Coldplay: Live at the Self-Checkout

Coldplay’s exciting new collaboration with grocery-store self-checkout aisles pushes the boundaries of automation, commerce, and art.

In a surprising piece of news that has “rocked” the grocery industry, Ahold Delhaize (Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Hannaford, etc.) has made a deal with Atlantic Records and Coldplay to feature exclusive, original Coldplay performances at their self-checkout counters across the country. The New Inquiry was lucky enough to send a reporter to the press conference announcing the partnership. I talked to Chris Martin, Coldplay’s front man, songwriter, and driving creative force, about the musical visionary’s thoughts on this exciting new intersection of consumerism, automation, and art. I started by asking him what it means for a major rock star to get involved so directly in a supermarket promotional campaign. What follows are Martin’s remarks, edited slightly for length and clarity.

Well, I don't like to use the word “rock star.” I mean—I don’t like to use the two words “rock star.” That’s just not who I am. What does fronting Coldplay mean for me? What it means is that I’ve got to just try. Try my hardest. I can’t dance like Justin; I can’t sing like Beyoncé. I rely more on enthusiasm than on actual talent or skill. That is what the band does. We do the best with what we’ve got. So, it’s all going to end for Coldplay sometime soon. I’m quite aware of that. I’m going to lose my hair one day, and when that day comes, I want people to say that Chris Martin tried harder than he thought he ever could. He’s tried so hard, in fact, that he’s gone bald, hasn’t he.

Look, I know you want me to talk about the self-checkouts thing. I am actually getting to that. In a certain way, that is what I’m talking about right now. If you’d all just relax and let me . . . all you writers, you’re always looking for the simple explanation that’s somehow also very honest. I wrote the song “Yellow” back in 2000 and ever since then you’ve been asking me, “What does it mean? What does it mean, Chris Martin, what does it mean?” and when I tell you the truth—that it doesn’t mean anything—you don’t believe me. You think I’m keeping something from you. You’ll squeeze in at the end of an interview, “Oh, Chris, could you just go on record and say something to your fans about what the fuck you’re on about in ‘Yellow’?” You won’t ever permit me not to mean anything.

So now, listen. I’ve learned my lesson. If you want to know about the self-checkouts deal we signed, you’ve got to just calm down and let me talk a little. Because I know your lot. If I just come right out and tell you the truth—which is that we were forced to do it by our label, that the label got in cahoots with self-checkout people because they were jealous of the droll hyper-curated petrol-TV that plays behind you at the pump while you fill up—it won’t be enough. You’ll hound us, and you’ll drive us all crackers, and I don’t want to lose my temper on tape again. I mean, I’ve actually said a lot of this stuff before, anyhow. So please, mates—let me just tell you some story.

For musicians today it’s not like how it was for those guys in the ’60s. Today we have to hold back in order to create our mystique. That's why there’s always some restraint. The band and I, we have these rules—and even as we’ve progressed and grown our sound we’ve held each other to keep to the rules. Rule number six states in plain language: Always keep mystery. When I approach a record, or an interview, I know I won’t be putting my heart into it. That’s not what people want or need. When I perform, nothing I do can be authentically about me, can it? Otherwise, I’ll have unraveled the enigma—and the enigma is all we’ve got to get you people interested in musicians, or music.

There is a certain camaraderie amongst musicians, you’re right. We do feel something of a kinship with the other arena groups, up there with us in the Coldplay echelon. I mean, not every band can sell 50 million anymore—this is what I mean. I suppose there’s the Radiohead gambit, right? The “pay what you'd like” idea? We think that's really fantastic. Really great. For us, though? No. Atlantic is a major label, and our contract is a contract. If Radiohead had that freedom, it must’ve been because they were out of contract. And, you know, cheers; good for them. If they want that. We personally don’t find ourselves looking for that kind of freedom—any kind of freedom, really. It makes me want to curl up and die when people start talking to me about Atlantic Records stock shares, or whatever . . . I don’t ever want to deal with questions like, “What fiscal quarter is the album going to come out?” or “Could you snatch back artistic merit from the jaws of a parasitic industry by releasing your music independently?” The business side of this whole business involves things I don’t understand, and you know how I feel about those things.

There is a consumerism that is really close to the heart of Coldplay, there’s no question. When we make an album, we don’t make it for the fame, the millions of dollars—and certainly we’re not doing it for ourselves. We make these things for the customers, for the “fans.” From the lyrics down to the mixing and mastering, we want to release a product that’s consumable, enjoyable, and uncontroversially adequate relative to its price point. We want it to be so, like, if you’re in a store, and you buy our record, you go, “That’s good!” like it’s a decent sandwich. That’s all we want. We aren't interested in the critics, and we aren’t begging and clawing for their approval. God, “approval.” I mean fuck—it’s just Coldplay, not a totalitarian regime.

