Beck’s Sheet-Music Gambit And Six Other Alternatives To Just Putting Out A Boring Old Record


This week neo-pop superstar Beck announced the release of Song Reader, a new “album” in the form of sheet music. The finished product offers nothing to listen to; just 20 sheets of notation collected in a “lavishly produced hardcover carrying case,” according to the publishing outfit McSweeney’s, which is working with Mr. Hansen to release this artful experiment.

People praised the project; others derided it—although not surprisingly, many musicians leaned toward the former. As the Beauty Pill’s Chad Clark put it: “There is zero incentive to release music conventionally right now. It just feels dumb/masochistic. Might as well try shit. Why not?”

A solid point, and one that many of Clark’s musical brethren have taken well to heart. Here are some of the more innovative ways that artists are trying to get people to pony up for music these days.

Attaching a download code. Simply selling off a card with access to an album is no longer enough; there’s gotta be something extra. Mos Def attached a code to t-shirts. Portland rockers Wow & Flutter stuck a code under the wax seal of a specially brewed bottle of beer. Max Tundra included a free download with a can of kosher chicken soup. And Of Montreal went fucking bonkers with download options for their 2008 album Skeletal Lamping.

Releasing albums on USB drives. You’ll usually find these tucked inside box sets, but some artists are offering miniature hard drives up as an alternative to a boring ol’ CD. Trouble is: The more outlandish the packaging, the more expensive they get. The White Stripes’ last album Icky Thump came out as Matryoshka doll-like flash drives, but with retail price of $99 each. The massive Beatles Remasters box set in the form of a green apple with USB drive hidden inside? Nearly $300. Also not cheap, but potentially tasty, are the Flaming Lips’ series of gummy skulls with USB drives inside them.

Releasing music in wearable form The folks behind Playbutton ask this question: “We believe the music you love tells the world who you are, so why just listen to an album when you can wear it, too?” Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to The xx and Dirty Three have also released music in the form of a badge with a headphone jack.

Going waaaaay retro. Beck isn’t the first artist to try and revive a bygone format. Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Tompkins Square Records have released 78 RPM singles; the Shins made their most recent album available on reel-to-reel cassette (it sold out); Cheap Trick gave a nod to their ’70s heyday in 2009 by putting out an album on 8-track. Singer/songwriter Thomas Negovan takes the proverbial cake however by recording his tunes onto Edison wax cylinders.

Going waaaaay futuristic. Björk’s app version of her last album Biophilia was, according to reports, amazing. Sting has hinted that he might follow suit.

Going waaaaay too far. The Flaming Lips released a 24-hour song on a hard drive stuck inside an actual human skull. But give some credit to Jack White for the releases he cooked up for Third Man Records—a triple-decker single, wherein a 7-inch record is physically embedded inside a 12-inch, as well as a 12-inch single with filled with blue liquid. The gauntlet has been tossed though by Scottish band FOUND, who last year put out an edible, playable 7-inch made out of chocolate. Ball’s in your court, Messrs. White and Coyne.