There’s nothing special about Inna. Her singing voice is at best tolerable – high-pitched, occasionally sounding like fingernails scraping a chalkboard, and rather more suitable for recording bedtime stories. She’s no breathtaking beauty – dark-haired, petite, in shape, much like every other Romanian singer. She’s not smoking hot – she looks good, but she doesn’t ooze sex. She’s not much of a dancer – mounted on giant heels, she jitters back and forth, but not enough to break a sweat. She doesn’t have a dazzling personality – she’s like a naïve, giddy little girl basking in the attention of the grown-up world. She doesn’t put forth any notable message – everybody should just dance and have a good time.
She has nothing of what we might think makes a successful musical product. She doesn’t have Adele’s almighty voice, Beyonce’s homely appeal, Lady Gaga’s oddness, Britney Spears’ dance routines, Shakira’s swinging voice or hips, Rihanna’s raunchiness, Pink’s ballsiness, or Katy Perry’s quirkiness.
Nevertheless, Inna is everywhere. On the radio, on TV, online, in the news. And not just in Romania; Inna is an international music product. She’s popular in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, Serbia, Hungary – which makes perfect sense –, but also in the Netherlands, Germany, UK, France, U.S., and Mexico.
Since 2008, she’s been launching one single after another – Hot, Love, Déjà Vu, Amazing, 10 Minutes, Sun is Up –, all hogging the top spot of both national and international charts. Every couple of days she has a show somewhere in Europe (this fall she even made it to South America). She gets nominated and often wins Romanian and European music awards: MTV Europe Music Awards, Romanian Music Awards, Radio România Actualităţi Awards, Woman of the Year, Eska Awards, Viva and Sopot Hit Festival in Poland, Balkan Music Awards in Bulgaria, NRJ Music Awards in France.
She is considered an ambassador of Romania – “better her than thieves and beggars,” say commentators on websites –, a country brand, as Tabu magazine proclaimed in 2010, a symbol of friendship between Romania and France – she sang at the opening of the National Arena stadium before a Romania-France match –, and a role model for young Romanians – she is the image of a Pepsi campaign that encourages people to be creative.
The Inna phenomenon was born in 2008, with Hot, a song as sticky as tar. Elena Alexandra Apostoleanu was 22 and had moved from the Black Sea coast (she was born in Mangalia and studied Political Science in Constanţa) to Bucharest with her manager, Lucian Ştefan, a friend from Constanţa, with no experience in the music industry. They started working with Play & Win, a trio of producers with many hits to their name, including songs that did well internationally (Akcent’s Kylie topped charts in 2005 in Russia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc.). After a couple of failed attempts at pop-rock (she competed for the Eurovision song contest), Alexandra turned to dance music, the unshakeable mainstream of Romanian music.
Hot, whose chorus “Fly like you do it / Like you’re high / Like you do it / Like you fly / Like you do it / Like a woman” goes on an on in a vicious loop, was uploaded to YouTube and it blew up. Inna signed with Roton, who promoted the song on radios and music TV stations in Romania and abroad. The song caught on internationally, too.
But Hot was sheer luck. It came out of left field both for us, the audience, and for the people who launched it. The challenge was to take advantage of this unexpected bout of luck. And, according to the Swiss cheese model – where holes in several slices of cheese can line up to cause a random result that is otherwise impossible to obtain –, this luck turned into success because of the Inna brand’s particular attributes.
1. YouTube success of Hot
The first attribute of the Inna brand was Hot’s YouTube success. Unlike the usual road traveled by Romanian musicians – sing in Romanian and/or English, become popular in Romania, then sing in English hoping to become popular abroad –, Inna spoke to international audiences from the get-go. She didn’t market herself as a Romanian product promoted abroad, but as an international product also promoted in Romania.
Rotonplayed a decisive part in the conquering of Europe, by licensing the song to partner labels, first in countries well known as vacation spots: Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria. Once people hear a song while on vacation, they become more receptive when they hear it on the radio back in Holland, Germany or UK. Cătălin Muraru, Roton’s manager, says it was clear from the start that Hot was that rare occurrence in the life of a record label. It was a song appealing to young audiences that had to get played on as many mainstream radio stations as possible. “Before wondering who sings it, people had to like the song,” he says. “Then on Facebook, the website, YouTube, people saw who sang it. These are the steps to a hit in the making.”
Like any up and coming product that needs to get on as many shelves as possible, Inna is going through an expansion phase. During her 2011 tour, she had gigs every two-three days. Most of the gigs were in clubs, but she also played open air shows and festivals, some paid, others for free, for promotional purposes. She has to be as present as possible and cover as much territory as she can, says Muraru.
