by Garin Fahlman
Think of the last record you listened to. To be clear, that means vinyl. I’m not talking about compact discs or new fangled internet downloads – I’m talking about cold hard, analog vinyl. If you’ve never listened to a vinyl… well I guess I can’t really blame you. Just pretend.
Now we’re looking at this record. You’re holding it up at your face and your combing over the cover art. It‘s a badass watercolour painting: you‘ve got some skeletons, wearing well-worn battle armour, charging at some shirtless spacemen who look slightly homoerotic. You make your best assumptions about the scene before you, and decide that the skeleton militia most likely stole the battle armour from the now shirtless spacemen. These are just the foundations of course. So you open it up, and you are stricken with even more awesome fantasy art. Now you can see that the scene on the cover was just a part of a larger image, and hovering above the skeletons’ deadly helms, is a flying tank piloted by a bipedal dog/street punk. There is no direct evidence but you have a hunch that this maverick pooch is working for the shirtless spacemen, running some kind of daring one-man assault on the skeleton militia. You haven’t even gotten to the music yet, and you have experienced several dimensions of entertainment. You remove the album sleeve, which is simply etched with an old wizard’s stern face, of whom you can guess is the sovereign conductor of these grisly events.
Now after a period of reflection, you are finally ready for the album – that is if you choose to bypass the liner notes, which are sure to contain a transcript of the events in lyrical form. But you don’t have all day, so you put on the album, and are helpless but to imagine it as the soundtrack to the apocalyptic space opera on the album art. This, you conclude, must be what music is all about.
Of course, if you, at that time, were to fast-forward to today, you would be crushed to learn that music has found other agendas. But the memory holds (unless you were pretending) and whether you are from the year 20XX or not, it is clear that music has slowly become more about music and less about other things. Let me clarify: in an age where the physical distribution and larger packaging of music has become rarer, auxiliary mediums to carry the experience of an album have accordingly disappeared. When can you remember recently having an experience surrounding the music of an album? I bet your answer is either “never” or “well actually I did once“ in which case you have done irreparable damage to my thesis.
While the majority of albums nowadays don’t contain any amount of serious artwork, consistent concepts, or other avenues of immersion, the industry is not without those who are more than interested in creating worlds out of their music. And one would think in a world with the internet, the possibilities for IP expansion would be near-limitless. I use the word IP – which is to say “intellectual property” – because the expanding budgets of entertainment properties, whether it’s music or not, have ballooned so dramatically that any project that can launch successfully becomes almost required to churn out related sequels, or an aggressive marketing campaign. Meaning each individual release has its own meta-world of expansive marketing possibilities, making all successful products important individual platforms – or IPs. And truth be told, it has taken quite a long acclimation period for musicians and corporations alike to get used to the modern possibilities for creative IP expansion. Most companies are so worried about just having an album or artist get noticed at large, that outsourcing groups to create an extra level of immersion for fans of said artist or album is low on the priority list. But not only is the currently cluttered musical landscape screaming for diversity, the rise of the unsigned, do-it-yourself indie artist is making a new stand for the all-encompassing musical experience of old.
In fact, there are numerous diamonds in the rough who make a strong stand for “music as an experience”. After the dark ages of the ‘90’s, the internet had finally become a tool which was stripped of its mystical demeanour and joined the ranks of other common household appliances such as the toaster or the can opener. Which was a good thing. This level of accessibility was just what was needed to allow one popular 90’s artist to create one of the most entertaining experiences surrounding 16 tracks ever to appear.
