Musicians have started challenging accepted ideas about the state of the music album.
If you have strummed lightning bolts behind Björk’s powerful voice, listened to the latest Flaming Lips tunes from out of a human skull or purchased the new Radiohead album a mere two days after it was announced, it will be clear to you that the music album is changing at a rapid rate.
All three of these artists are at the forefront of the change. Radiohead, in fact, were pioneering new models back in 2007, with the release of their seventh album In Rainbows. Having concluded their multi-album deal with Parlophone, the band chose to release their album themselves through their website, allowing fans to download it immediately on a pay-what-you-want basis. The price was “up to you”, the website stated.
The band sold 1.2-million downloads on the day of release and went on to sell three million copies of the album in the first year. A limited edition box set was released a few months later, offering fans the album on vinyl and CD, plus a disc of outtakes and a hardcover book of artwork.
This innovative approach grabbed the headlines, but the backlash was loud. Critics and fellow musicians argued that although the new distribution model might have worked for a band like Radiohead, which already had a massive following built on the back of the traditional music industry, the model would not work for new artists trying to break into the market.
Sure, the critics may have had a point, but Radiohead did not champion their model as a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, much like the second wave of British punks, the critics had missed the point entirely: it was not for bands to replicate what the pioneers had done, but to think outside the box and create a new form, a new solution that would work for each band.
After all the debate died down it seemed the music industry was happy to slip back into the tried and tested. Until 2011, that is, the year in which a small group of musicians began to challenge accepted ideas about the state of the music album.
Björk stands out as the true visionary of 2011. She turned her new album, Biophilia, into an iPad app album.
What is that? I hear you asking.
Effectively, Björk has turned each song—based on naturally occurring phenomena such as lightning, DNA, crystals and viruses—into its own iPad app or piece of software. So while listening to the new Björk album you can be racing down tunnels collecting brightly coloured crystals, strumming lightening bolts to create rhythms or using samples from the new album to create your own music. Each song has an interactive menu that allows you to view the lyrics and score as it plays. The app offers an animation that uses shapes to create a structural formation of the song.
In briefing the app programmers, Björk apparently said she wanted to show children that musicology was “spatial” and “physical”. The concept aimed to reconnect musical education with forms in nature through technology.
Björk has effectively taken the album and turned it into an interactive, educational and mind-blowing toy, one that even this 34-year-old has been immersed in for hours on end.
Unfortunately, Björk’s app album is hard to describe in detail and it really needs to be experienced. If you have an iPad you can get it for the fairly reasonable price of about R65.
More exciting methods
Then there’s the Flaming Lips who last year announced that as a follow-up to their monumental 2009 album, Embryonic, they would release a track every month for the rest of the year.
Lead singer Wayne Coyne told Rolling Stone magazine that creating a whole new album in the traditional way seemed daunting and the song-a-month system would be a more exciting way to get their music out.
“Not that I think the old way was boring,” said Coyne, “but to spend another two years with the same 13 songs? We want to try to live through our music as we create it instead of it being a collection of the last couple of years of our lives. “The dilemma is whether we are going to release it on vinyl, cereal boxes or some of it on toys that we make,” he said.
The first track, Two Blobs Fucking, was released on Valentine’s Day. It exists as 12 separate pieces on YouTube and they must be played simultaneously to be heard as the band intended.
In March the Flaming Lips released a collaborative, limited-edition EP, The Flaming Lips with Neon Indian, on colour vinyl available at a handful of record stores in the United States.
It has yet to be released in any other format—although in this age of file-sharing and internet-distributed music the EP’s four tracks have already travelled halfway around the world thanks to some intrepid vinyl rippers.
More limited-edition collaborative EPs followed when the Flaming Lips worked with artists such as Prefuse 73 and Lightning Bolt.
Then on April 20, Coyne announced on Twitter that he would be delivering a number of new Flaming Lips EPs to select radio stores in the US. But this time they would not come as YouTube clips or on coloured vinyl but would be on a USB memory stick buried inside a large edible Gummy Bear skull.
The EP was dubbed Gummy Song Skull and contains four tracks.
At the same time the band began to experiment with song lengths. First came the six-hour song, titled I Found a Star on the Ground, which was released in a limited number of 11 alongside a visual toy called a strobo trip and only available from a particular store in Portland, Oregon, for one day.
These limited edition releases retail at a hefty price for the hardcore fans, with the rest being able to experience the music for free by downloading it off the internet.
This idea was expanded when the band released a 24-hour song, which was available on an external hard drive buried inside a human skull in a limited release of 13 going for the price of
The rest of the fans could stream the song from a specially created website.
It is clear that the Flaming Lips are playing with the idea of the album and using expensive limited-edition pieces to fund their recordings, rather than the traditional model.
For a lot of these artists the new models are as much about experimentation as they are about breaking free of the model the music industry uses to release new music. This is especially true for Radiohead, who have said they want to put their new music out when it is done and not wait for their record label to gear up a promotional campaign for the album.
Last minute additions
In fact, when Radiohead released their new album, The King of Limbs, on February 18 last year many fans complained that the eight-song, 37-minute album was too short.
On April 16 two more songs were released, The Butcher and Supercollider, with the explanation that the former was finished during the King of Limbs sessions but did not fit on the album and that the latter was finished a month after the album came out.
Two more songs followed on December 19, The Daily Mail and Staircase.
It is clear that Radiohead have taken the release of their music into their own hands and are not limited by rigid release schedules associated with the traditional label model.
The fans that complained that The King of Limbs was too short must be feeling rather stupid now.
With a series of eight remixed EPs released last year, plus a live DVD, a full album and four extra songs, Radiohead have been busy. And by breaking their material into packages the way they see fit, the band have ensured that not a month goes by without their fans having something new to listen to.
More power to them, to the Flaming Lips and to Björk. Let us hope that more artists start to think outside the box.