The Flaming Lips have always been a multi-sensory interactive experience, with concert stunts ranging from a bring-your-own-puppet singalong to the giant inflatable ball that allows singer Wayne Coyne to skip along the surface of the audience’s hands. But now, they’re taking it one sense further, as the Lips allow their fans a chance to taste their music.
That’s right. According to Coyne, the next Flaming Lips release will be a seven-and-a-half pound gummy bear skull that has a USB port embedded in its cherry-flavored brain.
“We’re going to suggest to all of our fans out there that you get a group of your friends together and you eat your way through the skull and into the brain and retrieve this music that’s going to be embedded on this little drive in there,” enthuses Coyne, whose previous high-water mark for getting Lips fans to listen with friends was when the band released “Zaireeka” in 1997, which was four CDs meant to be listened to simultaneously by pressing “play” on four different disc players at once.
“We’re going to be putting out a song each month,” says Coyne about the initiative he hopes will begin this month. “Any band can do that, but we’re trying to put it out on a totally different format.”
Though Coyne may be the latest and as he says, totally different, he is not the first artist in recent history to provide multi-sensory musical experiences. Last year Katy Perry made a big stink about the physical release of her sophomore album, “Teenage Dream,” which featured a painting of Perry lying nude on cotton candy clouds. But what was most original about the physical release was that it was scented in a way that boys with a “Teenage Dream” of their own could convince their senses that they’re on that cloud with her.
“We went through every detail,” Perry said during an online chat at the time of the album’s release. “It even smells like cotton candy!”
The appeal to the olfactory sense feels like a MacGyver-like effort by Capitol Records, as the timebomb clicks closer to zero for the music industry. But can this effort successfully rip music-loving consumers away from iTunes and back into the arms of a trusted retailer? Or will the result be more MacGruber than MacGyver? At least the Lips effort was in good taste, excuse the pun.
Perry and Coyne are not alone in their heroic efforts to keep customers buying the tangible artifacts that go along with the music. Acts like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Interpol have been offering bundles on their websites that include shirts, hats, posters and other incentives to get you to buy their latest musical releases directly from them. And for the past few years, some of the bigger indie labels like Sub Pop have been enticing people to buy vinyl that also comes with free download codes for the digital version.
Aussie jam band, the John Butler Trio sells T-shirts along with their latest disc, “April Uprising,” which also comes with an intricate 3-by-4 inch booklet, made to look like an Old World leather-bound book. Butler says he put the effort into the extras not to try to cash in, but just to enjoy the last days of the compact disc.
“I’m a visual artist as well and I still love picking up an album and reading it and I want to make sure people pick up my disc, because we are still selling them,” he says. “It’s fun to have some things that live outside of the CD, because we do know that most of us are going to go all MP3 soon. I tried to make the booklet in such a way that you want to leave it on your desk or your coffee table, because it has a nice, tactile aesthetic to it.”
One artist who took tactile aesthetics to an extreme last year was the avant electonica act Matthew Dear, who with his “Black City” album, offered a limited edition totem, a 13-inch abstract depiction of the skyscrapers that belong to the bleak “City” that Dear alludes to in his music, hand-cast in bonded aluminum.
“The totem is a proposal, an entreaty to listeners everywhere to reconsider our relationship to music in the digital era,” said the artist on his website.
While it may not be the Hail Mary pass of Perry’s sniffable booklet or the Lips’ edible skull, the totems are compelling artistic pieces in their gun metal patina.
Artist William Schaff, who has designed 30 album covers, including all of the album artwork for Okkervil River, has done some of his most ambitious download-discouraging work for the Chicago band Dreamend, including their 2008 pop-up cover for “The Long Forgotten Friend.”
But when the band released “So I Ate Myself Bite By Bite” last summer, customers who ordered the vinyl were in for the most psychedelic interactive pairing of audio and visual since the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover. The record itself is a picture disc that along with an included viewing wheel, functions like a phenakistoscope when placed on the turntable (see video below). If you don’t have a turntable anymore, you receive a download code anyway, and you can probably spin the record on a push pin to view the antiquated animation.
Schaff says he is heartened by the way people keep coming up with ways to include additional senses in the musical experience. So does he spend time spinning vinyl and studying the 12-inch album covers?
“Oh, hell no. I prefer digital downloads,” he says. “Music is such an intangible thing that the tangible aspect of it has always just been the packaging.”