Has A Perfect Circle given the music industry a new value proposition?

A tale of exclusive experiences, holograms, hidden gigs and the power of ambitious marketing

June 26, 2018

Has A Perfect Circle given the music industry a new value proposition?

“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope!” said the most famous hologram in movie history. The most famous hologram in music history so far doesn’t face quite so dire a situation – but it still arrives at a time when musicians and the music industry could desperately need some new thinking.

Music studios and their artists have had to make do with a business model that’s built around giving away music to the masses for very little, marketing their live tours like crazy, and hoping that concert revenues will make up the difference. The content they produce in terms of new music is primarily a marketing platform for the live gigs they’ll perform to paying audiences. If your profile doesn’t support a big tour, you’re going to struggle to survive in the industry for long.

But just because this has become the majority business model for music, doesn’t mean that it’s the only option available. In the last month, a band from another era of music has returned to the spotlight with a very different type of value proposition. A Perfect Circle, the supergroup that defined the sound of alternative rock in the early noughties then took a 14-year break, hasn’t just released a new album. The band has created the first ever hologram album, invested in an exclusive experience that adds up to far more than a new set of tracks to stream on Spotify, and taken a bold new approach to touring that’s based around secrecy, intrigue and avoiding splashing their image across social media. It’s an approach that is light years away from simply distributing content as widely as possible for free – and it’s working. This is the story of how that album came about, what it might mean for music, and why it should inspire marketers.

An album in different dimensions
Over the last few months, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience all of these different aspects of the return of A Perfect Circle. In April, I got an exclusive preview of the 58-minute hologram film that the band created with Sundance Award-winning filmmaker Steven Sebring. I then had the opportunity to talk to Jason Hradil, VP for Marketing at BMG and an old colleague of mine from my music industry days, about the evolution of the film and the thinking behind the approach. Then, last week I was in the privileged position of photographing the band at the first of their UK live shows in support of the Eat the Elephant album and music experience. Why privileged? Because the defining feature of A Perfect Circle shows on this tour has been a strict ban on cameras, mobile phones or any other type of recording equipment. There are posters across the venues warning that fans will be evicted if they attempt to take photographs – and that’s exactly what happened to around 60 fans in Pennsylvania earlier in the tour.

To the received music industry wisdom, this sounds like shooting yourself in the proverbial marketing foot: concerts are your payday, and paying gig-goers are your lifeblood. You can’t afford to deliver a bad experience, you certainly don’t want the bad word-of-mouth that comes from ejecting people who weren’t really doing any harm, and why on earth would you want to discourage fans from celebrating your gigs through photos and videos on social media? We’re living in the age of sharing after all.

Not if you’re A Perfect Circle, because the no cameras rule actually makes perfect sense in the context of the proposition the group is putting out there. In this alternative business strategy, music has a deeper value that you can unlock only by paying for it. You can listen to Eat the Elephant on Spotify, but when you do so, you’re reminded (via a rotating hologram of Maynard that appears whenever a track plays) that you’re only scratching the surface of what’s available. Like the best B2B content marketers (and unlike many B2C content marketers), A Perfect Circle has drawn a clear line between what’s available for free (or nearly free) and the far more valuable, in-depth and exclusive experience that you pay for.

For a sense of what that experience involves, let’s go back to April, and the launch of the Eat the Elephant deluxe box set:

A new type of value proposition for music
The box set is a beautiful, monogrammed package that includes a vinyl LP, a CD, a hi-res audio download, and most adventurously of all, the full-length hologram movie. It invites fans to explore what’s going on in the minds of Maynard and Billy: the symbolism, the narratives, the ideas. These aren’t just laid out for them in a radio-play-ready format. They’re in there to be discovered. And it’s these mysterious coded message that the band has been putting out on social media, leading fans back to the fully immersive album experience.

Where artistic endeavour and commercial creativity combine
The boxed experience is an ambitious artistic endeavour, which is exactly what you’d expect from A Perfect Circle. Crucially though, it’s also a value proposition that music fans have responded to with real enthusiasm. The initial order of the box-set sold out within weeks of the launch. It helped Eat the Elephant to debut at Number Three on the Billboard Top 200, Number Two in album sales and Number One on the Rock, Alternative, Independent and Vinyl album charts. It suggests that the appeal of a unique, valuable and exclusive format can make a substantial contribution to revenues.

