Beck Hansen is a music artist with many strings to his bow. In a career which has spanned almost twenty years, Hansen has experimented with various genres such as folk, rock, country, and rap, and the artistic forms he has assumed are also numerous; from refusing to sign exclusive label deals in order to record two contrasting albums at once, releasing singles mixed with video game soundtracks, to remaining a highly sought-after producer. Needless to say, avant-garde doesn’t cover it. However, his latest project further pushes the boundaries of modern concepts of music. In December Hansen will release a twenty track ‘album’ entitled Beck Hansen’s Song Reader which will be published only as sheet music. Sold unrecorded, this is an album in its most primal form; musical scores to be deciphered and created by each individual. Musicians may see a challenge while others may consider the album a prized collectible, but those who just want to hear Beck’s latest album may find it frustrating to learn they may need to pick up a ukulele in order to do so.
In America McSweeney’s will publish The Song Reader, while UK publisher Faber will be profiting from this experimental project. The album will retail in the UK at £18.99, more than your average album or book, and it is uncertain how well it will sell. Undoubtedly the experimental form will alienate much of Beck’s audience; a fanbase he has built since becoming the pin-up boy of the underdog, stoner generation in the 1990s. While some may appreciate Hansen’s experimentalism they may not be willing to pay for something they ultimately may not use and it is unlikely anyone unfamiliar with his work will be converted by it.
However, the album does pose some interesting questions about what music is and the possible role of the publisher in music production. In order to make the idea desirable and more than mere concept, the publisher has worked hard to ensure the album is aesthetically pleasing. Marcel Dzama, who has previously collaborated with Hansen on his album Guero, has illustrated some of the album alongside others, creating a book where each song is illustrated in a beautifully individual style. The fonts used vary from page to page to compliment the illustrations, and thus every song has its own persona. This means anyone who buys The Song Reader is not merely purchasing an album but twenty skilfully crafted pieces bound in hardcover, with an elaborate Edwardian cover design that is homage to classical musical manuscripts. Preview images have been released on McSweeney’s website, and what is clear is Beck’s commitment to his vision of a modern tribute to an old style.
The release of a half page score of the song Do We? We Do prompted a flurry of videos and audio clips online of fans playing the song, interpreting it as everything from punk to a ballad. More recently McSweeneys released a page long sample of the song Why?, building on the interest in the Do We? Wo Do sample. These previews are a good marketing move on behalf of McSweeney’s, allowing musicians to integrate with the album even before its release. The sharing of these on sites such as Tumblr and Youtube raises the albums online profile and is essentially free publicity. Expanding on this, McSweeney’s has announced that tracks and samples can be submitted and shared via an official page which has just launched in anticipation of the albums release. This further raises the album’s profile and simultaneously that of the musicians contributing to the project. However, it also crucially provides a platform for those who wish to hear the songs but cannot play them themselves.
Beck’s high profile sells itself, so The Song Reader may not be such a high risk for McSweeneys and Faber. As Hansen has not released a full album of his own work since 2008, anticipation for a new project has been growing steadily. Although early online reactions to The Song Reader were largely negative, there has been a more positive response since the early release of the Do We? We Do and Why? samples, and pre-release orders of signed copies at $50 sold out in a couple of days. It cannot be denied that McSweeney’s have taken on a complicated and innovative project, with a convoluted audience that may be hard to target. However, the early release of song samples, pre-release sales and previews of the artwork has created a buzz that may mean the project is more popular than early reactions would have anticipated. The clever song-sharing marketing scheme on The Song Reader website allows give-it-a-go musicians a way to be involved, while fans of music as an art form may enjoy the aesthetic of a project that has been beautifully and brilliantly designed. Although The Song Reader is unlikely to be as popular as a recorded album, for a concept it may prove surprisingly successful.