Music gimmicks

Did you hear about the chocolate ‘vinyl’ this week?

Relax, that’s not the start of a terrible joke. Wait until you snap open your Christmas crackers for those. There really was a chocolate record.

Veteran Croatian rocker Gibonni recently released an edible record made out of chocolate that you are able to play several times before, well, eating. His first English language album, 20th Century Man, was recorded at London’s Abbey Road studio and presumably tasted delicious.

He’s not the first to do this, though; the French DJ and producer Breakbot presented a limited-release chocolate single last year.

What a great gimmick, don’t you think?

As far as gimmicks go, though, nothing beats Radiohead offering their self-released In Rainbows album for download on a pay-what-you-want deal. The brave move, more social experiment than genuine gamble, I thought, which completely cut out the middle man, led to the album being their most profitable to date even though about a third of those who downloaded it apparently paid nothing at all for it. Wonderful.

Hype sells. It certainly did in Radiohead’s case.

Speaking of hype and clever ways of guaranteeing yourself oodles of free publicity, Kanye West premiered the music video for a new song in May by projecting it onto the sides of buildings in 66 different parts of the world, which he announced himself on Twitter to his 10 million-plus followers (who duly retweeted his message more than 18,000 times). Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the not-so-shaky audience recordings to ‘go viral’, as the kids seem to say of everything, all the time. Result.

Clever use of social media is the norm now. Indeed, careers have been forged by using MySpace: Lily Allen and Kate Nash, to give just two of the earliest examples. Yet in the days before social media, we had other gimmicks. Few can forget the shock tactics of Alice Cooper’s guillotine or Eminem’s chainsaw, the Sex Pistols with all their safety pins, Britney Spears and Angus Young dressing in school uniforms. They got everybody talking and taking their photographs, anticipating more of the same crazy shenanigans, which is precisely what they set out to achieve.

Such gimmicks tend to overshadow the artist and their music. (I’m not going to mention Miley Cyrus, I just can’t bring myself to.) Kiss and Slipknot favoured masks and makeup. Lady Gaga is increasingly over-the-top in her outlandish outfits and pretty much everything else, as far as I can tell – as was Madonna before her (although, and I beg to differ, she still insists that she ‘doesn’t need gimmicks’).

The Beatles had their mop-top haircuts, Michael Jackson his collection of gloves. Were these gimmicks? The Beach Boys played strongly on their surfer image when drummer Dennis was the only one who could actually surf. It must have seemed sadly predictable that The Who’s destructive stage shows would only intensify as did audience expectation. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix soon grew irritable when fans expected him to set his guitar on fire at every show, but by then it hadn’t done him any harm (in terms of publicity and sales, I mean, rather than serious burns).

Pink Floyd have used their fair share of clever and original marketing, too. My favourite: the flashing light on the spine of the P.U.L.S.E CD (which Sony did better than EMI because at least you could change the battery with ease on the North American release without having to cut the slip case open).

Randall Roberts, Pop Music Critic for the Los Angeles Times, questions how long musicians can tease their public through social media, concluding that ‘all that will rescue the music from oblivion is its potency, not the cleverness of its rollout.’ I agree and should bloody well hope so. But it makes me wonder, having heard so many times how albums are dying: what next for the music industry? Do artists really need to utilise popular technology to get ahead of the competition and to be noticed, and, once they have been noticed, rely on ever grander and more self-indulgent displays incorporating bigger sets, louder effects, sillier clothing and more zany theatrics in order to stay in the public eye and, they’d have you believe because they need to believe it themselves, ‘relevant’? Isn’t that a bit sad? Did they ever really need them – or did we?

Last weekend Metallica performed for an hour in a transparent dome to an audience of approximately 100 on Antarctica, making them the only band ever to have performed on every continent.

Record books have also shown that Spiritualized performed on the observation deck of Toronto’s very high CN Tower in 1997, while Katie Melua performed in a North Sea gas rig more than 300 metres below sea level in 2006. The following year, Queens Of The Stone Age played 2,300 feet underground in a German salt mine.

Just one final thought:

Not for the first time (and it probably won’t be the last), a dead singer, this time The King, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, sings again – and just in time for Christmas. All proceeds from the sale of Susan Boyle’s duet with Elvis, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, naturally expected to top the charts all over the world, will at least benefit the charity Save the Children.

How much all these gimmicks must have cost down the years, and how much difference that money could have made to charities such as this.

I’m not sure it’s completely fair of me to label an image, persona or mystique a ‘gimmick’. You decide. I’d love to know what you think.