By BRUCE DENNILL
Imogen Heap is currently touring the world, giving workshops and masterclasses on the pioneering music industry models and technology with which she is involved.
In terms of moving beyond the old music industry model, most companies have added streaming, digital distribution and so on, but they are not yet handling those channels well. You’ve always been ahead of the curve, but what were interesting ideas a few years ago are now potential industry changers. How has this changed your way of working?
Well, my model is still a theoretical model. First, what we’re doing is going around the world doing workshops, laying the groundwork as we try to create a sustainable, flourishing music ecosystem. It’s all about trying to present our data – as artists – in a way that is sellable, using what we’re calling the ‘Creative Passport’. Our general usage data is already being used, including where we shop and eat and all the rest. Now, we can make money using the same system. This will allow us to make money even on our down days. The Internet of Things and blockchain allows for a holistic system here. There are business models that can utilise that data. In the area of music, there has been a bit of innovation in technology – the streaming systems, for instance – but not in terms of earning and the rewards we’re due. We shouldn’t have to wait two years to get paid for our music being used; it should be instantaneous, as people play your song, be it on the radio, on stage, or in the digital space. And we need to get our heads around the value of new technology. It doesn’t take jobs away; it creates new ones. This is not necessarily a case of labels and other corporates saying, “We don’t want to give money to artists.” Rather, it’s about “How can we do this? How can we get around quarterly board meetings with 40 people in the room, where nothing gets done?” We have to have digital identities that give services and companies that can move quickly something to work with. It’s a common occurrence that when people feel supported, they end up giving. They’re happy to be doing what they love. The impact of that goes beyond having a yacht.
Where do you fit actual songs into this model?
It’s been a bit like a see-saw – I’ve actually played less and less music as I’ve grown older. As a child, I’d play piano every waking second. Then I went to boarding school, where I didn’t get on with a lot of people, so I sat in the music room and learned new skills. Then I was signed to a record label, where, ironically, I had less time to play what with photoshoots and publicity and all of that. Then I started my own label, where being in management meant even less time, and then I became involved in the glove tech [Heap is one of the developers of Mi.Mu Gloves, sensor-enabled, wireless gloves that help musicians compose and perform music via movement] – which was partly to help streamline touring, and save time. The first song I wrote with the gloves was one called Mean Machine. It took a long time to finish because I didn’t want to write until I was happy with the technology, which meant I ended up only writing the lyrics on the morning of the performance! I try to maximise everything I’m doing, so I keep an eye on all the new trends. For instance, I’m very interested in computer gaming in Japan and am working on a project there. I think my songs are an expression of where I am at the time. In the future, an AI musical identity could start a song for you, get it to 70% finished and then bring you in.
What is your focus with all of these different roles? In times past, you would have gone on tour and just played shows? Now you give talks and workshops and do so much else.
I’ve always enjoyed playing shows – I made much more money that way in the beginning. The more tech I brought into performances, the less money I made, but it was much more creatively satisfying. This is a different kind of touring. It needs a project manager rather than a tour manager, essentially. I did get tired of just singing and singing. I would never really get to see a city or meet the people there. This new way of doing things allows for more time and more exposure to a new place. And we want to tell people why they should care about what we’re doing – signalling to the publishers, music supervisors and those guys who can connect with artists directly, saving money on marketing and getting the message out. The things that make you unique because of your constellation of skills equals connecting with projects that you love because people can see what you do over time. You can cut through all the middlemen and find options.
Live, you sometimes play solo, and sometimes alongside Guy Sigsworth and others. Using technology the way you do, is it possible to improvise, to adapt to changes in key and so on, as it is when you’re using acoustic or analogue equipment?
We work off the same software, and map what we are able to do in those systems. We hope that through developments in those systems, we may be able to visualise points in space that we can manipulate versus the faders in the old programmes. There are already a number of artists managing this flow incredibly well, and it’s tough. You’re working with grids rather than set keys and other musical mechanisms. You have to figure out gradations and how to become precise in the way that you perform. This tech makes you want to play a different type of music. It’s about collections of sounds; about density and the use of space versus notes. Going forward, we may bring in augmented reality and map out our stage. The system will understand that when I am in a certain place, the music needs to go up three keys or a quarter tone or something. I think improvisation might be some way off. We’ll have to figure out how to access sound in a new way; to have all the sounds imaginable available so that we can tap into them.