Interview: Aaron Ray, Partner At The Collective Pt. 1
Recently, I spoke with Aaron Ray who is a Partner at The Collective, Head of New Media. He is currently overseeing all digital initiatives and running all strategies, assets and communities worldwide for artists such as Linkin Park, Avenged Sevenfold, Enrique Iglesias, Big Boi, Staind, and Slash. In this particular interview, we will be focusing on his involvement in recent happenings with Linkin Park and Ray's insights into the evolution of the project.
In their up-and-coming album, A Thousand Suns, to be released September 14, Linkin Park has set aside a space on the album for a fan collaboration song. The group launched a contest titled "Linkin Park, Featuring You," which allowed fans to create their own original version of the band’s new single “The Catalyst” and concludes with a worthy fan having his or her song put onto the next album.
Why is it so significant that a group of this scale would open their new release up to including a fan collaboration on it and how does this event recontextualize the artist to fan relationship?
Aaron Ray: I think the reason that Linkin Park has had such a successful “traditional” career (over 60 Mill albums sold, 1 Diamond Album, 2 Grammys, etc) is their willingness to embrace change. They are not afraid of experimenting and they are constantly challenging pre-conceived notions of what a super group is. They are doing the most important thing to thrive- and that is to adapt. This is the opposite of the status quo playbook many are using.
While it is noble that other artists have released stems from their songs to their fans, usually after the release, no one has broken the Fourth Wall. That is to say, no one has made the actual commitment to intertwine their music with a fan’s. Offering the stems before the single has been released, along with the vocal hook, is a traditional non-starter.
"To go one step further and offer to stand side by side with
that collaboration on, what is still seen as the Holly Grail of documentation, the actual CD is even more unheard of."
To collaborate with an artist of this size requires an enormous amount of backroom navigating. With a Record Label, Publisher, International, Radio, Retail and Merch Companies all having a stake in Linkin Park’s next release- it was quite a feat to get done.
Warner Brother Records was very helpful with this as well. My experiences with the other labels, even within the Warner Music Group, lead me to believe that this could not have been done elsewhere. We are lucky for that.
MySpace Music was able to offer some legal protection and access to over 30 countries. Without MySpace Music, without a multi-platinum artist insisting that this be done and without a series of other technology tools available and owned by the artist- this would not be possible. Sign of the times I hope.
Kyle Bylin: Back in the day, I remember becoming a fan of Linkin Park in the age of MTV and commercial radio. To this day, I would consider them to be, despite their high level of social media transparency, to be untouchable. They are unreachable and part of that something that's bigger than ourselves.
How does a move to directly involve their fans in their album challenge the barriers to artistry and could this move lead more artists, in the higher tiers, to consider involving and engaging their fans?
Aaron Ray: I hope this will be used to break precedence for other artists to encourage them to explore new avenues of engagement- and help discover new talent. Let’s be frank- no one cares about whatever corporate logo is on the packaging. Most people buy their music, if they buy it, from iTunes anyway. They are Apple customers and other than that- the only brand that matters is the artist.
The bigger the artist, the more reach they have and more leverage. If they chose to look to their fanbase for some direction, they (the artist) may be able to use their social currency to pull new artists up and nurture them similar to the way labels used to. Do a duet, do a video, play live together or record together. It doesn’t matter. If you are treating your fans right- they will at least give it a listen. It is the best way to bring someone fresh into the spotlight.
"It’s not a new idea, but the means of executing it is. If you are
regularly pulling down 50 Million views per video on YouTube alone
over time, you can give a new artist more exposure than MTV…"
ever could. It is on demand, it can be shared, it can be commented on and rated, it is portable, international, etc. Some of these channels are capable of operating as small cable companies frankly.
So- why would you go watch a video on YouTube? Because you are a fan. Maybe a friend recommended it to you, maybe it came up on your Facebook Wall, maybe on your Twitter feed. Regardless, you will at least give it a shot and check out the new collaboration or recommendation put on YouTube by the artist.
Of course, some of the ridiculous policies by the labels are going to restrict access to the artist’s prior videos that feature music. It is very clear that these outlets are not looked at as potential levers to break new artists, but rather to sell advertising against. It is no secret if someone is looking at it. Listen to the investor calls and look at the proposals being sent to Ad Companies by the labels. The idea of having a video that reaches 100 million people is an opportunity to service Ford or Colgate or whoever has the budget to write a check to the label. Vevo is a company that has a deal with right holders and they make it very very clear that they are not in business with individual artists (seems short sighted, but true).
