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4 September 2020

Imogen Heap: “I’m so frustrated with the music industry”

The musician and tech pioneer on why social media pushed her away from music, and how she found her way back.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Imogen Heap never stops. As our video call connects, the Grammy Award-winning musician is pouring herself a cup of coffee from a cafetière. She’s wearing a grey hoodie and her long hair is tied up. She didn’t get much sleep, she tells me. I’m not surprised: she was emailing me past midnight. Before she’s sat down or I’ve had the chance to ask how she is, she’s bringing up a piece of text on her computer and asking if she can read it to me. “I wanted to share this with you,” she says.

It’s an excerpt from a newsletter she’s received from artist Jonathan Harris at We Feel Fine, a website that describes itself as “an exploration of human emotion on a global scale”. 

“You’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there is no ground,” she says, reading the final lines of a long paragraph. She breathes a sigh of relief. “I felt so relaxed after I read that: there’s no point trying to build walls or doors or floors or anything any more. Just embrace the now, the flux of everything around us, just do what we can in the means that we have. Suddenly, everything felt a lot more manageable.”

Looking at her long list of projects, it is unsurprising that Heap’s character relies on a certain degree of restlessness, and that she must consciously look to outside forces to bring her back down to earth. For the last 24 years, she has forged a career as a forward-thinking purveyor of technology within the music industry. Classically trained on the piano, cello and clarinet as a child, Heap released her debut album, the alt-rock inspired iMegaphone, in 1998.

Her most commercially successful track, “Hide and Seek” from 2005’s Speak For Yourself, soundtracked a climactic moment in The OC (and, more recently, a scene in Normal People) and was heavily sampled in Jason Derulo’s ubiquitous 2009 single “Whatcha Say”. Heap has also composed the music for the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opened in 2016. But since releasing her most recent solo album in 2014, her focus has been primarily on embracing technology within music and seeking out ways to make the industry more equitable.

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In an attempt to push back against the unfair deals that streaming services offer to musicians, in 2015 she released the single “Tiny Human” on Mycelia, an experimental distribution platform that uses a blockchain-based technology called Ethereum – a type of cryptocurrency. Her most idiosyncratic endeavour is the development of a pair of high-tech musical gloves, which allow their wearer to play electronics without being confined behind a bank of gear. Heap’s Mi.Mu gloves have been used on tour by Ariana Grande, the singer gesturing with her hands to create fade-outs or volume increases.

[see also: Spotify’s new “tip jar” won’t save the industry – but it asks us to consider music’s value]

But Heap has spent the past few months at home in Hackney, east London with her five-year-old daughter Scout. In that time, she has considered what it might mean to slow down. “Usually we run at this ridiculous pace, like a spring, ready to fire at any moment. I feel lucky to have had this point to put a stop to the pace life was going at, and to be forced into a rethink.”

Time away from her usual work – she has had to put most of her team on furlough, and halted a project to kick-start a community arts centre in the London Borough of Havering – brought perspective. “I realised the thing I was really missing was playing the piano,” she says. “I didn’t realise in my whole life how valuable that had been, ever since I was a child, having this connection with the moment, and just improvising and letting the flow of thoughts pass through me, rather than have them all sticking to my head.”

So each Tuesday during lockdown she has sat at her piano, improvising live to fans watching at home. At first, it was simply a way of giving herself a schedule: her days were “turning into one big mush”. But, having lost out on pay from Harry Potter once theatres closed (Heap says approximately 70 per cent of her income comes from the show), she realised she could use it to bolster herself financially too. She is now charging £100 per song request and £500 per cover request (she needs extra time to learn to play the latter). She calls these live-streams “digital busking”. 

But, being Heap, she couldn’t stop there. She has also launched an app, which fans can sign up to for a small monthly fee (most pay £2 a month, she says), to access demos and working ideas, unreleased material and lyrics. It’s also somewhere Heap hosts “listening parties” and chats with fans, using Discord, a freeware instant messaging and video application. 

Heap is fortunate that she has many generous fans. Lower-profile musicians, who have been struck hard by the loss of live tour revenue, would not have the fan base to make this work, and Heap is aware that the large one-off donations for song requests won’t last forever. But her Patreon-like model is a reminder that musicians’ work is work – that their time and talent shouldn’t be given away for free, as has become the norm across the industry due to the domination of social media.

