Art versus Commerce: The tension behind 'X & Y'

“A vivacious piece of marketing, simultaneously building industry anticipation and generating a street buzz from the year’s start”
Written the day after Crazy Frog hit number one in the singles chart, it would be safe to assume that Paul Flynn here is referring to the eternally irritating amphibian ringtone, much beloved of pre-pubescents and “ironic students” (on a tangent, this writer works in a mainstream record store, and has never sold a copy of ‘Axel F’ to anyone but pre-pubescents and blind people). Except that assumption would be wrong, as the subject of Flynn’s analysis in The Guardian was not Crazy Frog, but instead the band whose track ‘Speed Of Sound’ was beaten to the number one slot that previous day. On the surface it would be a crude (yet nevertheless true) judgement that in many ways the approach of both Coldplay and Crazy Frog in marketing terms were hardly at polar extremes. Indeed, on April 12 a ‘Speed Of Sound’ ringtone was released in the U.S, a full week before the track was sent to radio.

Promotion is of course a central tenant of the music business. Everything from U2 ‘guerrilla’ gigs under New York bridges to multi-million dollar Hype Williams directed videos are aimed towards just one end: having the consumer purchase your record.
It is in this context that Coldplay’s massively anticipated third record ‘X & Y’ should be seen. Mike Allen of the band’s U.K label EMI said: “We have the burning desire to launch the record with the maximum effect in each and every market”. The label’s approach appears to have paid off spectacularly. At time of writing ‘X & Y’ sits at the top of the charts in both the U.S and the U.K; it debuted at number one in 22 countries.
That’s why when Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin described EMI shareholders as “the greatest evil of the modern world” (in reply to the drop in EMI’s share price when ‘X & Y’ was delayed), and declared he didn’t care what happened to EMI, the comments were not as rebellious and rock and roll as he’d probably like to believe. Coldplay are currently the most efficient and driven corporate rock machine there is; for Martin to proclaim otherwise and set his band apart from the company that largely brings him the success he has enjoyed is at best naïve, at worst hypocritical. Granted, Coldplay possibly more than any other band use their status to promote such worthy causes as ‘Make Trade Fair’ and Africa’s permanent debt crisis (10% of their royalties are given to charity, which despite what the sceptics may believe, is an entirely generous statement). The tension only arises when Coldplay try and distance themselves from the capitalist machinations they ultimately rely on.

When Radiohead found themselves in the same dilemma five years ago, caught between art and commerce, they at least retreated behind abstract electronica and experimental noise. ‘Kid A’ was a literal “fuck you” to EMI; never had a band of their size so wilfully and wonderfully abused their lofty position to such great effect. The ironic thing about ‘X & Y’ is that it’s ultimately a very safe record. By no means bad, it also does nothing to have us believe Coldplay are caught in a battle with the pressures of dollars and cents. It’s a record designed to sell by the millions.
Maybe Martin’s comments were themselves a very effective piece of marketing. “I think if we’re going to do anything after ‘X & Y’ we’re going to have to retreat behind a mask” he has since said in interviews.
Such a development would be challenging and very welcome for all concerned. By the release of a fourth album it may be time for Coldplay to put their music where their mouth is.

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