From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories

Album cover design is alive and well in the digital era. However, the role of the album cover has changed. The days are long gone when album cover art served to attract your eye amid a sea of vinyl in a record store. Now album covers, both virtually and in analog form, are part of an artist’s broader visual palette. For example, the cover of Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP, designed by Jeff Koons, permeates all aspects of her brand, including her Little Monsters website, social spaces, merchandise, and concert staging.

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Album covers are actually perfect for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music on the album, capture the personality of the artist, and grab your attention. I recently created a presentation that shares several examples of memorable album covers from 1957 to the present day. My presentation, Visual Storytelling through Memorable Album Covers, covers a wide range of artists from Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd. The examples skew toward the late 1960s and 1970s because that time was the golden era of the album, when artists and musicians collaborated on groundbreaking designs. But as Visual Storytelling through Memorable Album Covers shows, album covers remain a powerful expression today. I will periodically update the presentation to show you how modern-day album covers are still provoking, expressing, and telling visual stories.

I would love to see your examples, too. Please let me know about album covers that have made an impression on you and why. I’ll return the favor by creating a new collection of visual stories told through album covers.

Lady Gaga and Mariah Carey: Attack of the Digital Divas

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Welcome to new music release day 2013, when the deployment of social and mobile technology by the artist is as important as the sharing of the music itself. The era of expecting the unveiling of a record album or song to carry the day ended a long time ago. On November 11, two artists, one a veteran of the analog age and the other a scorching hot digital native, illustrated the realities of sharing new music in the fractured music industry: making an impression is all about continuously serving your superfans with engaging, personal content.

The Queen of Digital

Lady Gaga has managed the release of her album ARTPOP like a lengthy political campaign. As detailed in an excellent article by Jackie Huba for Forbes, Lady Gaga actually unveiled the name of her new album way back in August 2012 while she was promoting her previous album, Born This Way. And she’s been quite resourceful about Continue reading

Lady Gaga Gives Her Fans a Visual Hashtag with “Applause”

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With the release of her new single, “Applause,” Lady Gaga has served a visual feast to the news media. On August 12 she conspicuously wore Kabuki-inspired face paint while making the rounds in Los Angeles to promote the first single off her forthcoming album ARTPOP. Publications ranging from Buzzfeed to The Huffington Post responded predictably by plastering her image across the media landscape. But by appearing in face paint, Lady Gaga has done more than promote “Applause” and ARTPOP to the news media: she has created a brilliant visual hashtag for her fans.

Literally all over the world, Little Monsters are creating ARTPOP-inspired fan art and selfies seemingly every few minutes on sites such as Instagram and her own LittleMonsters community. And I’m not exaggerating. My LittleMonsters feed is flooded with a nonstop river of orange, blue, green, and red hues as fans show their support for Lady Gaga — and for each other — with their Gaga-style self-portraits and art. Here are just a few examples from Chile, France, and Wales:

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There is something touching about seeing fans just putting themselves out there, braving their fear of creating amateur art because they simply want to share. For example, Little Monster nicolaHMW from Paris says that his fan art is “not amazing, but im proud of it [sic]”:

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And the self-expression is not limited to her own website, as a few of these Instagram photos show:

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The ARTPOP face paint is like a totem: a visual symbol of something that inspires and moves people. But it’s also a way for Little Monsters to spot each other instantly and bond, like fans of sports teams who wear the same logos or people on Twitter following a trending topic through hashtags. Therein lies the brilliance of her latest promotion: she’s given her fans a way to celebrate her music but also to create a reflection of each other.

Lady Gaga carries the mantel for many rock artists who long ago mastered the art of iconography. In the 1970s, for instance, Kiss inspired the Kiss army with the band’s colorful costumes, make-up, and onstage theatrics, as did David Bowie. (In fact, one of those Bowie fans was Lady Gaga, and the cover of ARTPOP has been compared to the cover of Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters.)

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What Lady Gaga does (as Madonna once did) is express herself visually onstage and offstage (whereas Kiss remained a mystery offstage during the band’s heyday). In doing so, she creates and sustains a whirlwind of conversation.

ARTPOP itself lands November 11. Looks like it’s going to be a colorful fall.

5 Customer Experience Lessons from Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Acts Now

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If you want to improve your customer experience, read the recently published Rolling Stone overview of the 50 greatest live acts now. The best live acts do something all brands aspire to do: create an experience that make their fans want to come back for more. It’s a simple formula for building brand love — and yet many companies struggle to master the art of the customer experience. According to the annual Temkin Experience Ratings, only 37 percent of companies received “good” or “excellent” scores for their customer experience. Here’s what 50 great live acts (rated by musicians, critics, and industry executives) can teach brands about treating their customers right:

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1. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Number 1 on the list of greatest live acts now is a 63-year old legend who could coast on his reputation and still make this list. Yet, Bruce Springsteen plays with the urgency  of an unknown act trying to prove himself.  He continues to give everything he has onstage (in Finland, he played for 4 hours and 16 minutes, his longest show ever). He abandons his set list to play requests from the audience, which keeps his band from falling into a  rut. He commands the stage. After all these years, he’s not simply “doing well for an older rocker” — he’s setting the standard for excellence, period. Another well-established act, Radiohead, “refuse to rest on nostalgia,” in the words of Rolling Stone, with the band members challenging themselves to bring fresh material with each tour. But Bruce Springsteen is the one artist who exemplifies all five lessons on this list.

