Is it an attempt to connect with them or an elaborate marketing ruse?

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

ON APRIL 6TH Charli XCX shared her intention to create a “DIY Quarantine album”. “I’m going to be setting up an email so fans can send me beats,” the British popstar announced in a video posted on Twitter, “I’ll also be reaching out to collaborators online, and will keep the entire process super open.” In the weeks leading up to the record’s release on May 15th, Ms XCX shared demos with her fans, asked them to offer feedback on lyrics and requested that they send in video clips of themselves so they could appear—uncredited—in a music video for one of the album’s singles, “forever”. The result, “how i’m feeling now”, became one of the most talked-about albums of lockdown and managed to reach number 33 in the British charts (a feat, considering the avant-garde and chart-averse nature of the album).

Charli XCX encouraged her fans to regard themselves not as mere consumers of her work, but as her creative partners. Other musicians, sensing that their admirers need distraction and entertainment in lockdown, are having similar ideas. In August Snow Patrol released an album in collaboration with The Saturday Songwriters—a catch-all term for the fans who helped craft the songs via Instagram Live. Gary Lightbody, the band’s lead singer, asked participants to suggest chords; he crafted some melodies and users voted for their favourite. Mr Lightbody then solicited ideas for lyrics. “Some people were making jokes,” he has said, “but 95% of them were really heartfelt people speaking from where they were in that time and that place.” The album’s artwork was also put to an online contest, and all proceeds from the release will go to a British food charity.

Social media has played a crucial role in facilitating this dialogue and allowing such creativity to flourish. Some musicians are making use of the “duet” function on TikTok, a video-sharing site, which allows users to riff on others’ work. (If a user posts a video, another person can respond to it, and the result appears side-by-side on the screen.) It is a feature Charlie Puth (pictured), an American singer-songwriter and producer, has been experimenting with over the past several months. He began laying down beats on TikTok in February and requesting that users add musical layers of their own. What resulted were fully-fledged songs, which Mr Puth did not release but left on TikTok for people to enjoy. The hashtag #writethelyrics has been viewed 3.8bn times to date.

Many musicians have sought fans’ involvement in other ways. In April Grimes, a Canadian singer-songwriter, asked people to make a music video for her single “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around”. “Because we’re all in lockdown, we thought if people are bored and wanna learn new things, we could release the raw components of a music video for anyone who wants to try making stuff using our footage,” she said. The finished products were posted on YouTube, Twitter and Instagram under the hashtag #grimesartkit, and some were shared by Grimes herself. In May Perfume Genius, an American singer, invited fans to submit ideas for the video for his single “Without You”, with the three chosen directors receiving $1,000 to make their vision a reality.

“There’s a world of creativity and self-expression in the form of dance routines, transformations, remixes or funny interpretations of original artistic content,” says Sol Ghafoor, a director at AnalogFolk, a creative agency. With Beats by Dr Dre, an audio equipment company, he recently launched a campaign starring Ashnikko, a rapper who had gone viral on TikTok. Ashnikko invited fans to be a part of the video for her new single, “Daisy”, by challenging them to create clips inspired by the new headphones.

“When I was growing up, I wanted to connect with the artist. I think the tools have just caught up with what fans have always wanted,” says Eric Fritschi, a global marketing strategist who has worked on promotional campaigns for the likes of Diplo and Major Lazer. As well as making fans feel closer to their favourite singers, these schemes have benefits for record labels. “With the old model, you’d make all the content and storytelling, push it out to people and hope that they liked it, and there was very little feedback from that,” he says. “But now we know, even before it goes out whether fans will like it or not, whether they’re anticipating or not.” Mr Fritschi estimates that a marketing team now makes about a tenth of an album’s promotional material and “the fans are contributing all the rest”—either by posting on Twitter, dancing to the songs on TikTok or using the music to accompany an Instagram story.

Fans, no matter how many hours they put into these projects, do not have any formal claim to the remixed content. Copyright laws “prevent the [musicians’] work from being exploited in a way which they do not agree with, or in a way which means they are no longer appropriately remunerated for their work,” says Joshua Schuermann, an associate at Briffa Legal, a firm specialising in intellectual property law. In 2014 Erasure, an English synth-pop duo, launched a competition whereby fans could put their own spin on their latest single for the chance to have it appear on one of the band’s later releases. The winning entry, “Sacred (Fiben Remix)”, appeared on a record a year later although its maker was not entitled to monetary compensation. Superfans may relish the opportunity to engage with their favourite tracks, but it is often for the musician’s benefit—not theirs.

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