The time is right. The international music industry has been more and more receptive to European dance influences in the past few years. (David Guetta, a French producer, is hugely popular in the United States.) Eastern-European dance music is particularly catchy and Romania is a significant provider of this type of artists. Edward Maya, Alexandra Stan, Sasha Lopez and Inna are just some of the examples.
Their popcorn dance is a simple kind of music, composed digitally, consisting of repetitive beats that, as the name of the genre suggests, resemble the sound of popping corn, plus exotic samples that cling to one’s ear (trumpet, accordion, sax etc.). It’s the kind of music you dance to in clubs, that makes no emotional claims. The target is young people who want to have fun, dance and that’s about it. It’s highly likely for people to like a song, dance to it at a nightclub, hum it behind the wheel, but not care who sings it. That is why all efforts behind an artist must help build up that artist’s image.
The second atttibute of the product that is Inna is consistency. In 2009, popcorn dance was only just starting and Hot helped popularize the genre, says Tony Teşiu, director of programming with Radio Zu, one of the biggest players on the market of Romanian commercial radio. The music business is all about trends: if a song with Portuguese influences does well on the radio, there will be a lot of artists doing the same thing. Inna wasn’t a one hit wonder. She launched six singles off her first album, Hot, all produced by Play & Win. “With her substance and consistency she’s among the biggest radio stars,” says Teşiu. What matters in her case, besides talent and charisma, is the very good team backing her up. They’ve made good choices – with the singles, appearances, gigs.
“Inna has the intelligence of consistency,” says Anca Lupeş, co-founder of artistic management and booking company Star Management. About O-Zone’s Dragostea din Tei, the first Romanian song to become an international hit, Lupeş says it was “dumb luck” the band didn’t know how to build on. “O-Zone wasted their pot of gold.”
Lupeş has been in the Romanian music industry since the mid ‘90s, when everyone was still cutting corners. The copyright law didn’t come out until 1996, which prompted a need for legal music traders – that’s how record labels came about. On the one hand, they licensed foreign music, on the other, they started making their own artists, ad-lib. Disgruntled, some of them sought representation – that’s how managers came about. They managed the relationship with the record label, made strategies, but they were also agents, they went on tour with the artist, took care of financial aspects, and sometimes acted as sound engineers (they popped in the CD and pushed play, that is). Even today, says Lupeş, there are maybe 10-15 artists in Romania with a solid team behind them, including managers, lawyers, agents, PR reps, accountants.
Global Music Management, the team that formed around Inna, is pretty close to the standard. Lucian Ştefan is her manager (he is always with her), Marian Dorobanţu is the promotion manager and, since this summer, two young women joined the team to handle PR and marketing.
Dorobanţu,23, is active online, both on social networks and on a blog where he writes about management and the music industry. He’s also from Constanţa, and he’s been friends with Lucian since high school. They joined forces in 2009, when Dorobanțu was working in online marketing. He would often advise Lucian on Inna’s website: upload more photos, more videos, because fans of this type of music don’t really care about texts.
“It’s dance music, for teenagers, for clubbing, quality isn’t its strong suit,” says Dorobanţu. “What’s important is that it looks good. It’s a superficial industry. The target is ages 16 to 24. Youngsters appreciate a good voice and the quality of a song, too, but not so much. With dance music, it’s not so much about quality.”
3. Focus on image
The third attribute of success is Inna’s emphasis on her image. “You won’t always have hits,” says Dorobanţu. “You won’t always be the new kid on the block. You have to have an image working for you.”
Inna’s look has been polished over time. In the beginning, she used to be a slightly plump trick with ill-fitting clothes, long fingernails and a gap between her front teeth that made tabloid headlines. A far cry from the euro-pop diva she is today: a cross between a dominatrix on stage (always in corsets, often leather, sporting high heels), conceptualized by Edward Aninaru in photo shoots (rockabilly, femme fatale, mademoiselle), and the girl next door in interviews (her long dark hair tied up in a playful ponytail, aviator sunglasses, washed out jeans, plaid shirts and fur vests).
Inna launched the single Sun is Up in June 2010 and the next, Club Rocker, in May 2011. During this whole time, we didn’t miss her. “In Romania, the music business is chaotic,” Dorobanțu says. “Artists launch a single, it’s uploaded to YouTube, played on the radio and that’s about it. Nobody tries anything new. They have no strategy – they put out a song and then let it die instead of constantly building visibility with photo shoots, online presence, fan interaction.”
