Cross-Media Case Study: Rainbow Bright

XMedia-Rainbow Bright

Marketers search for Radiohead's pot of gold

Considering all the attention In Rainbows received just for its pay-what-you-want pricing strategy, not to mention the minor explosion over the subsequent release of the higher quality CD, it could be argued that the thing didn't need any more marketing. Who hadn't heard of it? Who hadn't taken a position on whether Radiohead is a genius marketer, or just a hugely popular band overshadowing the online and new media efforts of smaller groups?

Well, it's been more than six months, and people are still talking about this album. The name-your-price buzz is dead, but it did set off a whole new conversation, kept alive by marketing tactics like a remix contest you had to buy your way into, near real-time blogging, an animation contest, and various podcasts, Web videos and widgets. The conversation now includes names like Trent Reznor, and it includes ideas about how to reach fans without making it all about album or ticket sales. How much involvement can they have in the creative process? Would they pay for the
privilege of remixing a track? And does any of this bring in new fans, whether you're a new band or an old one trying to reach a new generation?

Nobody is saying that Radiohead invented online marketing for pop music, but what the band has been doing to promote In Rainbows since its attention-getting release has altered the rules. It put money and reach behind ideas that smaller bands have been experimenting with all along, and came up with some new ones. And it gave another big shove to an industry that's had a notoriously hard time staying on its feet in this brave new world.

But let's start with the fun stuff - cartoons.

In Pictures

In March, animation site Aniboom wrapped up Stage 1 of one of its biggest contest to date: a call for animated videos of In Rainbows tracks. Naming itself and Radiohead as judges and the public as voters, Aniboom collected about 900 storyboards, twice as many as expected, according to Jonas Gerber, senior vice president of business development and general manager of U.S. operations. The winning animation, announced June 30, may air on Adult Swim.

Gerber, who also worked for 10 years in the music industry on new models of distribution, pitched the idea to Red Light Management, which works with Radiohead. (Red Light declined an interview.)

"They agreed that conceptually it was a great fit," Gerber says. "They brought it to the band, and the band was into it."

Aniboom's campaign to promote the contest included e-mail, networking within animation forums and on MySpace, a presence in animation blog communities, distribution of a call-for-entries animated video on a network of video-sharing sites, a presence on Radiohead fan sites, and a week of commercials on Adult Swim. The call-for-entries video scored 1 million views in two weeks. Traffic on Aniboom's site went up 20 percent. The semi-finalists are distributed on Aniboom's video-sharing network, too.

"This competition provides massive exposure and opportunity for our creators and massive engagement in Radiohead's music," Gerber says.

That kind of dual benefit, that invitation to engage and participate, points to a major change in the music industry, says professor Catherine Fitterman, director of the undergraduate music business program at New York University's Steinhardt School. She says bands like The Hold Steady, Paramour, and OK Go and artists like Maria Schneider are also pioneers in fan engagement but don't get the news coverage of Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails.

"Fans want to be close, like on a daily basis, with their bands," Fitterman says. "The gatekeepers - Top 40 radio and the major record labels - for years had actually gotten in the way of fans and artists, and you know, that's cool, everything evolves. But now the barriers are down with Internet distribution, and people feel they can get a lot closer to the bands on their own."

XMedia-Rainbow Bright
Radiohead_RainbowsOkay, Computer

Radiohead set up its own contest this spring on its Web site, Dead Air Space. It sold one track off In Rainbows, "Nude," broken up into stems, and invited fans to compete and vote, with no prize besides the honor of winning. And even though they had to pay to do so, fans jumped right in.

"Music fans now, especially the younger ones, are kind of more participatory. They're used to interacting with things differently than an older generation would," says Mark Richardson, managing editor, Pitchfork Media. "The idea that fans work to help change and complete and alter music kind of makes sense from that perspective. I think Radiohead, even though they're from an older generation, realize that that's something that people look for now."

In fact, Radiohead's own insistence on having a vibrant online presence keeps its brand accessible to new and younger fans, and the remix contest and other In Rainbows promotions reinforce that, setting off online discussions that feed Radiohead's image. While the band may have first hit it big with college students more than 10 years ago, they're creating new ways to keep those fans enthralled and recruit new ones.

"I'm sure younger people come across them more than they would other bands of [Radiohead's] era because they're so prominent online," Richardson says. "My guess would be that they would be reaching more fans, especially younger fans."

The remix contest, one of the only elements of the campaign for which Radiohead or its management has released metrics - and, fittingly, the band simply posted them on its blog - shows enthusiastic engagement: more than 2.5 million unique visitors, 12.5 million page views, 29 million hits, 710,000 track listens, and 274,000 votes.

Other elements of the campaign include podcasts, a widget from Clearspring that included tour dates, and low-budget Web videos recorded in their own studio that give the whole "get to know the band" thing more immediacy. And of course, they're blogging consistently.

"I went online and there are some pictures posted four hours ago," Fitterman says. "That makes you feel like you're in the band, with the band. That's pretty cool."

Fitterman and Richardson agreed that Radiohead and superbands like them are changing the marketing and the distribution of music, but both point to grassroots efforts by less well-known bands.

"I think for a band of their scale, they are innovating," Richardson says. "That sort of thing happens a lot with smaller bands, but just not very many people notice."

"You are a Target Market"

But they're starting to notice, and the industry is reacting on all levels. Trent Reznor and Radiohead can have an in-the-media debate over the responsibilities that come with releasing an album online for free (we had to bring it up one more time). Big-name and lesser known bands can post a new song or half a song and invite comments, then incorporate fan reaction. Artists like Prince and Jon Bon Jovi can invigorate their careers, simply because, like Radiohead, they're actively reaching out to a younger audience.

"It's not all serious, not all about record sales," Fitterman says. "Anything they can do to help fans see them as people - certainly iconic people - whether it's through their lyrics, or how they market to the places where the kids are going, I think it shows an incredible understanding of how people are finding music today, and that they're bonding with the artists."

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