Update: Song Reader at the Barbican

I’m so angry. Beck is bringing a live performance of Song Reader to the Barbican on 4 July. If you’ve got £20-35 quid for a ticket (approximately the same price as the book itself, £22) you can see Beck perform his collection of songs with guest appearances from the likes of Beth Orton, Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. I love many of these artists. So why am I angry? I can’t go.

The move makes perfect sense – Beck is a pop musician, and this certainly follows the traditional format of album release + tour (albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way). But the combination of famous guest stars and the accompanying art show (featuring, as far as I can tell from the Barbican description, the art from the published book – ? – ) and presentation of ‘some of the very best amateur interpretations of the songs’ as a form of museum ‘installation’ gives the event a truly crowd-sourced vibe. As has much of the project’s history.

Beck has been featuring both amateur and professional performances of the Song Reader corpus on the album’s official web site since the release date – quite effectively using content produced by other people to gain traffic as well as free publicity for his compositions. The compositions are his own by right, and the decision to post work on YouTube does belong to the amateur artists engaging in the Song Reader experiment, but in the wake of Kickstarter controversies being faced by musicians Amanda Palmer and Josh Dibb of Animal Collective as well as filmmaker Zach Braff, it’s hard not to wonder why artists who have already gained fame in their own right are looking to the masses for artistic contribution. When I first heard about Song Reader I thought the crowd-sourced element was interesting – but does his decision to perform the songs himself negate any amateur versions that already exist? Does an artist’s own rendering of their composition become the default ‘original’ version of the song, even if it has already been recorded by another musician?

In the case of Song Reader, Beck’s fans exchanged money for the published book, accompanied by the rights to record and post songs on social media outlets like YouTube, with the idea that maybe – just maybe – their version will wind up on Beck’s web site, thus bringing attention to little-known artists. It’s the same concept as Palmer’s crowd-sourcing of musicians when on tour: A famous musician got instrumentalists to accompany her performances free of charge, and the performers got…an evening of pretending to be famous? It’s certainly reasonable for Beck to sell his song book, but where does the line exist in terms of copyright and artistic ownership? He isn’t selling the YouTube versions, but he is essentially receiving free advertising.

Maybe it’s good I won’t be able to attend – the inclusion of famous musicians in this ‘official’ performance setting doesn’t seem quite right in support of an album that has attempted to rejuvenate the concepts of home performance and listener as performer. But I’m sure I’ll be able to see parts of it anyway – most likely from a YouTube* link on Beck’s website.


*okay, maybe Vimeo

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