The band were able to use assets created through the box set production to deliver intriguing experiences on other channels too – such as that rotating Maynard hologram. Wherever audiences have encountered Eat the Elephant, they’ve encountered something out of the ordinary. It means it’s virtually impossible to listen to the album as background music. You’re challenged to experience it. It’s differentiation in action.

So how did it happen? You don’t redefine the music industry’s core product without bringing together different creative talents and disciplines. You need the genius and vision of the band and the songwriters (something A Perfect Circle has in spades), but you also need marketers who have the same passion for pushing boundaries, and you need an appetite for collaboration that can make your music more than the sum of its chords and bass lines.

I was thrilled to find out that the marketer helping to bring all of these elements together for the Eat the Elephant album launch was Jason Hradil. We started out together at Sony and when I got out of the music industry he stayed in. He’s now one of the most interesting thinkers around when it comes to promoting recorded music – and he was ready to give me the inside track on how a band came back from a break of over a decade, and redefined what an album can mean. Here’s how it happened:

Bringing an outside perspective
In my personal view, that 14-year break from recording or touring as A Perfect Circle played a key role in the innovation process. Maynard and Billy have avoided being locked into the current formula when it comes to releasing music. Looking at a disrupted industry from the outside helps you spot the opportunities to do something different.

Put simply, Maynard and Billy are the ultimate side-hustlers. They see the value in exploring a range of projects that they’re passionate about, in order to bring a different perspective to their work. In Maynard’s case, a major creative commitment is running his winery, Caduceus Cellars, in Arizona. It’s been an exercise in packaging both wine and Arizona differently, redefining the state as a wine-growing region. I can’t help thinking that those types of experiences must encourage a disruptive approach when you come back to music – and start thinking about what an album should look like.

Creative license starts with audience understanding
As Jason Hradil explained to me, the entire concept of the Eat the Elephant boxed experience started with an understanding of what fans wanted and expected from the band. “A Perfect Circle has a loyal fanbase who are supportive of premium packages and cool content,” he said. “They’d released a six-disc box set several years earlier so we knew the appetite was there. I’d been a big fan of the stuff Maynard has done throughout his career, and so from the time we signed A Perfect Circle at BMG, our team was brainstorming interesting concepts we could do to roll out this record. The box set ended up being a collaboration of ideas from BMG, management and the band in a quest to give their fans something great and up the ante from what had been done previously.”

The whole creative process therefore started with respect for the audience. Jason and his team simply weren’t satisfied with packaging up the material that Maynard and Billy created in a conventional form, to fit a conventional model. They knew that they had a license to do more.

Understanding your narrative - and embracing it
A Perfect Circle’s story dates back to the days of 1999, before digital music and new distribution models were even an issue. For Eat the Elephant, the bandmates wanted to update that narrative and embrace the fact that they’d been so elusive. A Perfect Circle didn’t just gloss over the last 14 years and pretend they were back in the noughties - they grabbed the opportunity to build new stories around their absence, including some pretty funny ones.

“A Perfect Circle had been away for a long time and so much had changed since their last album,” Jason told me. “Maynard and Billy wrote a new bio that exaggerates that point: joking that Billy had been cryogenically frozen for 14 years and woke up asking about Tower Records, Sam Goody, The Apprentice and what an iPhone was. The hologram album experience was made mostly so he could promote it on their MySpace page.”

In a way, that’s the ideal type of narrative for producing something genuinely daring: not attempting to keep up with what everyone else is doing; stepping back, taking yourself out of the game, and then making up your own rules when you’re ready to play again.

Cultivating your collaborators
The centrepiece of the Eat the Elephant box set is Steven Sebring’s 58-minute hologram film. This isn’t your average music video by any means. It’s a story inspired by the album that viewers experience through the eyes of a young girl: she sees imagery, characters and struggles that are drawn directly from the lyrics, including an alien-like, villainous octoheart, an evil marionnetist, known as ‘the contrarian’, scorpions, cockroaches, a majestic owl, not to mention Maynard and Billy themselves. It feels at turns like a gothic horror movie, like a David Lynch extravaganza and like an installation at a contemporary art museum, all of which are pretty well aligned with the ethos of the band. And it’s all the result of a creative collaboration that was years in the making.

“I had met Steven Sebring at a screening of the George Fest live concert film that we put out with Dhani and the Harrison Estate a few years ago,” explained Jason. “That night, he showed me his Study of Pose work with Coco Rocha and then some four-dimensional imagery he was working on including a video of skateboarder Rodney Mullen that really blew my mind. I went to his studio in Flatiron a few days later and saw his 360-degree motion capture system that he built to pioneer multi-dimensional photography, film, and VR. I knew I wanted to work with him in some capacity but needed to find the right project.”