The news, the media are image building tools. “Every artist has something to communicate,” he says, “but most of them stick to launches alone.” Inna, on the other hand, kept the media up to date with everything that was going on: a platinum disc here, an award there, anything important enough to make news. They showered the media with stories, they sent out videos from concerts and award ceremonies.
4. Availability to the public
The fourth attribute of the product that is Inna is the way it’s made available to the public. Her appearances in Romanian media have been scarce and controlled. (This article is no exception, as Dorobanţu has insisted on mediating all contact – ultimately unssucesful – with Alexandra, Lucian, international record labels.) “No journalist has her phone number,” he says. “Anything about her goes through me. It’s better for me to say no, I don’t want her doing this interview or that, then have her say it.” Thus, Inna’s image is positive for the most part – even stories in tabloids are mostly harmless (they marvel at how sexy she is, show concern that she may be too skinny, are proud of her achievements). “We wanted more than stir a scandal that would make headlines for a month and then slip into oblivion,” Dorobanţu explains. “We aimed for organic growth, based on results, things we’ve worked for.”
Men’s magazine FHMshowed us a great deal of Inna. She was on the cover of the May 2010 issue, and was declared the sexiest woman, which marked her big stage debut in Romanian media. It was a hit, says Eddie Ţone, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. On the one hand, the photos were also requested by FHM France, Germany, and Russia. In Romania, that added a huge bonus to her image capital. “People weren’t really aware of Inna, of her being Romanian,” Țone says. “Being in the magazine opened conversations about her here, now she had a face.”
Working with Inna on several occasions, Ţone noted the importance of management and of Lucian in particular. “She’s caught up in a whirlwind. If it weren’t for Lucian managing her schedule, she wouldn’t know where she was.” Ţone thinks her positive image is due to the tight grip her management has on all her public appearances: she doesn’t put herself out there, she doesn’t appear as a guest on shows where “those hyenas would chew her up in an instant.”“Lucian is very strict, he keeps her grounded and away from the tabloids. Inna is largely a creation of her management.”
Online, Inna is highly accessible. She’s a product that was born and does well online. Her website is constantly updated with photos and keeps track of everything happening on social networking sites. Hers is the Romanian Facebook page with the most fans – over 3.7 million in November. It’s updated daily with photos from backstage, snaps from flights, photo shoots, videos, tour dates. Each post gets hundreds of likes and adoring comments. She is the first Romanian with a verified Twitter account and is nearing 125,000 followers. She tweets several times a day, seldom in Romanian, usually in the brief code of teens everywhere: “Woop woop”; “Love youuu”; “Kisssss”.
Inna’s fans are “club rockers,” like Lady Gaga’s “little monsters,” a species of fans named after her second album, Club Rocker, l Social networking sites have them pretty well organized. Besides fan sites – innadaily.com, for instance, which is backed by her management–, she has hundreds of dedicated accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
On Twitter, many fans’ bios include the date Inna started following them or when she replied to them, and their profile picture has her autograph. It was Alexandra’s idea; she came up with it this summer: they ask her for an autograph via the #autographsonmywall hashtag, she writes it, photographs it and sends it back to them. (The hashtag was a Twitter tending topic the first week.)
Real-time communication makes fans feel involved in the fate of the product. They like her because she’s accessible (you can tell her anything, anytime, on Twitter and Facebook) and friendly (their tweets and comments always get an answer). She’s their friend, not some elusive object of their desire.
Lucian, Dorobanţu, and Alexandra are all young and that made a difference as far as digital media is concerned. They knew they had to give fans something in return. A good example is the vote collection campaign for the 2010 MTV Music Awards. To avoid repetitive calls for votes they organized a four-day photo shoot and shot about 20 frames, with Inna wearing outfits typical of different countries. (The team plans to include some 50 special seats for fans in its technical rider.)
Internet popularity is somewhat translated into sales. On the one hand, likes lead to more radio play and higher positions in the charts – which don’t necessarily bring in money but lead to calls for gigs. Then, says Dorobanţu, in countries like France, where music sells, likes are visibly converted into sales: “There are about 400,000 French among her Facebook fans and we sold 3,500 albums when we linked to a song.”
Her online influence has brought her a lot of endorsement proposals. So far, Inna has only accepted two: Internet Explorer and Pepsi.The latter was a major step, as the campaign lasts several months – it started this summer with a few commercials and continued with a creativity contest on Facebook. The message the campaign needs to convey, explains Călin Clej, marketing manager with PepsiCo, is that “whether you were born in Romania or wherever, if you have an idea, you’re ambitious and fight to make it happen, people will reward you.” Inna had the perfect brand to get this message across, says Clej. There was no other contender.
