Viewpoint: Can popstars point the way for digital creativity?

Who knew a single reptilian tail could launch so many thinkpieces?

Billboard had “The History of Taylor Swift & The Snake”. The Mirror promised “A Look Back at Her Relationship with The Emoji with a Sting in its Tail”. The Huffington Post, “All The Theories On Whats Going On With Taylor Swift Right Now”.

A quick recap, in case the glare of the eclipse blinded you to the other star-related happenings of the week. Last Friday, Taylor Swift started to disappear from social media. Her Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr pages unfollowed every last account and were wiped of all content, down to the profile pics. Cue the speculation. Had Swift been hacked? Was this a step back from public life? Or was she following in the footsteps of Radiohead, and winding up to an album campaign?

The question was answered on Monday, by a 10-second looping video, posted simultaneously across all her social media, showing a snake’s tail unfurling against a black background. That was it. No caption, no explanation.

Honestly, it’s not the most compelling piece of content you’ve ever seen. If this was what your creative agency came back with for your next big campaign, I suspect you’d be, to put it politely, rather disappointed.

And yet that first video – it was joined by similar clips on Tuesday and Wednesday, filling out the rest of the snakes body – is rapidly approaching 7m views on Instagram alone. That 10 seconds of footage generated all those headlines I mentioned earlier, and many many more. The hype machine for Swift’s next release is already in full force.

Don’t you wish your video ads could do that?

Blank Space

The thing is, Swift isn’t the only musical artist to make such smart use of digital. As mentioned, this approach – wiping all presence off the internet – was actually first deployed by Radiohead last year, who followed it up with mysterious leaflets posted to some of the band’s most hardcore fans. It was essentially a highly targeted direct mail campaign, one which explicitly told recipients: “We know where you live”.

That was also well reported, and the campaign worked because it fit with Radiohead’s enigmatic, slightly sinister image. In Taylor Swift’s case, the wipe was effective because she has built so much of her reputation and relationship with fans on these platforms.

Musicians were the first to really understand the power of social media for building a brand. Back in the days of MySpace, artists like The Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen used it to kick start their successful careers.

These are nice simple examples – but that’s not always the case. Earlier this month, Arcade Fire ended up apologising on Twitter over the social marketing campaign for their latest album, Everything Now, which included a listing for a branded fidget spinner/USB stick combo on the band’s online store and a string of fake news websites with articles about Arcade Fire.

Even the apology, however, was part of the band’s complex web of pranks. It claimed that the Everything Now Corp, a company which doesn’t exist, had fired social media co-ordinator Tannis Wright, who – you guessed it – doesn’t exist.

It’s actually a pretty sharp piece of satire on how important social media has become to musical artists, and how bands are treated as brands – all the things I’m celebrating here. It’s an endless loop of stories linking to and disputing each other, acknowledging that some parts of the campaign are a joke about ‘fake news’ while also adding to the pile of disinformation. The whole thing is a pretty perfect companion to the album, which is a considerably less sharp satire on internet culture.

Wildest Dreams
The interesting things that musical artists are doing with digital aren’t limited to social, of course. The music video in particular has undergone a technological transformation, with a plethora of interactive and especially VR videos out there. For one recent highlight, look at Muse’s video for Dig Down, which used an algorithm to match news clips up to the songs lyrics and generate a new version of the video every day.

We talk a lot about the existence – or absence – of creativity in digital advertising, particularly on mobile. The music industry is an interesting case because the materials surrounding the music itself can often be an offshoot of the main artistic process. It depends on the artist, of course, but there has always been a chance for real creativity in what are essentially marketing materials. Look at music videos, which turned a promotional tool into something so desirable people would watch an entire channel of them.

This approach breeds a genuine creativity that maybe isn’t possible in other marketing. As an industry, we try to instil brands with values and personalities. But in the case of music, those brands are actual people who want to express themselves – and so the best marketing retains a touch of their personality. Even without these unique benefits, we should be able to apply that principle to marketing, whatever it’s promoting and whatever form it takes.