Beck takes music technology back to the 19th century


Musical mad genius Beck spent the first half of the year working with the newest form of music distribution, creating levels for a video game. For his encore, he’s going back to the very earliest form of music distribution technology: printed sheet music. Beck’s new album — entitled Beck Hansen’s Song Reader – won’t be on vinyl, CD, or iTunes. Instead, it’s available only as a beautifully illustrated book of sheet music, published by the retro-fetishists of McSweeney’s. 

The front and back cover for Beck's sheet music collectionThe book will include sheet music for eighteen original songs and two instrumentals, but Beck insists that “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.”

It’s a move that will frustrate listeners who just want to listen to a record, but some industry watchers are already excited.  Writing at Forbes, Will Burns calls the idea “brilliant.” As Burns points out, making an “album” that only exists in printed-paper form is an effective end-run around the piracy industry, since there’s no easily reproduced digital bits to download.  And in an era when touring is how musicians make most of their profit, it’s sure to drive up interest in Beck’s next tour, where fans will (presumably) be able to hear the author’s own delivery in his unmistakable voice.

What’s more, it’s a great adjustment to the modern era of participatory culture. McSweeney’s will be hosting renditions of the songs by select amateur and professional musicians on its website, and fans are already promising to put together bar bands and YouTube projects to record their own versions of the songs.  Beck is cleverly placing his music in the world of webcam performances and viral videos, making the listener part of the experience in a very direct way.

But maybe the greatest delight of this project is how it breaks down the modern habit of treating performance and song as synonymous.  In the modern era, for example, we think of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” as Paul McCartney singing over a piano and string section.  But the strings, the reverb-soaked piano, even the voice is all part of the performance, not the song.  For almost a century, the music industry was the sheet music industry.  Famous tunes like “Camptown Races” or “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” were sold as sheet music, not recordings, so “the song” referred to the chords and lyrics, rather than the performance.  The famous music factory of Tin Pan Alley never recorded a note; the industry was entirely in providing sheet music to supply the vast world of vaudeville performers, amateur music societies, and home enthusiasts, back when every middle-class family had an upright piano and kids who could sing in harmony.

Significant elements of the contemporary music industry are historical artifacts of its origins in sheet music publishing, particularly the distinction between “publishing rights” and “master rights” in modern industry contracts.  It’s known among savvier musicians that securing publishing rights is central to keeping the lion’s share of profits from your own songs, by preventing soundalikes from recording their own version and selling it to advertisers.

So while Beck’s decision to release only blueprints for music may seem new-fangled to the point of perversity, it’s very much an invocation of how music worked before the phonograph. At this rate, we expect his next album to be played only for the Pope, and the follow-up to be scratched on cuneiform tablets with lyrics in Linear B.

Photo credit: Barry Mulling

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