The first music video MTV aired 29 years ago was Video Killed the Radio Star, featuring the Buggles in white lab coats lip-synching among life-size plastic tubes. This, and the other videos aired that day, set the bar for what became an industry norm: giving your fans more than just music. Almost three decades later, as Google kills MTV, the market is saturated with “extras” like free music and homemade videos, making it even harder for bands to stand out. But Canadian independent rock band Arcade Fire is pioneering ways to give faithful fans more — and hopefully, earn new ones.
Last month, the band released an online interactive video titled The Wilderness Downtown, a collaboration with Google and American music video director Chris Milk that uses the latest in HTML5 web technology to evoke the feeling of nostalgia expressed in the band’s song “We Used To Wait.” Viewers enter their childhood street address and the video takes them on a virtual tour of their old neighbourhood. Multiple browser windows simultaneously show close-ups of your street via Google Street View, footage of a man running, and an invitation to write a postcard to your childhood self.
“When you see something like that, it’s an example of ‘Wow, I guess everything hasn’t been done yet,'” says Alan Cross, host of syndicated Canadian radio show The Ongoing History of New Music, adding he’s not a diehard Arcade Fire fan. “It changed my opinion of them, and I passed it on to everyone because I think it’s so damn cool.”
With more than four million visitors to the site so far, the video has surely helped get attention for the band’s new album The Suburbs, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts prior to the video’s release. Sixty-two per cent of sales of The Suburbs have come from digital downloads, compared with half that number for their previous album. And though the band’s management declined to comment on whether there was a direct correlation between the online project and sales, Jordan says it’s not about the short sell anyway. “It’s key to super-serve your core audience,” he says. “By giving things for free, it creates a culture of support where fans don’t mind buying tickets for your show or your album because they know they’re getting more value.”
Bob Lefsetz, record business insider and author of a respected industry newsletter, says not any old band should focus on providing extras. It works for Arcade Fire because they’ve built a solid fan base with three albums of good music. “There could be an album with incredible packaging, but that’s irrelevant if the music’s not good,” he says. “It’s like a guy saying, ‘Want to go on a date?’ and then when you’re on the date he’s saying, ‘Want to get married?’ It’s overkill.”
Lefsetz also explains that Arcade Fire has the clout to align themselves with a cool brand like Google, whereas the fans would likely have thought the project brazenly promotional had it been sponsored by a company like Chrysler.
Jordan says fans don’t mind the band’s association with Google because the art feels genuine. “Nowhere on that video does it say ‘Buy that record here,'” he says. “It feels like Arcade Fire, so the fans don’t feel it’s part of a marketing plan.”
Adding value to a product or service strengthens your clients’ loyalty to your company, explains Nova Scotia-based new media and design consultant Brad Smith, but it has to be done in a way that makes them feel rewarded rather than accosted. Smith advises that his clients always give fans a little extra to help create a sense of exclusivity around a brand. “Social media is intimate,” he says. “When you leak details, it feels to fans that you’re leaking secrets.” For example, he encourages the varsity hockey teams he works with to leak shots of new features on their jerseys so fans can blog about it and create buzz.
Jordan says the advantage of doing something groundbreaking that goes viral is that it both satisfies current fans and converts new ones. “It’s like a hit song,” he says. “Zeppelin always had fans, but once they had hits, there were way more.”