Imogen Heap pioneers a fan-sourced musical future

2011-04-05 00:00

GROUND-BREAKING singer-songwriter Imogen Heap has just released the first single of her forthcoming album. But it’s like nothing she’s done before. In fact, one can’t even credit her entirely with its creation. Heap is one half of an intense collaboration between herself and her legion of devoted fans all around the world who, together, will be creating her new album over the next three years.

The creation of the song (which was called Heapsong#1 but is now Lifeline) began on March 14, when Heap asked her fans to upload sounds (a cat’s meow, rustling leaves, banging on pots and pans) that they loved via the musical social network SoundCloud. A day later, fans were asked to help with the lyrics by uploading words to a “word cloud”. March 16 was dedicated to drawings and images which the fans “feel connect to the past two inspirational ‘seed’ day’s themes in some way”, while March 17 was dedicated to video and animation clips that would inform the visual content of the video.

All of this input was taken and reworked in the Heap style, which gave birth to Lifeline.

Few recording and performing artists have embraced social media with as much glee and hi-tech savvy as Heap, who last year wore a Twitter dress to the Grammy Awards, allowing her flock to send messages that flashed on a collar embedded with LED lights, or Twitpics that appeared on an iPod Touch encased in a transparent Fendi handbag. But the connections run much further than fashion.

On the subject matter of Lifeline, Heap explained to that “At the time, [the earthquake] had just happened that weekend, and I’m very grateful that it was on their conscious minds, because I wanted to write a song about it but I was only going to write a song about the seeds that they put into the word cloud.”

Why is she doing this?

Heap explained: “Well, there’s so much going on in my life with touring, talks and tech, that this was both a necessity coupled with my passion for collaborative, spontaneous and creative projects. I also love the idea of turning the tables, in that the seeds of the song begin with you, making a full circle when you experience it as a finished piece.”

Heap is not the only artist who is experimenting with the crowd-sourcing model. International band Maroon 5 has recently completed a similar exercise.

As the Guardian newspaper reports: “Maroon 5’s 24-hour recording session took place in a London studio on March 22, and was streamed live at This was very much a corporate exercise, with updates and fan input coming via Coke’s official Twitter account, bottles scattered around the studio and the song itself ‘inspired by Coke’.”

While it was not nearly as intense a collaboration as Heap’s, it seems to indicate a growing trend in the music industry as artists strive to connect with their fans in new and unusual ways, and social media make it easier to do so. Gone are the days when artists were held on a pedestal and their creations were released like magic to an adoring public. Fans are keenly aware of how it all works and what’s going on at any given moment. Nevertheless, talent is still a prerequisite and Heap has it in buckets.

As Gus Silber explained after Heap’s visit to South Africa, she has crafted for herself a thriving career by breaking down the walls that encircle the artistic elite, by casting aside facilitators and go-betweens to communicate directly with her constituents, and more than anything, by making the sort of music that drifts and rises above the hubbub.

But for Heap, this represents the beginning of a whole new phase of her working life. —

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