[see also: The thing I miss most is dancing: that rush of euphoria, all caught up in the thrill of the moment]

It was social media, Heap says, that changed her relationship with her fans in the first place. “It feels a bit like we’re back to the old days, back to this community, a small, manageable group, where we can discuss all kinds of things. I had this when I made Speak For Yourself, I had a message board. But social media took over and everything got so big. The one-to-many media is not a place of comfort and private discussion. I lost touch with these people. They were still there, but they were smothered by thousands of other people. I couldn’t find a way to reach them. In a way, I feel like social media contributed to my moving away from music.” 

Lockdown pushed Heap into realising that she had left behind the most satisfying aspect of her career: playing and writing music. “In a way, I’m now retreating into the arms of my fans, into the arms of my Heapsters, and becoming more of a musician again.”

On Tuesdays, before the piano sessions, Heap sits in her “listening chair” to speak with a fan, who has purchased a ticket for a one-to-one virtual conversation with her. “They usually end up being a couple of hours,” she says. 

“By the end of it, I come out feeling completely refreshed and ready to take on the world, because we’ve been having real conversations. To be honest, I spend 95 per cent of my time with my five-year-old, and I love my five-year-old, but it’s not always the kind of conversation you need. Having this professional time which is also a very deep connecting time has been like a weird therapy. There have been many tears. I lost my sister in November so we talk often about that.”

Do her interactions with fans feel odd, I ask, given how much they have come to learn about her, and how little she knows about them? “From the outside, it might seem a bit strange, but it’s very difficult to describe the relationship. Obviously, there’s a financial relationship there, there is. But we trust that they’re there and they’re supporting me. They have paid to enter that space, but they think it’s worth it.” 

A Q&A section of the “listening chair” sessions also contributes to the growth of Heap’s early-stage AI project, “Augmented Imogen”, which is intended to be an open-source resource for “Heapsters” in the future. She hopes this AI version of herself will be “witty, but a little bit offhand” – which is how, it seems, Heap likes to imagine her real self. Heap says the issue of handling data ethically is “very close to my heart”: she uses her time in the listening chair to discuss the practicalities of the AI project with her fans, while their sound bites contribute to it.

It is clear that, for Heap, each new project is not simply a destination, but one more strand in her interconnected web of ideas. But how positively each initiative will affect its target audience is not so clear – and anyway, Heap’s mind is always leaping ahead to the next thing.

Her dedication to these extra-musical projects stems from a dissatisfaction that a lot of artists feel, particularly those on independent labels or those who self-release, as Heap does. “I’m so frustrated with the music industry,” she says. “Simply making a record by itself doesn’t pay the bills. You end up spending way more money than you get back on your return, unless you’re very lucky. In a way, I’d almost given up on it.”

Many believe the halt to tours and music festivals this year has highlighted the industry’s systemic problems – the reliance on tour income, because streaming services pay artists so little, being a major one.

“I do feel like it has come to the point where we are able to ask, without live [music], what are we really left with? It becomes completely unviable and, to be honest, it is completely unviable – even for me – to rely on just making music.”

[see also: “I lost my identity”: The artists who left major record deals to form their own indie labels]

Heap’s primary project, which she and her team have been working on for more than six years, is the Creative Passport, a personalised ID system for music-makers. The global music industry generates $45bn a year, but 50 per cent of those payments don’t make it to their rightful owners, says Heap, and the old-fashioned administrative processes behind the scenes are costly too. Creative Passport aims to offer a solution: users can create one profile with correct and up-to-date data about themselves and their work and connect it to relevant websites, including Spotify and Apple Music. Heap hopes it will combat the problems of missing and incorrect data, and provide a searchable network for artists, engineers and producers to find each other on.

The project, which Heap is hoping to roll out before the end of this year, isn’t a total overhaul of the current system. Rather, it works with pre-existing platforms and neatens up administration in aid of greater efficiency. “Right now we are individual musicians with no union. If we can prove that by having your information organised and being able to connect to all the different services that you use in your own micro eco-system – that you can help all those other services become more than the sum of their parts, by being interactive, data-organised and ready for action – we can shift it around.”

It’s no small task, but if anyone has the energy for such a project, it’s Heap. Besides, she knows her loyal fans will be there, too. She’s already, instinctively, adopting the calming language she read out to me at the start of our conversation as she talks of her rekindling with them: “I feel this time has been a homecoming in many ways, home to me, like falling out of a window and feeling like someone’s caught you.”

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