October 5, 1999 Online Buzz Helps Album Skyrocket to Top of Charts By ERIN WHITE Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL When executives at RCA Records were plotting ways to create buzz around teen pop singer Christina Aguilera's debut album, they knew the Internet would play a crucial role. The trick was marketing Ms. Aguilera without making teens feel they were actually being marketed to. On a 1-10 scale, Internet marketer Ken Krasner says, teens "have their B.S. detectors on 11." So RCA hired a team of young cybersurfers to swarm the Web and start chatting about the 18-year-old Ms. Aguilera on popular teen Internet sites such as www.alloy.com, www.bolt.com and www.gurl.com. They posted information casually -- sometimes sounding like fans, sometimes like official spokesmen -- but always making sure not to come off as lame adults trying to be cool or marketers pitching a product. It worked. Thanks in large part to the advance buzz online, the album "Christina Aguilera" was No. 1 on the charts when it debuted in late August. Many record-company executives may be worried about losing revenue from the distribution of music over the Internet. Nevertheless, they are using the Web as a major part of their marketing strategy, and pumping up the volume to new levels. 'Not Just Experimental' "We have figured out how to use this medium so that it really is meaningful -- it's not just experimental anymore," says Neil Foster, chief financial officer at RCA Records. Internet marketing, adds Nick Cucci, the label's marketing vice president, is no longer, "Oh, let's make sure we have a Web site." RCA, a unit of Germany's Bertelsmann AG, started to build Ms. Aguilera's Web presence even before her first single, "Genie in a Bottle," was available in stores. Just as the record started to get radio play in May, RCA hired Electric Artists Inc., a small New York Internet marketing firm, to handle a six-month campaign to put Ms. Aguilera's planned album on top the charts. Founded two years ago by Mr. Krasner, a former RCA marketing executive, and Marc Schiller, former new media head for the House of Blues chain, Electric Artists is at the forefront of Internet music marketing. Its clients include Capitol Records, Elektra Records and Jive Records, and artists ranging from Depeche Mode to Emmylou Harris to Melissa Etheridge. In June, Electric Artists kicked off what it called "Stage One" of its plan: surfing the Web to see what people already were saying about Ms. Aguilera. After recording the song "Reflection" for Walt Disney Co.'s animated hit "Mulan," as well as doing a two-year stint on the Disney Channel's Mickey Mouse Club, Ms. Aguilera had already generated some discussion in chat rooms and fan sites. So had her new single, "Genie." But many people didn't know she was the singer on the "Genie" single. That's when Electric Artists' team of "posters" -- mostly recent college graduates -- stepped in. The posters first compiled a list of teenage sites, news groups and e-mail addresses for Web-savvy fans. The tally today tops 1,500 individual fans, 30 news groups and 25 sites. In early July, the posters started Stage Two: generating online discussion among fans. "Does anyone remember Christina Aguilera -- she sang the song from 'Mulan,' 'Reflection'? I heard she has a new song out called 'Genie in a Bottle,"' a typical Electric Artists posting would say. Staffers also spent time monitoring teen bulletin boards and fan sites to answer "Christina Aguilera" whenever a fan asked "Who sings that 'Genie' song?" Mr. Schiller says his staffers don't deliberately pose as fans, but they identify themselves differently depending on what the objective is. "If it's information that's specifically coming from the company to the fans, then it would be, 'Jason from Electric Artists,' Mr. Schiller says. "If we're just trying to get a quick gauge on something where you don't want anybody's guard to be up, then it might just be 'Jason.' " A posting like "I heard she has a new song out" might be used "in the very, very beginning to get anidea of what the fans think of the music," he adds, when "you don't want anybody's guard to be up because it's a marketing company." As Ms. Aguilera's single got more airplay -- still the most important driver in creating a hit -- Electric Artists fed fans more information about her via the Web and encouraged them to request "Genie" on radio stations and MTV. Pleas that said, in essence, "Call your local station to request it. It is No. 19 now, and we can make it No. 1... . Please Help!" went out in mid-July. According to Mr. Schiller, those requests went to a core group of fans the company already had cultivated, so they knew they were coming from Electric Artists. The company even listed a Web link where fans could find phone numbers of radio stations playing the song. The effort helped drive "Genie" to the top of the singles charts, but the push was still on to prepare for the album's debut. Electric Artists continued to send out Web updates on such items as Ms. Aguilera's TV appearances and encouraged teens to visit the several official Internet sites operated by her management and RCA Records. Creating a Rivalry The Web marketers learned as they went along. Fellow teen queen Britney Spears presented one problem. Casual observers often lump the two singers together as dwellers of the same corner of the pop universe, and they might be expected to share many fans. But some fans have tried to create a rivalry between them, with each camp insulting the talents, appearance and love life of the other star. Early on, Electric Artists relied heavily on sites and newsgroups devoted to Ms. Spears to disseminate information about Ms. Aguilera. But as the fan rivalry developed, Electric got bad feedback from some Britney fans. "They got sick of me," says Jason Madhosingh, an Electric marketing coordinator. "They said, 'Stop posting to our group.' " Now, Mr. Schiller says, they've stopped targeting Britney-only sites altogether. In August, Ms. Aguilera's team used the Web's ability to communicate directly with fans to short-circuit erroneous information. A rumor surfaced that Ms. Aguilera was in the hospital for throat surgery. When Steve Kurtz, her manager, learned of it, he e-mailed fans who run four big Christina Web sites: "Please let everyone know she's not in the hospital!" "We stopped it the same day it started," Mr. Kurtz says of the rumor. That same month, Electric Artists began its biggest push -- generating attention for the Aug. 24 launch of Ms. Aguilera's album in stores. The marketers put 30-second song snippets from the album on one of Ms. Aguilera's official fan sites for fans to download. But they recommended against higher-tech gimmicks that would allow downloading an entire song for fans to play with a special computer attachment. Ms. Aguilera fans "are not the Webhead electronica rave crowd," Mr. Krasner says. In the final days before the album's debut, RCA also hired a direct-marketing company to make an electronic postcard filled with song snippets and biographical information. On Aug. 23, the postcard was e-mailed out to 50,000 Web addresses culled from a database of people considered prospective buyers based partly on their previous album purchases. Another tactic: persuading big music retailers to post the album's cover on their Web pages. While teens usually know the names of artists and albums to look for, parents shopping for their kids often don't, so winning prominent display can be a big sales help, Mr. Schiller says. The result was just what RCA executives hoped for: The album debuted at No. 1 on the charts with sales topping 951,000 copies. It reached double platinum status -- meaning two million albums shipped -- in record time and still remains in the top five. Meanwhile, the Internet campaign shows no signs of slowing. Electric Artists is now in "Stage Four," which centers on promoting Ms. Aguilera's second single, "What a Girl Wants," which is set for release next month. This time, the firm plans to target an older audience to broaden the fan base. One possibility is to concentrate postings on Internet groups oriented toward such singers as Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.