Imogen Heap: Queen of the digital age

By interacting with her fans at every step of the creative process, Imogen Heap is blazing a trail for the music industry, reports Michael McCarthy
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The Independent Culture

The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan, and if the legendary communications theorist had lived long enough to take in Imogen Heap (he died in 1980), he might have been strongly confirmed in his belief.

Today the sweet-voiced singer-songwriter from Romford in Essex releases a new album, Ellipse, which is remarkable not so much for its ethereal, dreamy songs – which are pretty good, in fact – as for the way the whole collection has been put together.

The principle is one which a few short years ago seemed entirely revolutionary: the interactive principle. The interaction has been with Heap's fans, who through the internet, through social networking sites such as Myspace, through blogs, video blogs, podcasts and latterly through Twitter, have not only been kept updated on the progress of the album's 13 tracks from composition to recording, but have been invited by the singer to take part in the process. To contribute. To offer feedback. To suggest remixes. To suggest lyrics. To suggest artwork. And they have.

If this has passed you by, there's a simple reason: you can't be part of the online community. Heap's many thousands of fans, here and in the United States, are largely to be found in cyberspace. While the singer is far from being a household name, has hardly impinged on the traditional charts, and in fact would probably not be recognised walking down the street in London, she has created a vast and now very loyal online audience which is continuing to grow at a remarkable rate: she now has nearly three-quarters of a million followers on Twitter alone, and has had 40 million plays on Myspace.

For Imogen Heap is the online queen. More than being a talented British writer and performer to set alongside (if you wish) Dido or Lily Allen, she is the diva of digital; she is at the very forefront of those who are remaking the model of the music industry, after the old model collapsed.

Ten years ago the emergence of Napster, the first online file-sharing service, signalled the end of the traditional market dominance of the record companies which had grown fat on their sales of overpriced CDs; sharing songs online began to replace buying product in stores, CD sales started to head rapidly south, and the age if the iPod was upon us.

No one has seen the implications of this more clearly than Imogen Heap. She is 31, a graduate of the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, the academy funded by the record industry's Brit awards, so she has had a techie streak from the beginning. But she is also remarkably musical, being classically trained in piano, cello and clarinet and self-taught on guitar and drums and also on the array mbira, a new take on an old African instrument – a sort of thumb-piano with a bell-like sound.

For someone barely out of her twenties she has had a long career, having signed her first recording contract at the age of 18. Her 1998 debut album, iMegaphone (an anagram of Imogen Heap) received critical acclaim and prompted comparisons with Kate Bush and Annie Lennox. That was made in the traditional way. But the second album, Speak for Yourself, released in 2005 after Heap's recording career had had a series of ups and downs, pointed to a different way of doing things. She announced on her website she was going to write and produce it herself and would regularly update fans on its progress through her blog; so she did, and its first two tracks were premiered online.

Yet Ellipse has exploited the possibilities of digital technology and of the internet perhaps more than any albumso far, both for production and promotion. Heap created the songs on her laptop (using a special software program, GarageBand), and laid them down not in a studio but in a writing trip that took her around the world. During the process, which lasted about two years in all, she made no fewer than 40 video blogs, or vBlogs, shown on YouTube, to keep her fans updated and also to ask them to contribute ideas.

Through her Myspace site she was in contact with about 350,000 of them, but when the addictive mini-messaging and micro-blogging of Twitter came along, her empire mushroomed as she instantly saw the possibilities of reaching an ever-wider digital audience. In March this year, she posted a video blog asking her fans to contribute to her press biography for the album; all entries had to be via Twitter, and those whose entries were used would receive a signed copy of the album on its appearance; in the event, 81 of them were successful out of thousands received.

In May, she asked fans to contribute to the album artwork, based on the feel of the lyrics, which she pasted online, creating a special group for the purpose on the image-sharing website Flickr; more than 1,000 fans responded, and photos taken by 11 of them are included in the final package.

Imogen Heap now has nearly three-quarters of a million Twitter followers. Think about that for a moment. It represents the astonishing creation of a community loyal to her and likely to buy her work. She has created the loyalty by the effort she has put into communication with them, using every online development as it becomes available.

She has found a way to build a relationship with her fans which will be profitable for her, but clearly does not feel exploitative of them, as she has used the resources of the internet to involve them in the creative process.

The message of the songs on Ellipse is varied – it ranges from love to joy to self-disgust – but her use of the digital medium is entirely single-minded. And in fact, the more you think about it, with Imogen Heap the medium itself becomes the message, as Marshall McLuhan would have clearly understood.

Other Musical Pioneers

*Radiohead

Radiohead weren't the first band to give away an album free online but few have had the impact of the band's digital-first release of In Rainbows in October 2007. After their record deal with EMI had elapsed, the band decided to go it alone, releasing In Rainbows as an mp3 download from their website www.radiohead.com. The band didn't charge fans for the album but an "honesty box" system was set up, with those downloading the record invited to pay as much, or as little (or not at all) as they wished. This month the band gave away their new song, "These Are My Twisted Words" through their website.

*Beck

Beck kicked off the site's (www.beck .com) relaunch by announcing his 'Record Club' project, whereby he and various other musicians would record cover versions of entire albums in a single day's studio session. Videos of the recordings are put on the site, The first album covered was The Velvet Underground & Nico – the final track of which will land this week.

*The Streets

In April Mike Skinner of The Streets wrote on his Twitter account, twitter. com/skinnermike: "I am going to tweet 3 new songs this week. I can't be bothered with all this trying to sell you music. It wastes valuable time." In the following days he posted links to downloads of three new songs, 'I Love My Phone', 'Trust Me' and 'Dave Hassles'. He has since given away more music in the same manner.

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