In today’s instant-demand-instant-gratification world, it pays to remember the value of good old-fashioned creative patience. The right project took years to materialise but when A Perfect Circle’s manager Dino Paredes picked up the phone to ask Jason for photographer suggestions, he knew exactly which name to put forward: “Maynard had an idea of having he and Billy painted up in full kabuki makeup with red and blue drips of blood in the corners of their mouths for a double-sided album cover. I liked the idea of potentially working with someone outside of the sphere of music so reached out to Steven knowing that Maynard would likely be intrigued by his work.”

Recognising synergy when you see it
Jason’s ability to spot the potential synergy between Steven and Maynard quickly opened up new creative avenues. “Steven invited us down to his new space on the lower east side that was formerly home to the historic Clinton Star Theatre,” he told me. “Since we last met, he had built a brand new 30-foot state of the art camera system and installed it there with three smaller versions that have retail and product capture applications. Entering this space was almost like walking onto an alien planet. Needless to say, Dino and Maynard were impressed so we had Billy come in a week later to shoot his version of the cover. We asked Steven to make an early test hologram of Maynard. We watched it in a prism and started to realise the possibilities of including something like this in the box set.”

Band busy? We’ll just make an epic music film instead
Working with elusive and time-poor musicians brings creative constraints. Steven and his team were working on ideas and treatments for the film at the same time that Maynard and Billy were wrapping the album itself. As the songs kept coming, the hologram production team kept using them to develop new creative ideas, enabling the film and other hologram assets to develop organically.

The limited availability of the two band leads could have been the greatest constraint of all, but as it turned out, Steven saw this as an opportunity to build a broader narrative around the album. Recognising an artist they understood, Billy and Maynard were happy to give him the creative freedom to do so. “Recording took a bit longer than expected, artwork was due and, before we knew it, international promo was kicking off,” Jason explained to me, when recalling the creative process. “Ultimately, they put their trust in Steven and gave him the reigns to make it a film inspired by the album.”

The result was a musical experience beyond anything either the band or BMG had anticipated. “Initially, I envisioned a simple loop of the 5 holograms we captured from the shoots with Maynard and Billy,” admitted Jason. “Steven ended up making a 58-minute hologram film that was far beyond our imagination.”

Marrying creativity and accessibility
If you ask me, the real genius in the design of the hologram film and other box set elements is the way they combine exclusivity with technological accessibility. It’s what enables the album experience to be consumed at scale and turns it from a product with niche appeal to one able to make an impact on the charts. By combining digital technology with vinyl, innovative hologram projectors and luxury printed material, the band have created something that can be enjoyed by anyone with a smartphone and a decent internet connection. The trickiest balancing act when innovating creatively is making sure you can bring your audience with you – and they’ve managed it with real style.

There’s a lot to love in what Maynard, Billy, Jason, Steven and others have come together to create. I’m a big fan of the finish on the box itself, and I’m a sucker for high-quality vinyl production. However, what really catches my eye as a marketer is the high-quality prism that you position on top of your smartphone and which then projects the hologram experience. Jason admitted to me that he and BMG took the risk of ordering 5,000 of these from Italy before they’d even seen what Steven had come up with in terms of hologram content. It was worth it. The prisms are beautiful physical objects in their own right – and when you start watching Steven’s film through them, you feel like you’re a part of a film yourself. It’s that magical.

To me, all of this feels a huge step beyond where most marketers are with Virtual Reality, 360 video and other cutting-edge content platforms. The box set experience that Jason and company designed doesn’t involve audience members strapping on ungainly headsets or fiddling with phones to try and find the right angle. All aspects of the experience have been curated so that nothing feels like a hassle or an inconvenience. There’s a sense of value and wonder that it’s worth all marketers learning from – because those are the characteristics that audiences tend to engage with, and the characteristics they are prepared to pay for.

More than anything, the success of the first ever hologram album shows just how much power there is in indulging your audience and valuing your own content and creativity. The conventional cynicism of the music industry a few years ago would never have come up with this. It would have settled for sharing a few comments on social media to promote the album, done the usual PR round of radio and TV shows, thrown the music itself out as widely and cheaply as possible to try and drive ticket sales for the next tour. A Perfect Circle and BMG took a different path. They invested in experiences of real, authentic value, confident that their audience would choose to value it as well. It’s a craftsmanship approach to content that any industry can learn from. It may not the only hope for the future of the music industry – but it’s certainly a new one.