If I were advising an aspiring artist and I could get a shot at having them seen by a fanbase of an artist they looked up to- I would jump through hoops for that chance. These videos will live forever. We have only scratched the surface of what that could turn into. On the other hand- what kind of “fanbase” are you getting endorsed by when you are signed to a label? There is none. No lifestyle. No camaraderie.
KB: Notably, someone in your position has studied hundreds and hundreds of marketing campaigns, spanning artists of nearly every background, who's goals and fans are all different and unique in their own ways.
What makes a project like Linkin Park's so ambitious, compared to campaigns run by other artists, in terms of scale, size, commitment, and overall fan collaboration and involvement?
Aaron Ray: Well, it has been said that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Almost all marketing and economic plans from say, before 2007, are worthless. The plan was to service radio so that brick and mortar retail would respond and people would buy a CD and chart on a single publication. Repeat. Once MySpace was bought by Fox and YouTube by Google- all bets were off. Word of mouth is what was empowered.
What your friends liked and saw and commented on was all that counted. Retailers went out of business; radio stations consolidated and played only “hits” (they make money by people listening to be fair- advertising) and newspapers and magazines seem archaic now.
"Marketing is a queasy term. The idea of a marketing
plan before was to lock in some actions to then execute
– controlling the campaign for maximum profit. "
Now marketing means giving up control and offering fans the easiest way possible to experience the music. If it is easy enough to then share it- great. If it is good enough to be listened to over and over- it will make its own value chain. Marketing is really only effective in the long term if done by fans. I would say that the end result of a good marketing plan is cutting through the attention economy and having people begin to vote by their time invested with the music and vides, chat, apps, etc.
KB: As a fan of Linkin Park, my relationship with them is characterized by what social scientists call "parasocial interaction." This term is used to describe the one-sidedness of bond, wherein, I, the fan, might know almost everything there is to know about Linkin Park, but they know little about me, as an individual. Usually, most artist relations with their fans are marked by the illusion of interaction, rather than any real social intimacy.
Why is it important that Linkin Park, even though they have nine million fans on their social networks, re-engenders interest in their art and fan engagements don't manifest this illusion of interaction?
Aaron Ray: If I understand your question right, I believe that the whole social media world nullifies this is in many ways (within proportion).
Linkin Park has invested many many resources into their social communication tools and fan analysis. It is much wider than you reference; Linkin Park has over 9 million fans on Facebook alone. Each of those has an average of 130 friends. Quickly, you can see how rich that platform is in regards to identifying true fans and the incredible reach the social graph has. Besides Facebook, they have close to 6 million on iLike, 1.4 million on MySpace, about 70k members in their own social network, one of the biggest music channels on YouTube (even with a year of being pulled off by the WMG dispute) and an enormous email database.
"This is nothing compared to the 100’s of millions of data pieces
we have access to via custom scrapers and bots that are scrolling through p2p networks and South East Asian communities."
Orkut, Hi5, Friendster, QQ and Mixi all have different profiles on how users interact with Linkin Park. Then there are the sentiment analysis tools we use. With the app economy beginning to break, Android, Nokia (ex-USA) and the iPhones- we are just beginning to go where the fans are engaging Linkin Park, and all entertainment internationally- the mobile devices. LBS (Location Based Services) ala 4square or GoWalla, etc will become ubiquitous along with Google Latitudes and other GPS programs.
People TALK about preparing for the future (or actually the present to be more accurate), but who is spending money and committing manpower to finding a place in the browser “wars”, mobile OS advancement, geo-localized messaging, microtransactions, social gaming, virtual goods, emerging markets, VOIP, etc?
What is the plan when music becomes cloud based? Doesn’t it make sense to be talking to Google directly about their living room initiatives w Google TV? What about WiFi in the car and Pandora with over 10’s of millions of installs on the iPhone alone? It isn’t the label, it isn’t the promoter and it isn’t the publisher. It is on the artist and their management team to outline and guide them through this incredible time to be able to amass a transportable community that can be carried through out their career.
"It is a huge undertaking. The basic tenants of Web 2.0
are based on two-way interaction. It is NOT a “hot medium”
like the radio or TV, as Marshall McLuhan would say. "
We are a culture of Prosumers and we want to customize and personalize our media and music is the most powerful form of self-expression possible. Being a Linkin Park fan means that you will be engaged, you will have personalization and Linkin Park WILL have the ability to know exactly who “you” are IF you so choose. The tools are there to used.
The answer to your question is that it is important that Linkin Park does this because if they don’t- no one else will do it for them.