Beck’s Sheet-Music Album: A Marketer’s Dream or Unsellable Gimmick?

The pros and cons of 'Song Reader'

From reprogrammed Nintendo cartridges to distribution by balloon, musicians have been endeavoring to release albums in the most novel form possible lately. In the world of slumping CD sales, these efforts have been hit or miss in terms of marketing, but they can all step aside, as the battle for hippest release has just been won by Beck. Combining all his sprezzatura into a carefully perfected cool, he's decided to release his latest album, Song Reader, as nothing but sheet music—with covers for individual songs drawn by a host of popular illustrators, including Marcel Dzama (who created the imagery for Beck's acclaimed Guero), Leanne Shapton, Josh Cochran and Jessica Hische, and available exclusively through postmodern publishing outfit McSweeney's. So, the only way you'll get to hear it is if you play it yourself—or wait a few weeks for musicians to post their own versions to YouTube. Of course, this is an artistic choice by Beck, not just a marketing one. And having no actual music to promote actually presents a unique marketing challenge. (And who's the target? Only musicians?) But in terms of sheer exposure, Song Reader will get more attention than most releases this year. One thing's for sure: Tickets to Beck's next tour will be hard to come by, as that's likely the only way you'll get to hear Beck cover his own songs.