By now, we all know the tale of Justin Bieber: baby-faced preteen posts videos on Youtube and croons his way to superstardom. It’s the Web 2.0 Cinderella story, where L.A. Reid is Prince Charming and Usher is the fairy godmother. But before the Biebs and his hair won us over, another singer successfully used Youtube as a promotional platform: Terra Naomi.
The singer-songwriter launched a ‘virtual tour’ from her Hollywood apartment in the summer of 2006, back when Myspace was the king of online music and lonelygirl15 was all the rage on Youtube. The video of her song “Say It’s Possible” did indeed lead to a label deal, but that wasn’t Terra’s happy ending. Her story, once again set on the social media frontier, is still being written–this time, with the help of 2010 iPhone App of the Year Hipstamatic.
Terra realized very early on that participation trumps broadcasting. The narrative she developed through her ‘tour’ was part of groundbreaking shifts in music discovery, consumption, and promotion. Youtube became an outlet not just for struggling artists, but for fans–the original recording of “Say It’s Possible” generated hundreds of covers in just the first several months (see some diverse interpretations of the song here). Terra’s raw, unedited Youtube videos inspired fans to collaborate in her development as an artist and personal brand, and she was able to create a loyal following. In other words, she built a community.
This dialogue between artist and consumer is one of the things we all love (and to a certain extent, take for granted) about the social media age. Consumers increasingly yearn for ‘realness’: it’s why we watch intimate performance sessions (like these), why we flocked to the Coachella live stream, why folk music flourishes in an increasingly electro world. We want to know there’s a real person at the other end of the ethernet cord (or wireless router), and we want that person to speak and listen. Terra Naomi has taken that ethos to heart—indeed, her sophomore album, To Know I’m OK, was funded entirely by fans through PledgeMusic (see more of my posts on PledgeMusic here).
We all know Hipstamatic as the driving force behind those awesome analog-style photos; Instagram was just an ickle baby when Hipstamatic was winning Apple’s iPhone App of the Year. The self-described ‘art kids from Wisconsin’ were on the same page as Terra long before they ever met: they gave users a creative way to express themselves and engage in the brand’s development. They also value authenticity, letting the vintage camera metaphor guide usability choices and the app’s aesthetic. Hipstamatic, like Terra Naomi, has a story—and they encourage users to help write it.
Terra sought out ‘Director of Fun’ (seriously) Mario Estrada and the rest of the like-minded Hipstamatic team to be involved in her album launch, and they heartily agreed. Not only did they again collaborate with photographer Ben Watts (they’d previously worked with Watts on the Bondi Hipstapak) for her cover art, they also broke new social media ground. Terra and the Hipstas created the first ever app-based, crowdsourced music video for “You for Me”, using submissions from a Hipstamatic contest.
The 10,000 photo submissions answered the question ‘What do you love?’, further illustrating that people are using digital tools to express age-old emotions. The chosen images, selected primarily by the Hipstamatic community itself, were woven together by director Alex Albrecht (Diggnation, The Totally Rad Show) into a thoroughly modern piece of collaboration. While crowdsourcing for music videos is becoming increasingly prevalent, this particular contest/creative effort is truly unique. It’s not the virtual choir created by Eric Whitacre, or the fan video contest recently launched by Junip. It’s not even the Michael Jackson tribute video released earlier this month. It’s somewhere in the middle—sweeter, simpler, and much more inclusive. And again, it was created using an effing iPhone app.
On June 21st, the Haus of Hipstamatic hosted Terra’s album launch party, which included the inaugural episode of their Summer Sessions concert series. Following the premiere of the “You for Me” video, Terra’s live set was streamed on Hipstamatic’s Ustream channel—proving once again she and the Hipstas hadn’t forgotten the extended virtual family that got them there. The live stream bridged the gap between digital and actual, much as the Hipstamatic app does itself, and brought together the various forces that made it all possible.
Hipstamatic launched a creative form that champions a ‘social media’ mentality, encouraging others not just to participate, but to continue to engage (Hipstapaks are the new Pokemon cards: gotta catch ’em all!). Places like Turntable.fm are similarly changing the game, bringing established sites of interaction (DJing, clubs, chat rooms) together to form something entirely new. At the heart of all these digital endeavors, though, lies two quintessential human desires: expression and connection.
One of the biggest criticisms of the digital era is that it isolates us. We never need to leave our houses, let alone strike up conversations in line at the grocery store. But years of experience on the web have told me a different story, and it’s one that Terra Naomi has helped create. The key to success in the modern age—especially when it comes to art, music, entertainment, and all kinds of innovation—is to include others in your growth. Maybe you’re not (yet) selling out the Fillmore, but you can start getting to know the people who’ll one day buy advance tickets.
Trying to break into the 21st century music biz? Take some pages from Terra Naomi’s book:
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
By ‘communicate’, I don’t mean ‘talk at’. Instead, be an authentic person who genuinely wants to nurture conversation with listeners. If I get an auto-DM from a band I’ve just followed on Twitter, I’ll click that ‘unfollow’ button real fast. If everything you post ends with the URL for your Bandcamp page, ditto.
Embrace new platforms.
Facebook and Twitter are the tips of the social media iceberg. Look for up-and-comers like Turntable.fm, or sites like Tumblr that are continuing to expand. Don’t forget to check out other useful tools like Bandcamp and Topspin, and get a BandPage for your Facebook. If you really want to bypass the labels, look to PledgeMusic to fund your music-related projects. (And if you’re in the Bay Area and want the heads-up on all the buzziest music tools, head to September’s SF MusicTech Summit. Tweet me in advance or come find me—I look like my logo—and say hello.)
Ask for help.
I remember reading Hardball by Chris Matthews for a Berkeley political science class and being a bit puzzled by one of his main points: “It’s Better to Receive Than to Give”. Turns out, this mantra works for more than just politics. Whether you’re asking fans for money on PledgeMusic or just giving them the opportunity to enter a contest, people like to be engaged. On a different scale, Terra asked the Hipstamatic team to get involved, and they did—in a big way.
Let other people write part of your story.
Social media needs to be organic. As a brand or artist, you can only facilitate so much growth on your own. The beauty of the Hipstamatic fan base is that it operates largely independently: these fierce brand evangelists contribute because Hipstamatic gives them an outlet for self-expression. Terra Naomi didn’t ask anyone to post a cover on Youtube, but her fans chose to engage with her in a (then-)new way.