No sooner had Beck, iconic artist and poster boy for my “slacker generation”, announced plans to release his next album as sheet music only, than had the idea been inflated, exclaimed, and shot down. Indeed, before many of us had taken the time to digest and explore the idea, the curiously polarizing force of the Internet jury had processed its conceptual merits and delivered a typically inconclusive verdict.
But the clarity was delivered, as it so often is, by de facto industry watchdog Bob Lefsetz in his daily missive. Four words was all it took:
“It’s a publicity stunt.”
A Generation Divided
When Beck Hansen first rose to popularity, the music industry was a very different place. Recorded music ruled and was in the midst of its biggest ever boom, superstars were very much the order of the day, with inflated CD prices and music video hype fueling it all.
Fast forward almost twenty years to today and we have no such clarity, whether in terms of product or medium. CDs are in terminal decline, MP3 is a transitional format, and lingering doubts over revenue potential mean that for every one step forward made by streaming music services, two are taken backwards. Even the generational divide of who consumes what, and how, lacks clarity, with the Gen X/Y-ers having experienced both boom and bust decades, and the question over how (if?) Millenials can be convinced to pay for music at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
Set against that backdrop, Beck has followed in the footsteps of many established acts whose careers were forged during the boom and floated through the bust. He has taken the considered gamble that novelty buzz rather than marketing budget will carry his music to the masses. For those who remember his early recordings, nostalgia and interest will take hold. For those who do not, the novelty of experiencing and consuming music in a new manner could well pique the curiosity of these younger generations.
What he has not done, as some will try to claim at every creative marketing play in a traditionally conservative industry, is to create a blueprint for music success for artists that have little or no existing name recognition.
Take the Best, Leave the Rest
If you are a musician releasing your first or second album, limiting it to sheet music would be frivolous at best, suicidal at worst. Infinitely preferable is to watch the activity around Beck’s move, understand the concepts behind any success and cherry pick them to be applied at your own level.
At the heart of this release – which I thoroughly applaud as an individual exercise in music innovation – lies the concept of audience engagement and participation in the creative process. As Chris Andersen wrote in The Long Tail, the tools of production have been democratized… anyone and everyone can and will create in the digital era, to some extent. Whether recording a simple video to post on YouTube, or making music in a bedroom and distributing it on Bandcamp, the barriers between artist and fan are being blurred. The form of music logically blurs as well, from fan remixes and mash-ups to visual imagery created to accompany original songs. User-generated content related to your own art becomes an important consideration.
Despite lacking clarity or guarantee of success, involving your fans in the creative process is a valid element to incorporate into your next release.
Beck’s contribution to this movement will be to show us how fans interact with his musical compositions when they lack an authoritative original version. Will listeners rise to the challenge and create exciting music that can be incorporated even further into new releases and live shows? Or will there simply be a lot of noise from indistinct versions of the music, before finally the inevitable bootlegs from his concerts fill the vacuum with a definitive take from the original creator?
Watch carefully and think laterally for your own marketing as this release unfolds. How can you take the underlying behavior and interest from fans in this case and apply it creatively at your own level? Do your fans want to be involved with your music as collaborators, or is it all about one clear, pure performance of a song from your instrument to their ears?
Over To You
For all my soapbox ranting, it’s your opinions that really matter on this…
Is there more to Beck’s approach than novelty and ensuing publicity?
How do you as an independent musician and/or music fan feel about introducing listeners to the creative process?