Webisodes Bring Artists and Fans Together
By Bobby Reed
Those Gold and Platinum walls are unforgettable. Among the most memorable exhibits in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum are the massive, floor-to-ceiling displays of Gold, Platinum and Multi-Platinum record plaques, which chronicle Country albums that have been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as having achieved respective status in sales.
The rules for certification have changed over the decades, as have the materials and means by which recorded music is marketed. Still, artists continue to dream of going Gold and beyond - and earlier this year, the dream came true for Lady Antebellum, who received a Gold record plaque to commemorate more than 500,000 units sold of its self-titled, debut album on Capitol Records Nashville.
Thousands of Lady Antebellum fans learned of this milestone by watching the reigning CMA New Artist of the Year's weekly Webisodes. These Web-based mini-documentaries offer a glimpse at what the band has been doing lately. Each is about five minutes long, and every one begins with the opening title sequence and the 10-second "Webisode Wednesdays" theme song. All of the group's members participate actively in these Webisodes, which are posted at www.ladyantebellum.com.
The 43rd installment in this series, posted on Feb. 11, featured Hillary Scott describing the concert stage at a rodeo in Mississippi, Charles Kelley doing pushups on the band bus and Dave Haywood preparing to walk the red carpet before the Grammy Awards. It also included the thrilling moment when Ellen DeGeneres surprised the trio with a Gold record plaque following their performance on her daytime talk show.
"We've got a crazy schedule, so it's nice to document it all, and we feel so close to our fans that we don't mind sharing all of it," said Haywood. "Webisodes are a great way for us to stay connected weekly with our fans. It takes some work to stay on top of it, but we're committed to this."
"At meet-and-greet gatherings, Lady A fans commonly refer to quotes, stories and inside jokes that come from the Webisodes," said videographer Adam Boatman, founder and head of rocktheBoat Productions, who films and edits these Lady A adventures as well as Web videos for Faith Hill and Darius Rucker. "One time last summer, as a joke, Dave created a set list for himself that was nothing but hieroglyphic-looking symbols that represented song titles. In this particular Webisode, he explained what each of his symbols meant. The following week, at a concert in Maryland, a girl in the front row held up a neon-yellow sign. It was her version of Dave's hieroglyphic set list! That was a priceless moment for me, and it really let me know that fans were paying attention to the Webisodes."
Others who have explored this same path toward connecting with their fans include Universal Records South artist Randy Houser, who premiered his eight-part Webisode series "The Road Home" on www.gactv.com, and Justin Moore, signed to The Valory Music Co., who features episodes on his label's Web site, www.thevalorymusicco.com.
Record labels have found this device especially effective for launching new artists. Whitney Duncan, signed to Warner Bros. Records Nashville, documented numerous behind-the-scenes moments in a Webisode series promoting her debut album, Right Road Now. A separate Webisode series, titled "Whit's Wit," featured Duncan speaking directly to the camera as she offered humorous explanations of Southern slang. Its seven installments built momentum steadily, with each one drawing more viewers than the one that had preceded it.
"Because I'm a new artist, this is a great way for fans to get to know me," Duncan observed. "It lets fans come along for the whole ride, rather than just giving them some music and hoping they like it. With the Webisodes, we filmed the making of the album, went behind the scenes of a music video shoot and went on a photo shoot. I think it's awesome. This helps fans get more invested in the artist as a person and get invested in the artist's entire career."
This is just one of several ways that Duncan has raised her profile online. In addition to her official Web site at www.whitneyduncan.com and her pages on the social networking sites www.facebook.com, www.imeem.com and www.myspace.com, she conducts live chat sessions, writes a blog, creates online playlists and uses an iPhone to post tweets - short blog entries - at www.twitter.com.
Duncan and her team are exploiting the viral nature of these tools. For example, fans have helped spread the word about Duncan by embedding her Webisodes in their blogs and sharing her online playlists with their friends.
"Some artists really get this movement of community and viral marketing," said Kelli Cashiola, VP, Marketing, Warner Bros. Records Nashville. "To these artists, it's a lifestyle. So it's natural for them to do things like use Twitter, get online to do live chats and have a video camera follow them around all the time."
Warner Bros. Records Nashville artist Blake Shelton is one of those who gets it. Like Dierks Bentley, Pat Green and The Eli Young Band, he makes particularly effective use of humor to draw viewers to his Webisodes. In one example, he took to the streets of Manhattan to see if he had acquired an enigmatic "super power" as a result of being named to the "Sexiest Men Alive" list compiled annually by People magazine. This and other Webisodes in Shelton's "Pure BS" series are streamed at www.imeem.com and are available as well on his official channel at www.youtube.com.
"Humor is a huge selling point," Cashiola noted. "People love artists who make them laugh. We want people to put a personality and a face with the music. Webisodes are one more way to do that. Blake Shelton takes a camera with him wherever he goes, and we meld that footage together into funny little clips that his fans go crazy over. We've had over 1 million views."
The growing popularity of Webisodes in marketing campaigns relates to two important challenges that currently face the music industry. First, as online applications continue to evolve, artists, record labels and management must come to agreements about who is responsible for the financial and labor requirements associated with the frequent production of videos. This presents terrific opportunities for collaboration with new business partners from the online realm.
The second challenge involves the erosion of the traditional album cycle. Traditionally, artists would record and release an album, embark on a tour, take some time off and then start the cycle again. Web-based videos are beginning to change this routine because fans crave a steady flow of entertainment from their favorite artists, especially during the downtime between album releases.
"This is where the business has changed," Cashiola agreed. "Of course, we try to create a lot of awareness around an album release date. But I look at these projects as ongoing, 365 days a year. This is a commitment, a partnership with the artist, so we work on these projects every single day. Sure, everybody needs a vacation every once in a while, but artists nowadays need to have the drive, the will and the endurance to go at all times. For most artists, it's easy because they truly care about their fans."
The future looks undeniably bright for Webisodes. As younger consumers may migrate away some from radio and television, they will consume more and more of their entertainment online. Webisodes are a key way to hold the fan's attention 52 weeks per year. When done well, a creative Webisode can be just as addictive as the melodic hook in a catchy chorus.
Six Essential Ingredients for Successful Webisodes
As Founder and President of Nashville-based Hi-Fi Fusion, Todd Cassetty has designed new-media marketing campaigns for Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, Taylor Swift, Sugarland, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and other artists. Based on what he's learned from supervising Webisode series in many of these campaigns, Cassetty offers six points that Webisodes should address to best serve clients.
Make It Entertaining
"If a Webisode isn't entertaining, no one is going to want to watch it, much less virally pass it around."
Make It Serial
"Each Webisode should either tease the next one or establish that it is part of a series. You want people to come back, not just to visit one time."
Make Your Pitch
"Whether it's a new album, a tour, merchandise or an appearance on a television program, make sure that whatever you're selling comes across."
Make Sure the Artist Buys In
"The moment your artist loses interest, the quality of the series is going to diminish significantly."
Content Trumps Quality
"I'm not saying that quality isn't important, but if you're getting an inside tour of an artist's bus, that fact alone is much more important than whether the camerawork is a little jerky."
"The more you capture a personal view of the artist's world, the more people will respond. You can shoot two hours of Toby Keith singing in the studio and making good decisions, but that gets old. You want the moment where Toby jokes about something or hams it up with one of the guys in the band. That personalizes him. Fans already know they're brilliant artists because they see them onstage. But getting the laughter, the fun and cutting up are what makes them even more appealing."
© 2009 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.