2. Create Audience Intimacy

The artists, critics, and industry types who selected the Top 50 laud Jay Z for making “personal connection with the audience at every show.” Similarly, U2 “have this ability to create intimacy” even in large arenas, according to Continue reading

Lady Gaga Ignites a Body Revolution

Lady Gaga is taking her clothes off to start a body revolution.

In response to news stories about her weight gain in recent weeks, Lady Gaga has taken matters into her own hands. On September 25, she posted unvarnished photos of her body on her Little Monsters social media site and encouraged community members to do the same. She calls the initiative A Body Revolution 2013. I believe Body Revolution is significant because the effort shows how a celebrity can use social media to make a powerful statement that transcends her art.

“Be brave and celebrate with us your ‘perceived flaws,’ as society tells us,” she wrote on her site when she launched Body Revolution. “May we make our flaws famous, and thus redefine the heinous,” she added — as she revealed that she has suffered from bulemia and anorexia since she was 15 years old.

Body Revolution has generated an overwhelming response, with Little Monsters members from around the world posting photos of their bodies — warts, scars, cellulite, and all. The posts come with some compelling commentary. Here are some examples:

Some posts discuss eating disorders, such as this one from Sk3llingt0n, a 23-year-old Little Monster from France: “My body revolution, I’m sick, Anorexia and bulimia since 14YO, cut myself since same time…I find hope with Gaga. So hard to show my scars and my body.” Or this from Morphine Princess: “My own father calls me fat and stupid almost every day. I’ve had on-off eating disorders since I was 13 years old, I just want to feel comfortable with my body.”

The Body Revolution feels authentic — not a PR stunt — because Lady Gaga has always used her art and fame to celebrate individuality and self-acceptance. She is an active spokesperson for LGBT rights. Her Born This Way Foundation combats bullying and empowers youth. And, of course, she sings about self-acceptance in songs such as “Born This Way” (sample lyric: “Whether life’s disabilities/Left you outcast, bullied or teased/Rejoice and love yourself today/’Cause baby, you were born this way.”

Lady Gaga is neither the first nor the last artist to use her fame to support causes. However, her use of social media sets her apart. Here’s someone who is not only promoting self-acceptance but connecting like-minded people to each other.

But Body Revolution is not without its critics. In the September 27 The Guardian, freelance author Sady Doyle asserts that “The stunt reeks of selling acceptance to the insecure.”

Doyle writes, “I work for a web magazine aimed at teenage girls, and can confirm that descriptions of weight loss or body shape have to be looked over carefully, so as not to trigger anorexic or bulimic readers. Here’s one thing I don’t imagine is helpful to the eating disordered: submitting pictures of themselves to be judged by their favourite pop star.”

Moreover, in The Huffington Post (U.K. edition), fashion blogger Aimee Wood muses that the site might encourage people to accept obesity. “Obesity kills. Fact,” she writes. “Encouraging people to LOVE their bodies is great, but let’s not encourage people to NEGLECT their bodies. We need to take action. We need to realise WHY our bodies look like this and that there IS something we can do about it (in most cases) instead of just learning to live with it and get over it. We need to accept the fact that we CAN have flaws, but that we can also ACT against them. We need to encourage people to feel HAPPY with themselves but also and mainly to strive for what they really want (to look like) in life.”

But there’s one aspect of Body Revolution that you cannot appreciate unless you spend some time on the Little Monsters site: the peer commentary. Little Monsters can comment on each other’s posts, and Body Revolution content is no exception. Hence when one Little Monster posts a photo of her curvy body and admits to being nervous about her appearance, another member responds, ” . . . you have nothing to worry about, you are GORGEOUS.” When one member posts a photo of her scarred face, another responds, ” . . . if we met, I would want to hold your hand.” Lady Gaga is making the headlines, and rightfully so — but the real story is the community that carries the torch for the Body Revolution.

Lady Gaga: controversial. Loud. In your face. But most importantly of all, authentic. What do you think of A Body Revolution?

Madonna doesn’t need all your luvin’

Wow. Madonna’s critics really have their knives out this week. But she might end up having the last laugh.

As you might have heard, sales of her latest album, MDNA, suffered the biggest second-week drop in chart history.  Since the news broke, the highly regarded Lefsetz Letter has stated bluntly that Madonna has lost touch with her audience. Forbes contributor Roger Friedman blames Madonna for creating boring songs and not caring. The problem is that her naysayers are measuring the wrong metric. Especially for multi-media brands like Madonna, sales of compact discs don’t count for much anymore – and haven’t for about 10 years. The real action for the Madonnas, U2s, and Bruce Springsteens of the world comes from sales of tickets and merchandise. We won’t be able to assess the health of the Madonna brand until the sales results are known for her 2012 World Tour, which begins on May 29 in Israel and comes to North America on August 28. So far, reports of preliminary ticket sales have been largely positive, but it’s best to wait until actual revenues are reported.

