And as for the image overwhelming the rest of it, he points out that, if he's done his job right, every element works together so that the band and audience are satisfied. When this interview was conducted, the Lips were about to attempt to break the Guinness world record for most live concerts in 24 hours -- an arrangement that, despite the stunt aspects, the Lips were taking as seriously as any individual show.
"People are going to pay real money, people are going to give us a lot of their time, so we don't want it to be just hype -- it's really got to be great," he says. (For the record, the band got its record.)
Coyne has an open-minded view about what characterizes "art."
On the Lips' latest CD, "The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends," the guests include such indie favorites as Nick Cave and Bon Iver, as well as Ke$ha, the "Tik Tok" pop rapper disdained by the music press ("a faceless, anonymous pre-fabrication of a pop star," wrote Slant's Jonathan Keefe).
"I think the world can have all kinds of things in it, and just because someone is popular doesn't mean they're more important in people's minds," Coyne says. "(The audience) should pick what they think is speaking to them the most. If that's a Lady Gaga, great for you. If that's an obscure little artist that you know in your hometown, use that.
"But," he adds, "it's very difficult to resist the temptation of popularity. Everybody likes it. These are all dynamics everybody struggles with. What art does, it lets you be free. There should be no judgment about you in that." He audibly shrugs. "But this is not the way people use music in the world."
It's those divides -- between popular and niche, between wealthy celebrity and starving obscurity -- that keep injecting themselves into debates about music. Moreover, now that the music business has been turned upside-down by technology, musicians must find their own path to exposure (which, presumably, is still the point).
"The whole idea of a top-down market is gone," says David Herlihy, a music and law professor at Boston's Northeastern University.
When his own band was on the circuit in the 1980s, there was a "road map," he says, one that had existed for a generation.
"You needed the record label. You needed to go to the recording studio. You needed to get on the radio. You needed to be in record stores. You needed all these intermediaries. Everybody I ever became aware of followed that map," he says. "And now technology has completely disintermediated the business, and so now you have music and art, and people who consume those things directly. Therefore, it can go anywhere."
The starving artist's dilemma
It's tremendously freeing for an artist, and also a little scary.
Do you market directly to fans, the way someone such as Josh Rouse does? Do you make arrangements to license your work, the way Moby did? Do you make yourself into a brand, a la Madonna -- who's veered so far into pure celebrity, Yahoo's Parker says, that she and her colleagues couldn't figure out whether to classify a Madonna story as "music" or "celebrity news"? Do you work with advertisers, extending your identity to other products and essentially using music as a platform to other things?
It's not necessarily a new idea -- the Beatles, after all, once had a clothing store -- "a beautiful place where beautiful people can buy beautiful things," Paul McCartney said at the time -- but the concept has reached new heights in our free-for-all age.
Paul Greco, the director of music for advertising giant JWT, is responsible for putting musicians and their songs together with advertisers. It's a beneficial relationship, he says: the artist gets exposure and financial support, and the product gets linked up with the artist -- and the artist's fan base. Some products can be golden for musicians: Greco mentions the "Apple effect," in which the computer manufacturer made stars of Feist ("1234") and the Ting Tings ("Shut Up and Let Me Go") through the use of their songs.
Spreading the word in creative ways is a necessity these days, adds Renaud Skalli, who heads up artist and label relations for the year-old marketing firm My Love Affair.
"The reason we started the firm is because the music industry was in a bad state," he says. "The artists needed someone on their side."
Though musicians appreciate the exposure, the prospect of tying their fortunes to a multinational conglomerate still makes some of them nervous. It calls to mind that old hippie-punk jeer: Sell-out.
Ben Deily, a former member of the Boston post-punk band the Lemonheads, remembers when another Boston band, the Del Fuegos, made a beer commercial. He and his bandmates were appalled, he says.
"You knew there was selling out, and then there was punk rock," he says. (Deily now works in the advertising business.)
"Sell-out" doesn't come up much anymore, says Greco. "Musicians are artists. But they don't need to be starving artists," he says. "You have to make a living."
Matchbox Twenty's Doucette has seen all sides of the equation. His band has played bars and stadiums, has been groomed by a record label and succeeded in the post-label era. Lead singer Rob Thomas has been a paparazzi magnet.
Doucette says that commercialization comes with the territory.
"A band is a brand. It sells music, it sells image, a lot of things. This is our product, this is what we do. The fact it has artistic integrity is what separates it," he says. "The difference is where the emphasis is."