The artist I’m talking about is Nine Inch Nails, who is Trent Reznor, a rock musician who debuted his industrial sound in the late 80’s and rose to popularity in the 90’s with his album The Downward Spiral. In 2007, Trent teamed up with creative marketing team 42 Entertainment, who specialised in a form of viral marketing known as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, to promote his new album – a concept album called Year Zero. What Trent wanted to create was a persistent world that grew from his initial concept for the album – a future America that has descended into totalitarian political chaos – through the use of cryptic websites, phone calls, actors, live events, real-world clues, and hidden messages. Trent funded the Year Zero experience himself, apart from his record company, saying “What you are now starting to experience IS 'year zero'. It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record – it IS the art form… and we're just getting started. Hope you enjoy the ride.” The experience consisted mostly of cryptic websites, seemingly sent back in time from a dystopian future to warn us of where our society might be headed. The URLs could be found in almost any place imaginable – highlighted letters on the back of t-shirts; USB flash drives left in bathroom stalls; fine print scribbled on concert pins; even graffiti left on city streets. People were led to underground NIN concerts that were preceded by actors giving speeches, posing as the resistance leaders from the Year Zero world, that were then broken up by fake SWAT teams assaulting the audience. It was an experience that led thousands of fans on an engaging musical and artistic experience for months, and created an album both memorable, relevant and broad in scope.
The way Year Zero was marketed caught press and fans off guard. It was way far beyond any aspirations in terms of marketing that any IP – let alone rock album – had ever even dreamed possible of being allowed to achieve. It proved that the modern, digital world was hungry for more complex, intimate experiences in the entertainment properties. Oddly enough, despite incredible success and thousands of people who participated in the ARG, there has been no real answer yet to this type of marketing in any other music release after it. But Year Zero was a complicated, intricate and painstaking production, which would be very difficult to reproduce; subsequent experiences would be diluted in the wake of too many imitators. The most important thing Year Zero showed us, is that the ceiling for creating creative experiences for our music is higher than we have ever attempted to reach.
Year Zero isn`t the only recent attempt to create more intimate experiences through our music. Coheed and Cambria is a band who has been able to avoid any extensive media coverage yet holds a large, loyal fan base that is rapidly growing. Their rising popularity can be attributed to the fact that their music has held a consistent level of quality across five albums, but a more important contributing factor may be the band’s unique approach to album structure.
Coheed and Cambria’s lead singer and guitarist Claudio Sanchez is a self-professed nerd. Which is an accurate statement. Much of Claudio’s spare time is spent writing a comic book series he`s worked on since before Coheed and Cambria formed, called the Amory Wars. It is (get ready) a space opera about a network of planets and stars governed by a council of space-mages, who fight a resistance comprising of (among others) a racist-against-white-girls sniper, a fallen angel, and an ex-pro boxer – all of which is actually just a story written by a deranged love-sick author who is tormented by his demon-bicycle. The comics Claudio writes aren`t just kept in his head either. The stories of each chapter are explored in each album the band releases. The elaborate titles of each album are references to the comic book issues, and the lyrics to each song is a counterpart to the dialogue of the characters. The band name itself is a reference to two characters from the story.
Interestingly, the concept has been a great success for the band. Claudio is now producing a full-fledged comic series about the Amory Wars, has already released a graphic novel, and in the deluxe edition of their most recent album, included a 400 page novel he co-authored. Their live shows incorporate imagery related to the story, and most media released for the band – like Nine Inch Nails` – gives the music an extended presence long after you’ve taken the CD out of your drive, or left the concert hall.
It is music experiences like these that prove that, more than pop music would lead you to believe, music and art are made to go together. Of course, if you are a record company it is difficult to take the dive investing lots of money in untested marketing waters. Certainly there are many more bands like these whose efforts did not equate to commercial success. But the ways a group can make their music stand out artistically does not need to necessarily extend to long, progressive concepts that deviate from the music. Gorillaz is a band comprised of cartoon characters, complete with fictional backstories, personalities, and live appearances. The “real“ band is mostly a mystery, and this has spawned considerable interest and intrigue in the band. Of course, drawing some cartoon characters on the album art is a fairly cheap way to make your music artistically engaging and sustainable in the event that it is not initially popular. Simple ideas like this are all that is needed to elevate a musical experience.
While the cost of selling and promoting music increases, the chance that a company will push to invest money in an unassured marketing campaign decreases. It is clear that music can be more powerful when the experience relevantly extends beyond the disc, and there is evidence to support that when its done right, it greatly improves the work itself. Album art is a relic of the past. Comics, ARGs, and fleshed out worlds are the medium for a generation of sounds that will break the mould. It is the moving pictures around these sounds that will decide which rise above and which stay below the waves.