Ironically, MDNA was engineered to realize a sales drop – certainly not to the magnitude that Madonna probably expected, but a drop was indeed part of the plan. As Billboard reported, “MDNA’s” large fall was expected, as its debut was bolstered by sales gained from a concert ticket/album promotion as well as pre-orders from iTunes.” In other words, the CD supports the tour, not the other way around — a strategy that makes perfect business sense for a well established act.

By the way, do you know who previously held the record for the biggest second-week sales drop in history?

Someone by the name of Lady Gaga for Born This Way.

Life in the hip-hop underground with Symon G. Seyz

Hip-hop artist Symon G. Seyz lives not for record sales but for the passion of making music. The 28-year-old rapper is a member of the hip-hop underground – where unsigned musicians find audiences by giving away their own mixtapes on the streets, performing at clubs and private parties, and using Twitter as their de facto booking agents and PR support.

You won’t find the hip-hip underground in the pages of Hip Hop Weekly but on social community Global 14, where many hip-hop artists are connecting with audiences and others like them. In fact, Global 14 is where I met Symon G. Seyz, a resident of Hammond, Indiana, an industrial town just south of Chicago.

In the following interview, Symon G. Seyz, a teacher by day and rapper by night, provides an open assessment of what it’s like to create and share your music in the hip-hip underground. And he has a lot on his mind. He believes hip-hop has an image problem, and he worries that maybe he’s too clean to be cool for hip-hop – or at least what middle-class America wants to hear from the art form.

Continue reading

Marketing by helping, not selling

The future of marketing is helping, not selling.

Those were the words of content strategist Jay Baer at the recent Content Marketing World conference, an event focused on helping brands become better content marketers. So what exactly does it mean to market by helping? On September 15, Internet security firm McAfee showed us by announcing the results of its annual “McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities” study.

McAfee is a lot like its owner Intel. Both companies provide services that are essential but kind of boring to talk about. McAfee provides unsexy but important security products and services to safeguard your personal and business computers. It’s the kind of company whose website features stock photos of bland, smiling corporate types dressed in power suits out of the 1980s.

That’s why the McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities surprises and delights. Each year, McAfee analyzes which celebrities are most dangerous to search for on the web – in other words, the names most often used by cybercriminals to lure web searchers to sites containing computer viruses and spam.

This year, McAfee revealed that searching for Heidi Klum’s name yields a nearly one-in-ten chance of landing you on a malicious site. So take a bow, Heidi Klum: you’re the most dangerous celebrity in cyberspace for 2011, unseating Cameron Diaz. The most dangerous male celebrity, by the way, is Piers Morgan. Ironically Lady Gaga ranks a relatively tame 58.

The McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities list qualifies as helpful content marketing for two reasons:

It’s useful

McAfee raises awareness about the vulnerabilities of web surfing for celebrity names. Searching for phrases like “Heidi Klum” and “free downloads,” for instance, expose you to risks for encountering sites that will steal personal information.

In a press release, Paula Greve, director of Web security research at McAfee, comments, “Consumers should be particularly aware of malicious content hiding in ‘tiny’ places like shortened URLs that can spread virally in social networking sites, or through e-mails and text messages from friends.”

You might think you’re beyond falling for malware traps, but in our multi-tasking society, even the most savvy among us can be vulnerable. McAfee earns our attention by helping us understand an important issue.

It’s engaging

McAfee could have relied on a perfectly functional but boring video featuring a security expert to remind us of the dangers of reckless web surfing – perhaps valuable but not very helpful if the video fails to engage you.

Instead, McAfee finds a fun way to keep our attention by tapping into our national fascination with celebrity culture. McAfee gives us an amusing version of the Vanity Fair annual New Establishment list, providing little tidbits of fun trivia that manage to educate. For instance, although Charlie Sheen might post a danger to himself (and his publicist), he’s not too dangerous in cyberspace.

“Hot movies and TV shows, awards and industry accolades seem to be more of a factor than headline-grabbing activity,” explains Greve.

The McAfee Most Dangerous Celebrities List works as content marketing also for what it does not do: hit you over the head with a hard sell for McAfee. To be sure, McAfee slips in a reminder to use McAfee security software to safeguard our computers by performing a variety of tasks such as blocking risky websites. But the message feels earned in context of a larger and informative discussion about Internet security.

Since McAfee published its 2011 Most Dangerous Celebrities List on September 15, McAfee has quickly gained attention on news outlets ranging from CNN to Entertainment Weekly.  The PR returns alone, gained in a matter of hours, are priceless.

By sharing useful and engaging information instead of pushing product at us, McAfee defines helpful content marketing.