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Beck’s Sheet Music Album: Cutting Edge or Revived Relic?

When does something as old a medium as sheet music qualify as “innovation”? You be the judge:

Last week, Beck announced that his next album isn’t going to be an album the way we think of it, insofar as he has no plans to actually record the songs he’s written. No, instead, he’s going to release the twenty songs as sheet music in a “song reader,” a book of sheet music to be published in December by McSweeney’s. The idea is that, as the post at Beck’s website says, “bringing them to life depends on you.” They’ll be posting readers’ renditions of the songs, plus some from a few ringers, at the McSweeney’s website.

Okay, so there’s that. And then there was, following that, a post at (it should be noted here that the post was NOT a formal Forbes article; includes independently produced blog posts, and this was one) by an advertising guy named Will Burns (founder/CEO of Ideasicle) called Beck’s sheet music “an idea that is so good, so fresh, so amazing that I: 1. Become immediately proud to be human. 2. Stand up to let the energy of the idea fill my body. 3. Tell everyone I know about it.” Burns called the idea “an innovation” and ticked off reasons why that’s so, including that it’s an “invitation” for fans to generate their own takes, that the mere release of the music will motivate people to share their own attempts to make the music (and will therefore lead to extensive, ongoing promotion), that there’ll be a deep curiosity among the audience to hear what these songs sound like with no “wrong answers” regarding interpretation,” and that it can’t be pirated because it hasn’t been digitized. Of course, it CAN be digitized, easily so, unless you can’t work a scanner. And, oh, yeah, Burns thinks you’ll clamor for tickets to Beck’s shows so you can hear him do the songs himself.

Today, Burns posted a follow-up, and in it he acknowledges that the response to his enthusiasm was not uniformly positive. Several responses said, in effect, that there’s nothing innovative about issuing sheet music. Burns’ retort is that the innovation is that Beck didn’t record the music, and in refraining from doing so lit a “viral fire.”

Well, then, here’s your debate: Is releasing an “album” as sheet music innovative or not? Does it matter that it’s an “old medium” if it’s something people just don’t do in 2012? Are you intrigued by an album of music that you have to perform yourself — and would you be interested in buying the sheet music and giving it a go? Or are you disinterested in working for your entertainment? And in 2012, is Beck still a relevant artist or a guy your older siblings used to like? (And if the latter, would you feel differently about it if it was an artist about whom you cared more?) The project is undoubtedly a throwback to the 1890s and sitting around the family piano playing the latest tunes, but it’s also a clever publicity move and there’s something interesting about the idea of letting everyone take a crack at making a better or definitive version of each cut. So, your vote in the comments: Brilliant or meh? Are you interested or not?

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  2. mando says:

    Having been a fan of Beck for a while (and then dropping off as I got older) it is interesting to hear his concept on this “album.” But to why this surprises anyone who is remotely familiar with Beck and his music is what amazes me. He has never been a conventional artist and his thoughts and music have pushed the line of being “artsy” for quite some time. All in all, I am a fan and I’m gonna go ahead and purchase this and see how it sounds on my recorder.

  3. Yuval Taylor says:

    From the one page of sheet music provided at McSweeney’s website, the music itself appears to be as dull and plodding as possible. It could easily have been written 150 years ago. Innovative? Hardly. Moreover, this is something that songwriters in the “classical” world have done for centuries, and are still doing today. If you want to hear the latest songs by Ned Rorem, for example, you probably have to buy the sheet music.

  4. Jessica-Star says:

    I love it. Over the years I’ve done many cover songs solo or in bands, but most of the time even as you try to break away from the original and put your own stamp on it you definitely feel the ties of the ‘real’ version reigning you in. The way the recording industry has been so dominant in the distribution and enjoyment of music has caused us to think of a song as a ‘recorded thing’ a lot of the time, instead of the song being it’s own thing and the recording being a performance of it. Modern production and the advent of all kinds of effects and mixing techniques do render a recording as unique as well, and it’s no surprise that this is the way we think of a lot of music these days.

    But this…this is a new thing for pop music. Every version is the real version. You look at showtunes, pre-50’s folk songs, classical….this new Beck album is suddenly like those…the song is one thing and the performance is another. I’m sure Beck’s fans look forward to hearing his interpretation of these songs down the road–but it leaves time for the song to become distinct.

  5. Justin says:

    It bothers me that you’re asking us to decide it this is “cutting edge” or not, as though this has to fit neatly into those categories. Who cares? It’s what Beck wanted to do — that’s it. Beck fans — like myself — will likely respond positively and many others will simply shrug and move on to the next thing.

  6. mangote says:

    In the past (and today) one bought the sheet music of songs that had already been released or performed or were well known, so while sheet music itself may not be innovative, the concept of releasing an album without the artist actually recording or performing any of the songs does seem different and unusual, which I would think fits the definition of innovative as I understand it.

  7. andrew'bcd says:

    we should just let artists do whatever they feel like doing. being that beck has had a very long career and has proved his staying power, it seems unlikely that he would release something as just a publicity stunt. it looks to me just from that mock-up pic that plenty of time was put into the packaging of this. I would love to see more artists using old media to release their art.

  8. luckymustard says:

    “Brilliant or meh? Are you interested or not?” Brilliant, yes! Interested, yes! I’m an amateur musician, and can slowly read sheet music, but at McSweeney’s site there is a low res image of one song. There are chords and fingering for ukelele. Chords are the same for all chord playing instruments, guitar, what I play, piano, and so on. So in one other “review” I’ve read for this, the writer saying you have to learn ukelele isn’t quite accurate, it just depends how faithful one wants to stay to the sheet music. I love covers that get wild with instrumentation and many other things.

  9. Jason says:

    The best, most genius innovation is never pure newness. It’s always a mix of old and new in a way that’s surprising, inspiring, game-changing, valuable to the public. In that sense, of course this is genius! I love it.

  10. David says:

    If people learn to read music, then they can appreciate music on a whole new level. I am all for learning.

  11. Toby says:

    I love the idea! I think it would be nice to have a way to publish the best versions created or something, or perhaps a record with Beck’s versions and other creative versions. I wouldn’t call it innovative either, but certainly fits in Beck’s scheme of re-inventing himself.

  12. Dustin says:

    It’s insanely cool, and very creative. It isn’t innovative at all, IF we’re defining innovation as always moving forward. Given that NOTHING moves in a strictly linear progression, then I’m sure this counts. Put it this way: Its the first Beck “album” I’ve ever been interested in purchasing, but then, I’m a musician (of sorts) and I can read music. Between the two, this is pretty cool. Seems pretty off-putting to anyone who can’t fulfill both of those requirements, though. Like releasing a recording on wax cylinders. Insanely creative (I guess) but kind of pointless for the 100% of people out there who don’t own a player…

  13. Badbeard says:

    It’s innovative in the sense that it hasn’t been done that much since the ‘record industry’ took over from the ‘sheet-music industry’ last century. And in that sense it’s also massively regressive.

    It will be interesting to see how the rights work if someone makes a lot of money from a version.

    I for one hope Calvin Johnson does versions!

  14. Sylvita says:

    I was really excited when I heard about this, and yes, I’m a huge Beck fan and love all of his music. I don’t think it’s innovative, as innovation is a word usually meant to describe something that hasn’t been done before, but making people “work” to hear the music is definitely something radical for our time. It goes against the grain, that’s for sure, and that’s what I’ve always loved about Beck.