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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Musicians from Q-Tip to Jimmy Eat World have discovered Twitter as a DIY means of engaging their fans, using the conversational medium to not only let people know they'll be in Tulsa this summer but make them feel personally involved enough to actually show up. Now one of the best-selling artists of the past decade is using it in a very different way -- and building up substantial buzz for what may be the first album of the year to go platinum.
In the world of hip-hop, a five-year absence is an eternity. So for Eminem's new album, "The Relapse," the marketing team at Aftermath/Interscope Records has mounted an audacious campaign that playfully smears the lines between the rapper's troubled past and the nightmarish, fictionalized world of his latest work. By using Twitter to dispense short, often disturbing thoughts and links to multimedia components revolving around a mental institution, they've helped make the album the most highly anticipated hip-hop release of the year -- and set it up for a sequel in the second half of 2009.
Paul Rosenberg, the nine-time Grammy-winning rapper's manager, said the marketing effort isn't necessarily the biggest push Eminem has attempted, but it's clearly the most creative.
"In the past, when we've tried to do things in a new way for Eminem, it was just more of OK, cookie-cutter types of ideas," he said. "But in this one we really pushed ourselves, because of the time we're living in, to create a different experience."
Two kinds of tweets
That experience lives on several social networks, but for many fans it has originated on Twitter. Some of the tweets are behind-the-scenes updates leading up to the album's release tomorrow ("They are still editing my video") while others are seemingly non-sequitur paranoia ("There's no place to hide ..."), complete with links to images that suggest Eminem is in a mental hospital and/or rehab facility called Pompsomp Hills.
Other tweets have included a link to the album's cover, a mosaic of pills that form an image of Eminem's face; a screenshot of his upcoming paid iPhone and iPod Touch game set in Pompsomp Hills; a link to a blood-splattered video for his single "3 A.M." that's set in the fictional clinic; and a link to an interactive web experience that's set there as well. That a simple Google search reveals a just-amateur-enough-to-look-real website for Pompsomp Hills makes the narrative details even more discomforting for fans familiar with Eminem's recent real-life troubles with prescription drugs, which put him in rehab and led to his hospitalization for pneumonia in early 2008, as he recently revealed in a Vibe cover story. Omelet, a branding, advertising and entertainment agency based in Los Angeles, helped develop the Pompsomp Hills website, along with other facets of the nontraditional push.
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The entirety of "Relapse" was leaked onto the web last week, and in it the rapper reportedly describes his problems in both blunt terms and twisted fantasies, bringing life, marketing and product full circle.
Dennis Dennehy, head of marketing and publicity at Interscope, said Twitter has been the perfect platform to slowly build anticipation since October 2008, when the album was first announced.
"By the nature of the way the information came out, you've had a trail of breadcrumbs to the album," Mr. Dennehy said. "The way we approached this is 'Let's keep that trail coming.'"
While Eminem hasn't relied exclusively on Twitter to get the word out, the effort has produced some impressive results. According to Compete, Eminem.com reached 113,868 unique visitors during April, while the most popular of his tweets -- which linked to Therelapse.com on May 7 -- reached at least 41,704 people within just one week, according to an analysis of data provided to Ad Age by Tweetreach. And data provided by Native Digital, the start-up behind music-buzz tracker We Are Hunted, suggest that Eminem was the most-talked-about artist on Twitter last week, the week before the album's release.
Elliott Wilson, founder and CEO of RapRadar.com, said the micro-blogging tool is perfectly suited to the rapper, because it attracts voyeuristic fans the same way his autobiographical songs do. Mr. Wilson pointed out that one of Eminem's fictional characters, Stan -- a dangerously obsessive fan -- has, in the web lexicon, morphed into lowercase slang for a diehard yet non-violent admirer.
"Twitter is, in a way, the world of 'stans' who now have access to artists," Mr. Wilson said. Although Eminem is using the service in a "real typical promotion way, the fact that he's willing to be part of that, to be in that world, has helped him build up mystery around the record."
Scott Yeti, a marketing consultant to film studios and record labels who runs the hip-hop-marketing blog Woooha, said Eminem's use of storytelling on the web for this campaign goes well beyond the scope of most music marketing.
"The 'Relapse' campaign is very similar to how we would break out a major movie," Mr. Yeti said via e-mail. "The same elements are there, which is rare these days considering the lack of money labels usually have."
"To me, he is taking album marketing to a whole new level," he added. "It truly is an event."
Not the first
Eminem isn't the first artist to build up a reality-melting, cinematic backdrop for an album release. For Nine Inch Nails' album "Year Zero" in 2007, frontman Trent Reznor hired 42 Entertainment to expand the album's dystopian story line into a dizzying array of cryptic websites that could be discovered only by rabid fans. Mr. Reznor recently announced -- through Twitter, of course -- that he's continuing to develop the concept, and it may become a TV show.
Some in the hip-hop-marketing world downplay the impact of the messaging service, and Eminem and Aftermath/Interscope are not putting all their eggs in the Twitter nest. They're also hitting a variety of media normally used in music campaigns, such as radio appearances, a performance at the MTV Movie Awards, and cover stories in Vibe and XXL. Yet some of those "old media" placements are atypical as well: On Vibe.com, Eminem is a celebrity judge for the "No. 1 Stan" freestyle-rap competition, and XXL is featuring the first part of a Punisher-Eminem comic in conjunction with Marvel Comics; the second half is free online.
Eminem has hit up "Jimmy Kimmel Live" once already, and is planning to make two more appearances within the week and bring 200 laid-off autoworkers to one of the late-night talk show's tapings. He also co-starred in animated form with "Stewie Griffin" from "Family Guy" as the pair hosted Fox's Sunday animation block last night.
Now that the album is out in the wild, some of the rapper's lyrical barbs are generating much of the attention-grabbing publicity he's created in the past. The single "We Made You" and its video skewer a number of women pop stars and make lewd references to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which prompted an unsurprising response from conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly, and some have taken notice of (and offense to) the track "My Mom," which contains an unflattering pill-popping reference to the late Heath Ledger. But perhaps the biggest blowback from the album has come from TV personality Nick Cannon, who took offense to criticism of his wife, pop icon Mariah Carey, and publicly challenged Eminem to a fight.
That kind of public beef only feeds Eminem's mystique, and, regardless of how well "Relapse" sells, his work on the album and its holistic promotion are signs that Twitter can be just as effective at drawing out mystery and building anticipation as it is at making bands and brands more accessible.