Postcards, Proctors, Buddies and Blips - Can Capitol's Online Promo Put Radiohead Back At the Top of the Charts?
May 16, 2001 -
by Wendy Mitchell

When Capitol Records released Radiohead's feverishly anticipated Kid A last year, there were several things working against the album's potential success: Radiohead didn't want to do a big tour, didn't want to make traditional MTV videos, didn't want to do many press interviews, and didn't have a huge single destined for radio. But Kid A did have the kind of promotion that money can't buy -- fans were rabid for new music from the group, whose last release was 1997's acclaimed OK Computer, and there was huge buzz about Kid A on the Internet -- unofficially through songs leaked at Napster, and more officially at fan-run Radiohead websites and through Capitol's own online promotions. When Kid A was released in October 2000, it somewhat surprisingly shot to the top of the Billboard charts. Some were quick to hail Napster as the reason that these post-rock artists were able to enter the charts ahead of mainstream hip-hop or teen pop, but it's unlikely that Napster was the sole reason for the album's success. Still, no one can deny that the Internet helped Kid A; now Capitol Records is again using the Net to work the band's next album, Amnesiac.

"Word of mouth is very powerful and that is why the Internet is so impactful," says Robin Bechtel, Capitol's head of new media. "What we did on the last album, and are continuing to do on this record is give the fans the tools to help us spread the word...we let fans pass the entire album [Kid A] to their friends for three weeks straight up until street date. Fans got to hear the album and then began talking about it to their friends and so on. We know that worked."

Now, only eight months later, Capitol is readying the release of Radiohead's fifth album, Amnesiac, which is due June 5. It's still anybody's guess if this one will repeat that debut at the top of the charts, but the album's buzz on the Internet is going strong. Capitol is building on the initiatives that it started with Kid A, plus adding a few new ones for Amnesiac. The centerpiece of the label's online promotions is a mini-website created by iMedium (slightly more advanced than the one offered for Kid A). This flash-based "iBlip" mini-site resides on Capitol's homepage, fan sites, online retail sites, music and radio sites and more, and it can be sent from one consumer to another. The iBlip has links for fans to read Radiohead news, preview album tracks, download a live song, buy the album, see a video, snail mail postcards to each other, download animated desktop characters, or learn about a special Radiohead instant messaging buddy, Googly Minotaur.

Rather than looking at the iBlip as a corporate sales tool, fans have embraced it. Bechtel notes that the Kid A iBlip had click-through rates of 167 percent (friends sent the iBlip on average to two or three friends each), compared with viral marketing average of 5-11 percent of banner click throughs of .05 percent.

The iBlip is also flexible and can be updated constantly. "We will be adding new content weekly -- including unreleased tracks, a full album listening party for 10 days up until record release on demand," Bechtel tells Digital Music Weekly. The iBlip will also note contests, promotions with and "some other surprises."

The instant messaging buddy, which can be added to buddy lists now but won't be fully functional until June 5, was developed with messaging company ActiveBuddy. This interactive agent will sit on a fan's instant messaging buddy or friend list, and will be able to respond to questions about the band and the new album, and it can also provide fans with Radiohead tour dates, song lists, biography, album credits, website information, and more.

In addition, Amnesiac should be helped in part because the album is a bit more accessible than Kid A, the band plans a more extensive tour to support Amnesiac, and MTV is already playing the video for the first single, "Pyramid Song." Bechtel also notes that the band will also create some "lo-fi videos" that will be distributed around the Web. In the days of e-mail spam gone wild, the snail mail postcards are also an interesting pitch. Digital Music Weekly tested the free postcard service (offered through AmazingMail) and we received our free, eye-catching postcard within a week.

Trying to reach out to Radiohead fans is key to Capitol, Bechtel says, noting that these listeners are "very very dedicated fans" who are also "very Net savvy." She points out that there are more than 1,000 fan-created sites devoted to Radiohead. It's refreshing that Capitol doesn't see these sites as a threat or competition, but rather something to be embraced as a way to help the label spread the Radiohead gospel. Bechtel explains, "On the last record, and on this album we reached out to these fans as our marketing partners and they did an amazing job at helping capitol promote Kid A."

One such fan webmaster who's happy to work with Capitol is Jonathan Percy, a 23-year-old freelance Web designer who started Green Plastic Radiohead (one of the more popular Radiohead fan sites) in March 1997. He updates his site daily, spending anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours per day. Percy is encouraged by Capitol's web initiatives. "They have realized the importance of my site and the other great Radiohead fan sites," he says. "We basically have been doing free promotion and marketing for Radiohead for years and Capitol has really embraced us. For example, I, along with another Radiohead webmaster, recently had a chance to help out with their new Radiohead instant messenger buddy thing. We both sat and came up with the content and stuff to be used. Capitol came to us cause they realized that we knew a lot about Radiohead."

This fan webmaster is confident that the Internet buzz was "a huge influence on the success of Kid A." Percy said that he started to update Green Plastic about album news in 1998 when recording started, and the new album was the favored topic in message boards and mailing lists. Also helping the album's success was that the label "really embraced the fan sites to get the word out about the album." Plus, the leak on Napster helped the album go to number one, Percy suggests. The Napster buzz is now very much diminished with the file-sharing service's new crackdown on copyrighted material, but enterprising fans can still find album tracks there (Rodeohead, anyone?) or through other sites.

Percy says that Capitol's iBlip and other online promotions may seem unusual now, but that's because Radiohead is a challenging band to promote. He sees future record promotions getting back to fans like himself. "What Radiohead and Capitol Records are doing is what is going to be done in the future with just about all releases," he predicts. "They are showing the music industry that you don't have to be a boy band with flashy videos and slick hair styles to get an album to debut at number one. You don't have to bend over backwards to promote a band with television cola commercials and TV shows. The fans are a band's greatest resource and I think that sometimes that fans are forgotten about."

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