So when we did Viva [i.e., Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, released in 2008.—Ed.], I wound up getting accused of stealing someone else's song. Like, four or five different people, in fact—they all claimed I stole the same two bars from each of them, or something. The most ridiculous set of allegations—none of them true in the least. So that's why I decided to fight. Which I did, before quietly engaging in an out-of-court settlement with undisclosed terms. But we were so disillusioned by that whole ordeal that, for our next record, we decided: “Guys, let’s just scrap our history. Just scrap it. Let’s hide all the Grammys and Billboard awards and let’s go back to basics.” And we looked each other in the eyes, and we all said, “Hey. You ready? Let’s do a dystopia record set in the far future where an extremist government leads a war against sound and light.” And so that’s what we did when we did Mylo. [i.e., Mylo Xyloto, released in 2011.—Ed.] We created this pastel-industrial sensory universe for Mylo Xyloto as a sort of alternative future to our own haggard past. It was critical history.

But, "How did Coldplay get inside the self-checkout machines?" you’re still asking? Well, I'll tell you. As a lad I worked in a Kwik Save grocery store. I still stroll through the place when I’m back in town. I never know when or where I might happen upon the kind of product management strategy that gets your bandmates as excited as your label people. Like for example—when we put Viva on iTunes, we made a really bold move: We had track five and track six show up together as one song, even though they were two separate songs. So you could download two songs for the price of one. Do you follow me? Now that actually was lifted straight from the “buy one get one free” promotions I had seen at Kwik Save. The grocery is so great like that—full of products, packed with potential for people to experience that lush, full sensation of enjoying products. I mean . . . that right there—that’s Coldplay territory.

So I had been working with some label people for a while on ways to appropriate the inimitable theatricality of our value-rich stage show into more eminently consumable, more readily enjoyable parcels. I'd talked with Jonny [Buckland, lead guitarist.—Ed.] about this a bit too. And so one morning, in the grocery store—we’re at the self-checkout, I'm ringing up our POM® juice and CLIF® bars—Jonny just puts his hand on mine and says, “Chris, here it is, mate. Here it bloody is. This is the rub right here—this is the new shite.” And I’m sitting there thinking, is he talking about doing a partnership with the POM® juice people? Because that’d be fantastic. But, no, he’s not—he gives my hand a little tap-tap with his thumb and goes, “Mate, the checkies here. Self-checkies. There’s our venue, i’n’t ’t? There’s our content channel.” And I’m like, “Yes. He’s right. That’s it. It is. Yes.”

We’re signed to play five-a-days during peak shopping hours, starting with two dozen dates in North American supermarkets, rounding out over to Europe for the second leg. Short sets—60 to 90 seconds, with what they’re calling the “grocer’s option” for three-to-four-minute medleys in the future, tied to some sales benchmarks. Candy bars and tabloids mostly, as I understand it. The self-checkouts are where you’re already looking, so why would we pass up the opportunity to plant Coldplay on that same screen? And at the self-checkouts, you’re already handling goods—they’re literally in your hands—and so you've begun slaking your thirst for commerce before we’ve even gotten to you. When those arpeggios at the beginning of “Clocks” kick in, mate, I want it to feel like you plucked your Coldplay right off the shelves, you’re bagging your Coldplay up with the peas and carrots, and you’re taking your Coldplay home to serve your family for supper.

What’s the band hoping to get from this partnership? I mean, ideally we want to just keep amping deeper into your enjoyment of things. Fuck, we’d play on shoelaces if anyone would let us. And actually based on what I’m hearing today, it will probably be Adidas, if escrow goes through. And so that’ll be a fantastic opportunity and something we’ll be very excited about, fingers crossed—or should I say laces crossed! And that’s my point, yeah? We want to be there as you scan items—Nabisco™, toothpaste, whatever—because we want to be in the places where you are, when you're with products. And we want to do this, obviously, while continuing to tour four continents and drive the pistons on the music industry’s number-one merchandising engine.

One thing that’s clear to us? On all sides of things right now, people are fucking scared. And, you know what I’d say to those people? “Hey, scared mates. Cheers.” I’d tell ’em just what I told America at the Super Bowl halftime show: “We’re all in this together.” That’s right. We’re all in this megalithically corporate dystopia together. So there it is, mates. There’s your narrative where I mine our past work as a band to explain to you reporters why a decision made by our label is a sign of our continuing evolution as a rock group, or whatever, but really Chris Martin wants your eyes and your ears and your cash, and we’ll smooth things out for you until I’m a right old baldy. Alright then, you’re bloody scared. Who’s not scared?

Something like this, we’re only doing it because our label is absolutely forcing us to—and they can hurt us physically—because they can’t compete with the bloody gas stations and they’re scared out of their minds about that. I mean I'm barely past 30 [Martin is 40 years old.—Ed.], and I’ve been at this thing long enough where my best expression of genuine excitement is through total silence. Seriously. I glance at my bandmates before a show, and on their faces there’s the same look of nausea and self-loathing—totally identical. They’re looking at me as if they’re fucking about to cry, and that means I sort of start to cry, and then I’m supposed to just go on and do fucking “Speed of Sound”? Just plow through “Speed of Sound”? Yeah. So, hey, if you’re a bit frightened by all this, well, welcome to Coldplay territory.