Last month, I expressed some concerns about remix culture and the questionable value of much of its output. Shortly thereafter, as if in response, the juggernaut of skewed pop music known as Beck revealed that his next album, Song Reader, will be released exclusively as sheet music.
The songs here are as unfailingly exciting as you’d expect from their author, but if you want to hear “Do We? We Do,” or “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” bringing them to life depends on you.
Beck is no stranger to user-generated content. In 2006, the CD version of The Information came with sticker sheets that encouraged listeners to create their own cover for the album (which, curiously, made it ineligible for entry into the UK Albums Chart). But Song Reader is considerably more intrepid, and may well be the boldest experiment in user-generated content yet. Making pop songs available to the public as sheet music is not a novel concept, but doing so in the absence of a canonical recording of that music is. Beck himself doesn’t yet know quite how these songs will sound; he has written them and left the rest up to us. Cynics might call that lazy, but I think it’s incredibly generous. Artists aspire to have their work be a dialogue with their audience, and this project allows him to be a part of the audience himself, to make the work not his but ours.
Doing this even a few years ago would have yielded very different results. There would have been no shortage of participants, but the fruits of their labor would have remained localized and isolated. However, when Song Reader is released in December, the flood of audience-generated recordings that follows will be made available globally online, on publicly accessible distribution channels that didn’t even exist at the beginning of Beck’s relatively short career.
Musicians are starting to understand that the internet is more than just a marketing tool. That’s kind of a big deal.