5. More success abroad
The fifth attribute is that Inna’s image in Romania is in fact a projection of her international image. She didn’t her build her brand with concerts and public appearances in Romania, but with stories about shows and appearances abroad. She has thus avoided tabloids and scandals but also failed to connect with the Romanian audience. “Inna has neglected Romania,” Lupeş says. “The rationale was good, they didn’t wear her out, they turned down gigs. But she rarely, if ever, came to Romania. She didn’t connect with the audience. They haven’t seen her on stage. She’s still some chick who’s big abroad.”
Moreover, Lupeş says, for a few years now, all sorts of international artists have started coming to Romania, from Rolling Stones to Madonna. On the one hand, these became priorities in concert goers’ budgets, on the other, they raised the bar. This theory was proven when Inna had her first open air concert in Romania, in May 2011, at Arenele Romane in Bucharest. It was organized by FHM and tickets were half price if bought using a discount coupon that came with the magazine; full price was 80 lei (roughly $25). The line-up was chosen together with Inna’s team: Play & Win, Akcent, Alex Velea featuring Smiley, and Senzor. Ţone expected it to “kick ass”.
It didn’t. The venue was barely filled. Only about 5,000 people showed up, but only 1,000 people had paid full price. Many had received free invitations at the last minute. “If Inna were Belgian,” Ţone says a few months after that concert, “people would have crowded to fill an entire stadium.” Dance music is more appropriate in clubs, he adds.
Inna took the stage at around 10 p.m., after too long a prelude (the venue opened at 7 p.m.) – wowing the crowd by coming down on stage from a helicopter. The gig lasted about 50 minutes and included an acoustic medley of cover songs (Bruno Mars – Grenade, Kings of Leon – Use Somebody, Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes – Time Of My Life, Lady Gaga – Born This Way), a cover of Black Eyed Peas – Party, where she invited her fans up on stage, and Amazing for the encore that no one had requested, really, because people were already heading for the exits.
Her choreography was more a series of poses – bound in a tight black leather corset and mounted on giant heels, she froze in various angles –, and her performance was upstaged by her talking between songs. Inna said she had been warned she didn’t have so many fans in Romania, but yet, there they were, that she wanted Club Rocker to have its exclusive world premiere “here, in my country,” that she came to have fun and all her friends were there, with her. She asked the audience whether someone had paid them to be there or they were just fans, and added she never thought she’d get to play for a Romanian audience and hadn’t prepared all the things she was saying.
People believed her. Inna is nothing if not genuine. Disarmingly so.
She’s made small blunders: she forgot her own lyrics during the concert in Bucharest. She’s made big blunders: she had a Janet Jackson moment during a concert in Paris, when a wardrobe malfunction exposed a breast. She’s made epic blunders: an interview in Hungary in July 2009, in broken English, that made headlines for weeks and enriched Romanian pop culture with the now famous quotes “I see death with my eyes” and “I am boring and scary.” Every time, she apologized with a smile and was – at least partly – forgiven. Teşiu believes that interview deeply affected her image in Romania where people “preferred to mock her rather than see how big she was at that time.”
The words most often used to describe her are “ambitious” and “honest.” How else could Elena Alexandra Apostolescu, a petite, pony-tailed, squeaky-voiced, giddy 25-year-old woman from Mangalia, follow through with all the strategies contrived for Inna.
6. Romania needs Inna
The sixth attribute of the product that is Inna is that Romania needs it – as it needs many other such products. Domestically, Inna is what Teşiu calls “a soldier doing their job well” – you don’t necessarily relate to her, but she keeps you in the game. “Commercial radio is like a book store,” he says, “the front shelf always has the best selling books. It doesn’t matter they are by Sandra Brown.”
Ţone says FHM is always on the lookout for “safe” singers with no shady reputations. And Inna is “cute, petite, delicate, a good product to promote. There’s always a need for products to promote.”
On a global scale, Inna is a pioneer. As long as Romania doesn’t produce the likes of U2 and all Romanian pop and rock artists are pale copies of international artists, dance is the only Romanian music fit for export. And if Inna was able to conquer Europe one country at a time, as Dorobanţu puts it, people following in her footsteps – take Alexandra Stan, who made the cover of FHM UK this summer – already have a beaten track to follow and can simultaneously reach many fans interested in what the Romanian music scene has to offer.
The image problem in Romania doesn’t really affect the Inna brand. There are countries like France, where she’s doing much better, and with all the international gigs and attention, no wonder Romania is low on the priority list. As Dorobanţu says, “she doesn’t have time to be here. It’s a strategy borne of necessity.”
That is the seventh and last attribute of the Inna brand:
7. Although a Romanian product, it doesn’t need Romania.
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