The Flaming Lips can change your life. Can they also change digital music?

Jason Ankeny


Way back in late 1997--when Napster was still two years away from launch, iTunes wasn't even a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye and the record industry still made money hand over fist--psych-rock savants the Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, an unprecedented four-CD set designed for playback on four separate stereo systems. Each Zaireeka disc contained different elements of the same eight original songs; you could listen to just one CD at a time, but to truly hear the music as the Lips intended, it was necessary to bring additional stereos into the equation, effectively meaning you had to bring other listeners into the mix as well. Properly synchronizing playback across four stereos was virtually impossible, let alone accounting for volume, balance, fidelity and other mechanical discrepancies, guaranteeing no two Zaireeka experiences were ever exactly alike. And that was the point: In essence, listeners became active participants in the artistic process, interacting directly with the music and each other, altering the album's sound and shape, and blurring the distinction between creator and consumer.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the Flaming Lips (still my favorite band, just like they were 14 years ago) are revisiting the Zaireeka concept, this time on the iPhone. This YouTube clip featuring bandmates Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd illustrates both the potential and the problems:Flaming Lips

Just as it once required four stereos to hear Zaireeka in its intended form, it now demands four iPhones--devices that are even more complex to operate and synchronize than CD players. But it's also exponentially easier to assemble four iPhones in the same place at the same time; moreover, smartphone technology is infinitely better optimized for multi-user, interactive experiences than conventional audio hardware. Whether it works or doesn't is almost irrelevant--Zaireeka was designed as an experiment, an exploration of musical and technological possibilities as well as a catalyst for communal musical experiences. The iPhone app extends the project to a new platform, but its original spirit remains intact.

The Flaming Lips aren't stopping there. Like hip-hop kingpin Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Fridays series, which offered listeners a free download each week throughout the autumn of 2010, the Lips plan to release a new song each month throughout the year ahead, eschewing traditional distribution and marketing schemes. "The dilemma is whether we're going to release it on vinyl, cereal boxes or some of it on toys that we make," Coyne tells Rolling Stone, explaining that the band expects to offer additional items to fans at the same time as digital downloads. "Sometimes, the music is the simplest part of any of these things. We'll be making these little videos that connect in the end to a bigger movie we'll be making next year as well... It's a different way of thinking about songs than just holing up."

The Flaming Lips always have been more of a critical darling than a commercial juggernaut--Zaireeka didn't exactly barnstorm the charts when it hit record stores in 1997, and chances are it won't trouble the App Store's bestseller list this time, either. But someone has to throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry trade association recently reported that worldwide digital music sales increased just 6 percent in 2010, while the overall music market dropped 8 percent or 9 percent, continuing its decade-long slide. The rate of digital revenue growth has approximately halved over each of the past two years, and if the trend continues, digital downloads could top out at less than $5 billion this year, representing roughly a third of overall music sales; in 1997, the IFPI reported annual sales in excess of $38 billion. Piracy isn't going away, and although new, subscription-based streaming services and other premium alternatives can help resuscitate revenues, the real opportunity lies in delivering immersive, interactive experiences that can't be freely copied and illegally shared. That means rethinking how music is made, how it's presented, how it's distributed and how it's sold. It's how the Flaming Lips have been thinking for years. Who's next for a Zaireeka moment of their own? -Jason