For her fourth album, "The Idler Wheel . . .," Fiona Apple wasn't willing to let her work be mishandled. Nearly seven years ago, the reclusive singer/songwriter released third album "Extraordinary Machine," a project that had been severely delayed (sophomore set "When the Pawn . . ." appeared in 1999) due to her deliberate recording process and a late-stage decision to revamp the LP, which had originally been helmed by Jon Brion, with producer Mike Elizondo. When it was finally released, the project, whose pushback inspired fans to picket outside of Sony Music's headquarters in New York (Elizondo later said the delays had more to do with Apple's own frustrations rather than the label's), yielded the singles "Parting Gift" and "O' Sailor." It became her first album to bow in the top 10 of the Billboard 200, and has since sold 1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Following a tour supporting "Extraordinary Machine" in the summer of 2007, Apple took her time assembling its follow-up, recording with co-producer Charley Drayton and completing the project in late 2010. Drayton, who has played on albums by the Rolling Stones and the Cult, described the sessions as "exhausting" to Modern Drummer that fall. But in the months that followed, Apple gave pause, waiting for regime changes to end at her longtime label Epic Records so she could feel comfortable releasing her latest body of work.
Antonio "L.A." Reid was appointed chairman/CEO of Epic in July 2011 and Apple and longtime manager Andy Slater presented the finished product to executives in early 2012. Insisting that "The Idler Wheel . . ." (due June 19) be released on the artist's terms, they defined the marketing plan accordingly: No fliers for preliminary shows or posters teasing the album. The approach was highly unorthodox for a musician who has made only a handful of public appearances in the past five years, but Team Apple says Epic understood the approach.
"I've known Fiona since she was 17," says Slater, who initially signed Apple to Epic as a Sony Music executive to release her 1996 debut, "Tidal," and has managed her career since, even while serving as president of Capitol Records from 2001 to 2007. "So knowing who she is and how her process is and how that connection has been made between her listeners and her, it was the only thing that made sense to do."
Emphasis was placed on reconnecting with Apple's core fans through intimate shows and allowing them to organically find her new music on the Internet. Apple's first steps back into the spotlight began with performances during NPR's and Pitchfork's South by Southwest showcases on March 14 and 15 that were open to badge holders and attracted lines that stretched down the block. The plan was for word-of-mouth and viral sharing of amateur videos taken at the shows of Apple debuting new material to reignite fans' interest in her music and serve as a natural catalyst for grass-roots marketing. Clips of those performances made news around the Web and have since racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
Instead of a promotional radio run, Apple headed out on the road for a six-date tour through March, partnering with sites like Pitchfork, Brooklyn Vegan, NPR and Nylon.com to make exclusive announcements and offer presale codes for gigs in Boston; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, N.J.; and New York. The shows, which were held at venues with an average capacity of 550, quickly sold out.
Epic COO Mark Shimmel acknowledges Apple's unconventional reintroduction to fans, but realizes the importance of honoring her creativity. "Fiona as an artist has to be respected with the music she makes, and we were very comfortable doing that," he says. "We've obviously had a great run of national awareness."
Rick Roskin, Apple's agent at Creative Artists Agency, commends Epic for seeing Apple and Slater's vision. "To the label's credit, they kind of understood that this is a nontraditional project," Roskin says. "Everyone knows she has fans. Everyone knows that her previous records connected to people in an intimate and special way. We all knew she's a special artist, and the label understood that, and that's why they were OK to do it this way."
Notoriously elusive of the public eye, Apple has never been one to interact with fans on the Internet (she doesn't have a Twitter account). CAA joined forces with Apple early last year, helping to establish an online presence. CAA digital marketing executive Glenn Miller says the agency chose Facebook as an official destination for breaking news, interviews and performance clips because "it allows us to easily post content that's shareable."
Her CAA-managed Facebook page has more than 450,000 fans and near-daily updates have earned thousands of likes since launching in March 2011. And according to Miller, the last piece of posted content reached more than a million people. Website Fiona-Apple.com is up and running, but Miller took note of fan pages that already existed on Facebook and intended to make it easier for them to discover content on the social network.
"We went to where fans are, instead of getting them to go to a new place," Miller says. "That was exciting to know that [even though] you don't have a single, you don't have an album, you're able to put the dates on sale and get the engagement and marketing out of these sites and fans that you wouldn't get out of traditional media."
Epic still plans to promote "The Idler Wheel . . ." through traditional media including select print press, radio promotion and late-night TV performances. (She's scheduled to appear on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" on June 18.) She also released her Joseph Cahill-directed music video for album cut "Every Single Night" on the Sundance Channel on June 10 and on Vevo two days later. For Epic, the decision to debut the visuals for the track on the independent-minded network speaks to Apple's willingness to take chances with her art.
"We really do look at Fiona as an independent filmmaker in her own way. So we premiered with Sundance on that and then it goes wide," Shimmel says. "So we feel as good marketers that you have to market to the iconoclastic individuality of who your artist is."
Apple may have spent the past half-decade removed from mainstream culture, but she'll most likely be promoting "The Idler Wheel . . ." through 2013. She has 28 dates lined up for summer and unannounced concerts scheduled for the fall, and will release a standard and deluxe version of the album to physical and digital retail next week. Epic plans to promote singles to alternative specialty, triple A and college radio.
For the label, the project has an extensive life span - "Our evaluation of the record doesn't happen in the first or second week," Shimmel says - but Slater and Apple are looking at fans' connection to the music as the arbiter of success.
"Fiona has made her most personal album. That has to be protected, first and foremost," Slater says. "The measure of success for the record company will be different than it will be for us. We'll provide all the traditional tools to sell the record. At the same time, given Fiona's feelings about her relationship to her fans, the success will be measured on the strength of the connection between her and the listeners over many mediums . . . That's the long-term plan in action."••••