Question: How do you get listeners to pay attention and engage with your work when all music is so readily and easily available?
Answer: Go seriously old school and release an album’s worth of unrecorded sheet music through a publishing house.
At least, that’s what you do if you’re Beck. The shape-shifting singer/songwriter made headlines last week with the announcement that his new album, Beck Hansen’s Song Reader, would be released not in CD, download or vinyl form, but as sheet music with companion artwork. The deluxe collection, due in December from McSweeney’s, features 20 songs (18 with lyrics, 2 instrumental), an introduction by writer Jody Rosen, and a foreword by Beck, for a total of 108 pages across 20 books.
“The Song Reader is an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012—an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together,” says a post on Beck’s website.
While there is the distinct possibility this could be a publicity stunt to drum up support for an eventual musical release, it is still an interesting approach to fan engagement. Consumers have practically instant access to any album or song they desire, so getting them to spend some time with your work is increasingly difficult. Unless, of course, they have no idea what it sounds like. (In this case, we’re guessing it’s not “Loser”). It’s also a big risk, as the fans who just want to jam out to a new Beck album could be alienated.
But in the online age, uploading a YouTube video of yourself performing a popular song is now part of the culture, and perhaps an opportunity for 12-15 minutes of fame. Song Reader hopes to capitalize on this environment by having fans come up with their own interpretations of Beck’s work, and recording/posting them. There could be hundreds of different versions. Who knows, maybe some of the songs are even good.
McSweeney’s says it will post readers’ and “select musicians’” versions of the songs on its website. No word if Beck himself is included in that group.
This project might serve another useful purpose for the artist. Assuming no CD/download is coming for this album, you can bet fans will line up for tickets to Beck’s shows to hear how he imagined the songs.
Don’t expect everyone to rush out and start releasing unrecorded sheet-music-as-album, though. If you’re Beck, you can probably get away with it. But coming up with off the wall ideas to keep fans involved and people talking, is a crucial part of standing out from the crowd.