Kanye West's Embrace of Twitter Reveals Broader Trend in Album Promotion

At the Thakoon presentation in the fall of 2008, West wears a gray tweed suit with tortoiseshell specs. The neatly buttoned shirt combined with a hint at suspenders and boating shoes is a flattering outfit. This new "distinguished professor" look sporadically appears again.

Ticked off by a rash of fake Twitter accounts created in his name, Kanye West turned to his blog in May 2009 to unleash an expletive-laden rant against the microblogging site.


"I DON'T HAVE A F**KING TWITTER," West wrote. "WHY WOULD I USE TWITTER???"


But with a new album scheduled to drop this fall, West has done an abrupt about-face, opening a Twitter account in July and embracing that and other social networking platforms with surprising fervor.


The hip-hop star visited the respective headquarters of Twitter and Facebook in July to perform new material, with footage of both appearances winding up on YouTube. He used webcasting service Ustream on Aug. 6 to hold a live chat with fans and announce that his album will be released in November. And on Aug. 22, the Twitter convert used his account to disclose that he plans to release a new song every week until Christmas.


"Yall know every Friday yall gone have a new joint from our family," he tweeted. "We look at the game completely different now."


Allison Schlueter, VP of digital marketing for West's label Island Def Jam, couldn't have put it better herself.


"It is really important for an artist to engage in social media," Schlueter says. "And thankfully, for the most part, they get that."


While many recording artists have long used services like Facebook and Twitter, these platforms never played as central a role in album promotion campaigns as they do now. Driving these trends are the continued rise in the number of consumers using social networks, the emergence of newer services like Ustream and location-based networking site Foursquare and the expanding popularity of the Apple iPhone and other smart phones, which enable consumers to access the Web from anywhere.


"It's not enough to say, 'Hey, this is for sale,' " says David Marcus, senior VP of strategic initiatives at Warner Bros. Records. "You have to really communicate with those fans in a way that they're open to. Injecting commercial messages into the social media stream isn't going to get you very far. You need to get fans participating and talking to each other."


Warner Bros. embraced social media to help push limited-edition deluxe versions of new albums, which range in price from $20 to $100. A recent example: Avenged Sevenfold's "Nightmare," released in late July as a single CD, digital album and $50 limited edition that included the CD, an expanded booklet and other extras.


By promoting the limited-edition preorder through Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the label was able to spark online chatter among those who had purchased it and those who lamented they couldn't afford it, Marcus says.


"You want to get communities of fans actively engaged and excited about what the artist is doing," he says. "One of the ways they demonstrate their excitement is buying things and then sharing that with their friends."


Efforts by labels to optimize artist websites for viewing on mobile phones has become more important as more consumers check their social network accounts on the go. To promote Trey Songz' Passion, Pain and Pleasure tour and forthcoming album of the same name, Atlantic Records posted a U.S. map on his website marked with every city on the tour. Fans can click on each city to send out a tweet about the show or to "check in" to the venue through Foursquare.


A couple of years ago, "it was MySpace, then Facebook, then this, then that," says Paul Sinclair, senior VP of digital media and business development at Atlantic. "Everything was on top of the other thing. Now we feel differently-it's not just about another destination . . . a lot of these things now allow us to reach so many more people in a measurable way than we could before."


But enabling artists to have a direct line of communication with fans also comes with added risks. Katy Perry created a minor stir in June when she tweeted that "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke." The blogosphere interpreted that as a pot shot at Lady Gaga for her "Alejandro" video, prompting Perry to clarify that she wasn't singling her out.


Greg Thompson, executive VP of marketing and promotion at EMI Music North America, says Perry has been a savvy and instinctive user of social media channels. The pop starlet boasts more than 3.5 million followers on Twitter and 7.4 million "likes" on Facebook, where Capitol streamed her new album, "Teenage Dream," in its entirety before its Aug. 24 release.


"The most successful artists have the clearest artistic vision, how their journey should unravel," Thompson says. "You can see vulnerability in an artist because they might say something that a publicist wouldn't have said. But that's the world we live in now and you have to embrace it and figure out how to do the most with it."