With the record sale stand-still induced by that most infamous bandit, illegal downloading, and the dominance of touring and merchandise as a viable money-maker, some musicians have taken matters into their own hands in order to get their music out to the masses. On reading about The Flaming Lips’ latest spectacle – releasing a 24-hour single on hard drives placed inside human skulls – I decided to evaluate the situation. Are extravagant, quirky sales hooks the key to selling records nowadays, or are budding entrepreneurial bands such as The Flaming Lips being left scratching their skulls?
Looking back to 2007, lamenting legends Radiohead caused a stir with the release of their seventh studio album In Rainbows. Fans faced the question: to pay or not to pay, as the band left it up to them to donate however much they deemed the album worth, if anything (calling the bluff of those who claim to be true, die-whiningly followers). However, although most downloaded the album for free (the majority even favouring torrents over the free legal download), it still made more money than the band’s previous release Hail to the Thief.
Frontman Thom Yorke seemed to answer my question in the affirmative, describing the standard sales approach as a “decaying business model”. And perhaps he was right: on physical release the album entered the charts at number one. I wouldn’t, however, want
to undermine the quality of the album by putting all of its success down to a clever promotional campaign, and it did receive much critical acclaim.
More recently, the Kaiser Chiefs pulled a similar stunt with their 2011 release The Future Is Medieval. The promotional concept here was putting the album out as a set of 20 songs from which fans could compile ten in their own version of the album, feed the ego of their pro-photographer persona by chucking in their own cover art, and make a small profit each time it was sold. However, this story isn’t one of such sweet success, and the campaign ‘overshadowed the CD’, resulting in a poor performance in the charts.
Early on in the project, drummer and vocalist Nick Hodgson preened “It was a great way of working […] You could concentrate on making the song true to itself, rather than making it fit some bigger picture”. Granted, it’s essential that singles work well on their own merits, and I’m a sucker for a catchy hit, but an album is so much more satisfying when it fits well together as a cohesive whole, a scenario the Chiefs rendered almost impossible. Other recent surprises have included Lady Gaga throwing in a lock of her hair with the super deluxe edition of The Fame Monster (2009), and former Nine Inch Nails drummer Josh Freese’s utterly bizarre bundle packages (including a congratulatory phone call and songs written about the buyer), included with his concurrent solo release Since 1972.
But the story that really grabbed my attention was the aforementioned latest promotional effort of The Flaming Lips. Back in September they released a six-hour song along with a toy (Ronald McDonald’s gonna be pissed) and a (not-so) cheap shout out on the track for an extra $100. Now, they have announced the release of a 24-hour single on hard drives placed inside human skulls. And fans have bought into it with the disembodied delights selling out at an amazing $5000 per head (couldn’t pass that one up). But will this crass sales promotion prove a worthwhile, long term experiment for boosting CD sales?
For Radiohead, their innovative promo campaign undoubtedly helped boost popularity for a deserving, well-crafted album. The Future Is Medieval, on the other hand, proved a very fitting title for the Kaiser Chiefs’ release, as their attempt at innovation highlighted the need for reverence to conventional sales techniques: it resulted in their poorest UK chart performance since their debut studio album, peaking at number ten. We’ll have to wait until Halloween to judge the success of The Flaming Lips’ 24-hour single, but for now it seems that neither hair follicles nor freebies can compete with a truly high-quality record in winning the hearts of the public.