In New York City, a digital billboard featuring an alien language popped up over the CVS at the corner of Broadway and 49th Street. Similar advertisements around the world. A subway advertisement at Green Park Station in London. England. Another at Jamsil Station in Seoul, South Korea. And a digital crawl during a football match at the Estadio Monumental in Santiago, Chile. All with the same alien text, and a message to go to AlienRadio.FM to learn more.
Alien Radio: Tuning into Frequencies
The Alien Radio website is relatively sparse: after advancing through a screen where the outdoor advertisements flash by in rapid progression, the website shifts into a static-filled night’s sky with a minimalistic, rotating globe in the center of the screen. Visitors’ cursors are turned into a four-pointed star, and moving it across the page “tunes in” the frequency along both X- and Y-axes to reveal multi-lingual messages, with subjects ranging from the anatomy of baseballs and advertisements for the Scottish highlands for satellite launches to excerpts from Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Dancing Men and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The only area that stands out amidst the multilingual chatter: an area in the upper right corner of the screen near 95 MHz x 55 MHz, which triggers a series of tones and scrolling text at the bottom of the screen in what appears to be Baudot (International Teleprinter) code. This message, which the players have taken to calling “signal.svg”, is currently unsolved.
The Coldplay Connection: Deciphering Alien Texts
Around the same time, fans of the band Coldplay started to get followed by the Twitter account for Alien Radio FM, leading players to suspect that Alien Radio and the mysterious advertisements were connected to an upcoming release. When paired with the larger sample of alien text scrolling along the top of the Alien Radio website, players managed to decode the advertisements, which hint at a new release from the band: COLDPLAY HIGHER POWER MAY SEVEN.
The scrolling text provided a longer phrase that players suspect are lyrics to Higher Power: “this joy is electric and you’re circuiting through / I’m so happy that I’m alive happy I’m alive at the same time as you”. Combined with the messages from the advertisements, players have managed to reconstruct the alien alphabet.
Cold-Played This Game Before: Learning From a History of Musical Teasers
Alien Radio only launched a few days ago, so it’s too soon to tell whether a narrative will develop around who is sending these strange messages, why the website is picking up on global transmissions, or even if additional messages will help players complete the alien alphabet. But prior promotional campaigns from Coldplay can provide context for what’s to come, as this isn’t the band’s first time dabbling in alternate reality game-adjacent territory.
Coldplay is perhaps best known in ARG circles for its 2014 release of the album Ghost Stories by kicking off a global scavenger hunt for advanced, handwritten copies of the album’s nine songs, hidden inside ghost story books at libraries across the globe. Coldplay released hints to the location of the lyrics on their Twitter account alongside the hashtag #lyricshunt,. The Barcelona location also contained a “Golden Ticket” that earned Judit Garriga Clusellas two tickets to a Coldplay concert in London. Five years later, Coldplay welcomed the 2019 release of their album Everyday Life by stealthily hiding the entire track list of the album in the classified section of the Devon newspaper Express and Echo.
Alternate reality games and puzzle trails tied to musical releases are fairly common. Within the past year alone, Twenty One Pilots released a puzzle trail for their Level of Concern release that awarded the first 500 fans to complete it an exclusive USB drive. Taylor Swift revealed her collaboration with Keith Urban on Fearless (Taylor’s Version) through an anagrammed message to her fans. Folk-punk artist Covey launched a looping adventure game told through TikTok livestreams that further introduced players to the narrative world and characters of his upcoming album, Class of Cardinal Sin. And while Dad Feels‘ Nathan Barnatt isn’t primarily a musician, he’s still released an album’s worth of songs that accumulated over a million streams on Spotify. The universal constant across those experiences: giving fans creative outlets for their passion for the artists and the worlds they created.
Paul is Dead: The Almost-ARG That Inspired a Genre
The relationship between alternate reality games and the music industry can actually trace their roots to the genre’s inception. In an interview with Fansplaining, Sean Stewart discussed the origins of modern alternate reality games with the show’s hosts, Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink. Stewart was lead writer for The Beast, the 2001 alternate reality game created for Stephen Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence that is often cited as the first alternate reality game. And according to Stewart, The Beast was directly inspired by the popular Beatles conspiracy theory, Paul is Dead.
According to the conspiracy theory, Paul McCartney was killed in a traffic accident in 1966, and replaced with a look-alike. Proponents of the theory pointed to everything from clues hidden in lyrics and album covers, to backmasked audio messages. Fans developed an intricate ludo-narrative experience that never really existed, drawing on “evidence” that wasn’t intentionally planted. But Stewart recounts that The Beast co-creator Jordan Weisman’s reaction to learning about the Paul is Dead conspiracy was thinking, “with the internet, you could really do that…so let’s make Paul is Dead, but for real. And that is the genesis of ARGs.”
Weisman and Stewart continued to explore the intersection of music and ARGs with their later projects. For edoc laundry, the Founding Fathers were reimagined as members of rock band Poor Richard, with puzzles embedded in a clothing line unlocked the mystery of their breakup. Later, 42 Entertainment partnered with Nine Inch Nails to help launch the album and narrative world of Year Zero, featuring everything from USB drops to a secret concert.
This opened the floodgates for a wave of creative expression. Artists like Poppy turned their very existence into an experience, while Harry Styles used the ARG for Eroda to introduce fans to the fictional island at the center of his music video for Adore Us, while Thom Yorke set up a phone line for the enigmatic “Dream Camera” leading up to the release of his solo album Anima. Thomas Dolby built a dystopian MMO to set the stage for A Map of the Floating City, and fictional publisher Sledged Infant Records even introduced fans to the equally fictional history of an entire genre of music with their acid-wave cassette tapes. And…whatever Alien Radio might become.
How to Coldplay Along, May 7th and Beyond
Whatever form Coldplay’s newest venture may take, the next couple of weeks are sure to prove interesting. While the AlienRadio.FM website looks to be the center of the experience, you can also follow the experience on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.
Update 4/29: The image of the alien script has been corrected to show the appropriate symbol for “Y”, adding the rest of the missing letters, revealed in an Alien Radio tweet. The scrolling code that resembled a Baudot code has also been solved, leading to what appears to be additional song lyrics.