CALL it the "Hips Don't Lie" effect.
Last year, Epic Records held a contest offering fans a chance to help create a video for Colombian pop diva Shakira's yodel-tastic single of the same name featuring Wyclef Jean. Label executives' expectations were low -- they were spending only $5,000 to create and promote a quickie clip, after all.
But the impact of that effort sent shock waves through the music industry.
The contest yielded some 500 submissions of fans lip-syncing and booty-shaking in extremis that were spliced together by a professional editor to create a single video. Posted at Yahoo.com's music portal in March 2006, it quickly became the site's most popular clip. When it did drop out of the No. 1 slot several weeks later, it was second only to Shakira's own video for the same song. The pair of "Hips" were eventually streamed more than 50 million times, making "Hips Don't Lie" easily the Nielsen BDS most-streamed video of the year, just about tripling the number generated by second-place finisher Beyonce's "Check on It." Shakira's song went on to become a No. 1 hit in 20 countries, selling 1.7 million copies. And as an unintended result, "Hips Don't Lie (Fans-Only Version)" seems to have sparked a brave new era of fan-artist interconnectivity.
Now, a slew of similar contests is allowing pop enthusiasts to create content for videos, dictate tour itineraries, name artists' albums and even perform on stage with the likes of Justin Timberlake, as one contest winner did live during this year's Grammy Awards broadcast.
According to Craig Marks, editor in chief of Blender magazine, the viewer-decided outcome of "American Idol" turned the key to an era of plugged-in fan empowerment. Meanwhile, fans have grown desensitized to record labels' traditional promotional efforts while embracing the "choose your own adventure"-style entertainment of YouTube.
"Everyone feels it's their discovery. It's their domain," Marks said. "It's not coming from the culture czars on high -- it's from the people."
At this MySpace-obsessed moment in culture, the contest gambit provides a cost-effective, buzz-generating alternative to big-budget music videos or costly print-ad runs. Moreover, the contests virally generate publicity and result in virtual "communities" by getting music aficionados to communicate with one another in ways that yesteryear's fan clubs could never dream of.
It's an equation that the labels can't help but love -- fans pump in labor, attention and enthusiasm, and artists reap sales. And at least at this point in the cycle, when we've yet to see any significant contest backlash, scandal or cynicism, many fans seem energized by the proliferating attempts to pull them into the marketing loop. For Epic's senior vice president of marketing Lee Stimmel, who was one of the minds behind "Hips Don't Lie (Fans-Only Version)," enabling Shakira's music to galvanize a worshipful fan populace meant more than the song's pop-chart ranking or radio airplay.
"It's very hard in the media matrix world that we live in to see how a song actually resonates with a fan base and makes that fan base grow," Stimmel said. "We showed that it can virally and organically grow. That's something you can't necessarily buy with traditional media. That one-to-one relationship with customers became the most powerful part of the promotion."
Viral marketing's spread
THE untrammeled proliferation of music-related fan contests has produced some inspired efforts at viral marketing -- and many others are simply bald-faced marketing ploys. Both are strewn through every quadrant of the pop landscape.
In November, shoegazing alt-rock band the Decemberists mounted a "Re-animate the Decemberists" contest, asking fans to create a video using pre-recorded green-screen footage for the song "O Valencia!" Multi-ethnic genre fusion group Ozomatli held a "Make Your Own Ozomatli Video Contest" in March for the group's ode to Los Angeles, "City of Angels." And Brooklyn bar band extraordinaire the Hold Steady dangled a $1,000 cash prize in March to "create and upload an original music video" for any song from the group's album "Boys and Girls in America" -- a certifiable bargain weighed against the low six-figure going rate for videos directed by professionals. Tween heartthrob Mandy Moore and X-rated hip-hop braggarts the Ying Yang Twins, among other performers, have partnered with the event promotion website Eventful.com's Eventful Demand function to solicit fan input in the service of organizing "user-generated" concert tours. That is to say, fan votes will result in Moore hitting the road to perform at a high-school graduation later this year. And the Twins will add five performances on college campuses to their 2007 performance schedule based on Eventful.com fan vote data.