Are artists too lazy to challenge fans, or are fans too lazy to be challenged?

I was revisiting the Flaming Lips album Zaireeka over the weekend, and it really got me thinking about just how little artists challenge consumers with different formats or ways to engage with their art beyond the virtual world. For those that don’t know, Zaireeka was an album on four CDs which required the listener to be playing all four discs at the same time in order to fully experience the album. A challenge, certainly, but that was the point: the band wanted you to come together with friends in order to enjoy this album in full together. It took effort to get the most out of it.

What I loved about Zaireeka is that it was very much a different real world experience of one album. It got me thinking about how much this has been done in recent times, but sadly the only conclusion I drew was that about the most interesting excursion into music experiences we’ve had recently is Bjork’s Biophilia app/album. Biophilia however, also highlighted the problem to me, namely that at present artists’ efforts seem all too often to be limited to the virtual world.

I’ve always held the view that the best online experiences also connect to real-world ones. In fact, there is one concept that I thought up whilst working at PIAS and to this day I regret not realising it. It was for the band dEUS whose album at the time was called Keep You Close. My idea was a relatively simple one, namely to have exclusive advance access to the album on an app that only unlocked when four people were standing in proximity to one another – the point being of course that you have to keep your friends close in order to listen to the music (see what I did there?). I even had a further idea to extend the app so that, for example, you could have extra content unlocked only at gigs where perhaps 200 people were in the same place at the same time. The whole thing was rooted in the concept of combining the technical (i.e. the app itself) with the real world (i.e. coming together with your friends in order to make this happen). It was fundamentally sociable.

So why don’t we see more artist music experiences that combine virtual/digital technologies with the real-world? Could it be that artists don’t want to challenge their fans? Or could you argue that fans don’t wish to engage with these kinds of activities these days? Convenience is everything after all, and if the fans have to jump through any kind of hoops in order to access something they tend to simply walk away. I must confess though, that I do find that fact really rather sad. The drive for convenience and immediate access has led to an ADHD response, with albums getting fleeting listens and mere seconds to prove their worth, all of which results in a further devaluation of music as a cultural commodity. Perhaps fans would find it far more rewarding to have to work that bit harder to access somethingā€¦ but getting them to do that could prove extremely difficult, if not impossible nowadays.

To me, that is everyone’s loss.

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