The fans chose the album, but how many will actually buy it?

Is Kaiser Chiefs' novel way of releasing their new CD a cynical marketing ploy, or a genuine attempt to engage with fans? By Elisa Bray and Charlotte Cripps
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Just when you thought Radiohead held the trump card for innovative self-marketing ploys, Kaiser Chiefs came up with a new way of releasing an album. They didn't even have to create the finished album, or argue among themselves over track-listing and sequencing; instead they provided a stack of songs and handed over any further decisions to their fans.

But now "due to the overwhelming success of this process" and "demand for an official album", according to the band – they are set to put out their own definitive version of the record, which will get a physical and digital release on Monday.

Kaiser Chiefs said in a message to fans: "So it's time to simplify things a bit, and release a CD and standard digital album of The Future is Medieval. Rather than wait ages where we talk about it for months, send it out to press and all that, we're just getting it out as soon as we can physically make the CDs and ship them to the shops."

So having suddenly revealed an "official track-listing" for their own album, rather than leave it up to the fans, did this radical concept work out, or was it a complete disaster? And really, should we be taking the band's upbeat comments with a pinch of salt?

"While it was hardly as revolutionary as Radiohead's 'honesty box' approach to releasing In Rainbows, the Kaiser Chiefs' decision to provide a pick'n'mix option unquestionably worked in terms of generating widespread media attention and free publicity," says Music Week's Christopher Barrett. "But when it comes to actual sales and money made, it is very hard to say as the initial version of the album is not chart-eligible under existing Official Chart Company rules. It therefore will not chart and the number of units sold is not available to see. Even if the band and its team, including B-Unique and Fiction Records, are content with the sales generated by their innovative initial approach, the fact remains that traditional online and high-street retail are vitally important and sales of CDs still represent around 80 per cent of the albums market. So it would be something of an oversight to turn down the option of a physical release and the opportunity to generate significantly more sales."

The Independent's chief rock critic, Andy Gill, says: "This was a marketing gimmick which seems to have backfired spectacularly, though whether it's simply a case of hubristic over-estimation of fans' dedication, or has wider implications, remains to be seen. An attempt to reconcile the notion of an album with single-track download culture, it demanded far more interaction from prospective purchasers than they are prepared to give: these days, we won't countenance even a short bus-ride to get our music, we want it now, if not sooner, at the instant click of a mouse – and Kaiser Chiefs expected fans to spend at least half an hour test-running 20 tracks to see which they liked, then more time sequencing them. Who can be bothered with that? On the other hand, the strategy's abject failure may, like the comparable failure of Gorillaz' free download album The Fall, provide some much-needed encouragement for those in the industry worried that download culture is destroying music."

The five-piece from Leeds, who burst on to the art-rock scene in 2004 with the hit songs "I Predict a Riot", "Ruby" and "Oh My God", created a title, The Future is Medieval, and wrote 20 songs which they posted on their website. Fans – and the merely curious – were invited to listen to and select their 10 favourite songs to compile in their chosen running order. You could then choose to pay £7.50 for your personally created album, and even sell it on, earning £1 for each sale of your own version via the website. When the band had an idea of which tracks were the most popular, and the general favoured sequencing, they decided on the official version.

Apart from being an innovative marketing device, driving fans and non-fans to their website, Kaiser Chiefs' project makes a statement about the way we consume music these days. The decline of the album has been steady since the digital age allowed us to download songs however we please. At a time when you can be watching television, hear a song, and buy it from your laptop immediately, it's no surprise that sales of singles have taken over. In 2007 sales of individual song downloads were worth £86.5m; now they have almost doubled to £162m in 2010.

"We've got an album market which has been in decline", says Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company. "Everyone's trying to find new ways of bringing attention to their record and engaging their fans, and this is another inventive one. In the digital world, when you have the ability for people to unbundle the album and pick their favourite six tracks it is a logical thing to do."

Or was it? Creating an album on the Kaiser Chiefs' site was certainly an investment of time. But the idea was born out of a need to overcome the sense of malaise that had come over the band after a couple of years out of the spotlight.

Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson came up with the idea of the new album format in a Falmouth cottage along with a friend: "Over dinner, I was discussing the problems with bringing out another album," he explained. "I personally just wasn't that motivated. I thought, we've done three, it's getting pretty much the same what way you do it every time. It's predictable. We were talking about the problems of downloading music digitally, it just doesn't have that same buzz of buying a record, there's no kind of personal investment in it, it's just bulking out your iTunes. There's no going into the shop, there's no anticipation, you pay your money or you do it illegally – you can get music so easily it's lost that thing. So we had the idea of choosing the tracks and putting time and effort back into buying a record."

"We're not saying that the album is dead and this is the way forward," said drummer and chief songwriter Nick Hodgson. "But we wanted to try things – if we don't try, then everything stays the same. The whole world has changed when it comes to albums. Instead of ignoring it, we've tried to work with it."

The album is more likely to be downloaded than bought in record shops, they thought: so why not engage people with the downloading process?

Wilson said: "It's the way things are going. What you've got to do is move with the times and embrace the way that people interact with music, but then try to find a way of bringing back the aspects of the physical release which people liked. What people liked isn't the fact that they've got it in their hand, it's the fact that they feel they're a part of it. They've invested their time and their effort consuming it."

Album sales may be falling, but inventive ways of releasing them may yet reinvigorate the format.

The Kaiser Chiefs' official album 'The Future is Medieval' is released on Monday