Inside R.E.M.’s Web strategy

There’s a great series of guest posts over at Hypebot by my friend — and mesh 2008 keynote interview subject — Ethan Kaplan, the vice-president of technology at Warner Brothers Records, who provides a detailed breakdown of the online strategy behind the release of R.E.M.’s latest album, Accelerate. The band was apparently underwhelmed with the response to its previous albums, and decided that a gangbuster online push was one way to help reverse that tide, and Ethan was the natural architect for such a strategy, given his technology background — but also his intimate relationship with the band, which began over a decade ago when he created a fansite at the age of 16.

The strategy eventually included six different websites and sub-sites set up before and after the release of the album. And that’s in addition to the use of existing sites such as Murmur, the band’s community website and forum (which evolved out of Ethan’s original fan site), where bootleg audio of the songs started appearing months before the official release, taken from live rehearsals and promotional events. There was also REMDublin.com, which was set up as a central place for fans who attended the band’s Dublin 5-night series of shows to congregate and share their experiences. As Ethan notes: “Michael Stipe encouraged people to photograph and videotape the shows from the stage.

The band set up a similar site later on called REMHQ Tour, which aggregated all fan-created content — Twitter comments, Flickr photos, blog posts, YouTube videos and so on. I checked it out several times, and it was an incredible, almost real-time view of what fans were thinking and doing, and there was some excellent material there that would likely never have been seen by as many people if it was scattered all over dozens of Web services. Ethan says in the second part of his series that the site got over 3000 items submitted.

At the end, Ethan says:

“The beauty of all of this of course is that none of this would have been possible ten years ago. While people cry for the old days of the music business, I find it exciting that we can experiment so willingly and easily (and cost effectively) with technology. The very technology people say would be the death of the industry is the very technology which provided REM and WBR the ability to stretch our boundaries [and] help a band reinvent themselves.”

Hear, hear. Record executives and artists alike should read — and then re-read — Ethan’s posts.

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