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Flaming Lips singer--indie icon and prolific tweeter (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: The lead singer of the rock group talks with CNET about the passing of Steve Jobs, how to get him to follow you on Twitter, and more.

Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne The Flaming Lips

Are record labels ready to help rock bands stay at the forefront of fans' minds in the age of social media overload? Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of the Flaming Lips, isn't so sure.

There's no doubt that the group plays inside the traditional label system: it has been signed to Warner Bros. Records since the '90s. But Coyne thinks that tech-savvy musicians may well be better able to attract fans to their brand-new work than the record companies. And while he expects that labels like Warner may well set the tone for innovative artist promotion in the future, he thinks they probably have less value to bands today than in the past.

So how do "The Lips" get their fans involved today? In a variety of ways. One is through proactive use of Twitter. Coyne himself is prolific user and has nearly 75,000 followers. Add The Lips' 560,000 more, and you've got a potent medium for getting the word out, right now, about the band's many new projects.

For a group known for interesting stunts, both live and recorded--with the Parking Lot Experiment, Coyne got 30 people to simultaneously play different Flaming Lips songs in their clustered parked cars--its recent Six-Hour and 24-Hour songs were bound to get attention. And what better way to spread the news than through a passionate online following?

More recently, The Flaming Lips celebrated Apple's Steve Jobs' life with their own rendition of the Beatles' "Revolution" at the MTV O Music Awards. Yesterday, Coyne talked with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview about Jobs, about social media, how bands benefit from working with labels, and more.

Question: Thanks for taking some time to talk to me. I wanted to start with something President Obama said when Steve Jobs died--that many people heard about Jobs' death on an Apple device. I did. How did you find out?
Wayne Coyne: About the same way, we were working on some junk I can't remember, but yeah, it was on a Mac.

What was your reaction to Jobs' death? A lot of people had really strong emotional responses.
Coyne: He had been ill for a while. Frankly, I was surprised that he held on as long as he did. Cancer is a mother-----r, and as we little by little find out, all the money and all the resources in the world still sometimes have little effect. But I didn't necessarily have an emotional response, no. But I'm starting to have one now.

Let's talk about the Flaming Lips' Six-Hour and 24-Hour Songs. Can you explain them? What's the concept?
Coyne: I realize that we've lost our minds recently. But we've done 13 or 14 records. We know a lot about recording and we never stop our exploding ridiculous imaginations when they start going. Still, we're a little embarrassed.

Are people are listening to them? And what should people expect when they do?
Coyne: Yeah. A portion of the Flaming Lips' audience loves this kind of unrestricted creativity. They are artists and musicians themselves and it makes for a great energetic community of creators and audiences sometimes feeling each other's love. We made the six hour song as sound to accompany the Strobo Trip toy (YouTube video) that we issued two months ago. It's a strobe light animation device and we said that it offered hours of fun, so we thought it would be fun to have some music that played while you played with it.

We thought, Why not three hours? Why not five hours? So we arrived at six hours and [lead guitarist] Steven [Drozd] coincidentally already had a song, an instrumental freaky jam, that lasted for 30 minutes. So we thought, That's cool, let's see if we can make it last for the six hours. We tried different variations on the theme. Some were easy and good, and some were impossible and made us go deeper inside ourselves to find the inspiration and the technical logic needed to find new ways.

Let's talk technology. In general, how would you say social media and iTunes have changed the way the Flaming Lips promote yourselves?
Coyne: iTunes is a bit formal and slow and wonderful, but still seems based on release dates and albums. We've moved into an area where there is actually no outlet other than our Web sites and a lot of pirate download sites where a portion of our audience will have fun and get easy access to our spontaneous output. I announce something on Twitter for a week, and sometimes it generates quite a bit of interest. We have done some of our recent recordings, tweeted about them, and a week later, it is out in the world. That's still hard or impossible to do on a giant record label.

You're pretty prolific on Twitter, and it's interesting to see you say that you like using it as a way to generate interest. But I also see you don't follow very many people. What does it take to get you to follow someone?
Coyne: I follow people who are persistent and say they love me at least three or four times a week. But seriously, I feel a great obligation to the Flaming Lips fans and audience who have given me the greatest life that could ever be lived, and I show them every day what I'm doing. I get to do a lot of cool things. I get to meet a lot of cool people. I get to go to a lot of cool places. I show them all of it. Well, not absolutely all. I don't show them the boring stuff. I'm gonna tweet that I'm doing this interview right now. I hope it doesn't get boring.

There's a lot of big changes going on in how music is distributed. I wonder what your take is on a decision like Coldplay's to not allow songs from their new album to be streamed on sites like Spotify, Rdio, and Rhapsody?
Coyne: It seems like a bad idea. Maybe they need more cash? Our philosophy is that we love our fans and we realize that having our music available virtually for free allows some of our audience that doesn't have much money to still hear it. We've found that a lot of people will listen to it for free and still buy it. They should do what they like, but we say power to all technologies. Art, technology, and commerce--the bleeding edge of that is still undetermined. Some artists will succeed more than others. The Flaming Lips come in peace.

What does a label offer an innovative, tech-savvy, smart, self-promoting artist these days?
Coyne: Money. Experience. Celebrity friends. Haha. Maybe they don't offer a group like us the same things they used to, but we believe they will come up with new ways too. They're smart!

The Flaming Lips play a rendition of Revolution, by the Beatles, in tribute to the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. MTV O Music Awards

What's your take on a new-style digital experience like YouTube's broadcast last spring of the Coachella festival--three simultaneous stages, HD quality, and commercial-free essentially.
Coyne: For me, sitting in front of a screen, computer, or TV, and watching something at home is never going to compare to the real experience: The energy, the smells, the volume, the possibility of sex, the love, the excitement, the psychic connections, everything. Three channels in HD? It's better than nothing. But for me, you've just gotta be in it. It's the experience!

What new technology are you most excited about in terms of how it affects the music industry?
Coyne: There's a lot of great reissues like the new Moog synth/apps that you can play with while sitting on an airplane for instance, that are mind-boggling. On our 24-hour song, the main melodic riff of the main theme was played on an iPhone. As far as ways to distribute your music and ideas, being interesting, taking risks, having opinions, and in my case having a lot of curly hair--they're not necessarily new technologies, but human qualities that other like-minded weirdos will probably always be curious about. The technology can only reach as far as their desire to find out s--t.

There was also this cool device made by Teenage Engineering that's a hybrid of the most progressive computer s--t and old analog recording s--t. It's unpredictable, it's fun, and when it arrives in the mail, it already has batteries in it!

Last question. I love doing instant message interviews for lots of reasons, one being that I get a full transcript. Another being that my interviewee can be a bit more thoughtful and articulate. But also it's because it allows for multi-tasking. So, what else have you been doing during the interview?
Coyne: A lot of typing. So, not so much multi-tasking. I've been focused just on you. Because we love you.