstage using stereo wrist-mics but can also improvise a haunting piano melody and sing like an angel…
But there’s another ingredient, as if that weren’t enough.
That ingredient is deceptively simple, and probably already familiar if you’ve spent any time on Facebook or Twitter – connection.
Imogen is one of a growing number of artists who are taking full advantage of possibilities of social media to connect with their fans – other examples that spring to mind are Amanda Palmer and Kristen Hersh – but I’d argue that Imogen has taken this to a whole other level, especially in the last 12 months.
As an example, let me explain about the bubbles and the mirror-toga.
Imogen is in the middle of writing the second song for her new album – in only two weeks, and with the very real help and active participation of her fans.
She wrote the first of these – “heapsong1″, now known by it’s final title “Lifeline“, back in March (2011) – fans contributed sound samples, lyrical ideas and even solos, via a microsite created specially for the purpose. (To see a great little “Making-of” video summary of the whole process, click here.)
The idea is to write and record songs like this once every three months, in two-week bursts and that after three years her new album will be complete – with us taking part and interacting all along the way.
So this time, for “heapsong2“, she is working with a new collaborator, Nick Ryan, on an intriguing “3D audio” song, and has asked her fans to contribute images and also 5-word “moments of clarity” to an interactive cloud, which you can see here.
I was one of over a thousand people who made a suggestion – you can see it by following this link and searching for “stereo” – without realising that Imogen planned to invite 5 or 6 people to appear as extras in the video for the song. So it was a complete surprise to me, when I was one of the people she asked !
Now, a while ago I took one of those online personality test things – you know the ones, we’ve all done it – and while it gave a pretty accurate overall conclusion about me, there was one detail that annoyed me. According to this particular test, I have an “impulsivity” rating of… zero percent. Zero ! Now there’s no question that I’m not an impulsive person, but this seemed a little harsh…
Maybe that’s why I decided to take Imogen up on her invitation and head down to her house and dress up in a tin-foil toga – or maybe it’s just because having missed her at TEDxAldeburgh last year I was delighted to have the chance to say “Hello”.
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t because I’m a blogger, or a sound engineer, or ‘in the know’ – it was just because I’m a fan, like everyone else who has got involved, and my suggestion made a connection.
So, the video is shot, now, and being edited as I type; I’ve met and made friends with the other five people whose “moments” were chosen; I’ve chatted to Kelly about production techniques and I’ve heard a sneak preview of heapsong2 in progress. I can say that it sounded as lovely as anything Imogen has written so far to me, and that the 3D audio aspect is going to be extraordinary – and that Nick and Imogen have a mammoth task ahead of them to get the song finished in time for it’s planned release on July 6th, in less than a week’s time.
(Update: the song and video are now released – you can watch it here)
I can also say that Imogen is exactly as charming, quirky and inspirational as she appears in her songs, interviews and webcasts – and crucially, that her interest in her fans and their impact on her music is absolutely genuine.
Think about it – in reality we five “bubble people” were effectively unpaid extras – but very willingly so. We all took time off work to be part of the video shoot – or college in France, in Izzy’s case. Santina actually booked her flights from the USA and a week’s leave with only two days notice, before she even knew she was finally going to be picked !
Imogen generates this kind of enthusiasm partly because she is so talented, but mainly because of the connection she shares with her online community. There’s a good chance she’ll reply to you if you happen to @ her on Twitter when she’s in front of a screen; if you hang around after a gig, she will usually come out to say Hello, speak to you and pose for a photo; and if your contribution is used in some way on for a song on the new album you can count on an invitation to it’s launch party. She is surrounded by a team of people who willingly work through the night with her to make things happen – precisely because she attracts enthusiastic, motivated people, and is obviously a pleasure to work with.
So, I said I’d find a useful comment to round this post off – what is it ? Well personally, reading the above back, I can see a whole series of inspirational ideas for any band or artist to connect with their fans, get help in making their music, and generate some invaluable viral publicity along the way – especially if you watch the “Making-of” video I linked to.
I’m sure some people will be muttering at this point that we can’t all be Imogen Heap – after all, she started out on her one-and-half-million-followers-strong social media adventure with a hit album and several TV synchronisation successes already safely under her belt. That’s a pretty convincing head start, right ?
Well, yes – but I see plenty of much smaller artists successfully making a similar approach work for them every day in my Twitter stream – like Zoe Keating, or Hope & Social, or Matt Stevens, or Steve Lawson, or Kate Havnevik, or Laura Kidd…
You can do this stuff, too. Anyone can do it – all it takes is time, energy, imagination, connection – and more than a little musical ability, of course. Laura is great evidence of this – as she’s said herself, she didn’t have any fans before her first album – but her second has already been 50% funded by the fans that first album found for her – in advance.
Here’s one of my favourite songs from Laura’s album . Enjoy it, and then go out and do the same thing for yourself !
For more pictures from the heapsong2 video shoot, click here
Edit to add – the ‘launch party’ on Sunday was informal, intimate and wonderful, including a live webcast to premiere the song, the first ever live acoustic performance of “Lifeline”, and some amazing food cooked by Immi’s new man, @termacora. (Heapsong2, now known as “Propeller Seeds”, is about how they met.) You can see the archived webcast stream on UStream here.
If you’d like to connect with any of the “Bubble People” who got to be in the video, you can find us all on Twitter: Izzy (“Floating Bubble”), Santina (“Spider Woman”), Mark (“Bush Man”), Me (“The Wizard”) and Verity (“Turtle Girl”) – come and say Hello, we’d love to meet you !