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For better or worse, technology has revolutionized the music industry. The days of going out to the record shop to pick up some fresh vinyl are long gone, replaced first by the cassette tape, then the CD, and now, digital music. The likes of Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, Slacker Personal Radio, and Rhapsody have turned the music business on its head. Now, mobile technology (you know, smartphones and tablets) may be again changing how we listen to music through its defining characteristic: apps.
There’s an app for everything these days. Apps can tell you “where the ladies at”; supply you with a virtual voodoo doll; tell you when the best time to relieve yourself during a movie is; even help you keep track of all the places you’ve pooped (yes, there’s an app for that). Truth is, it was only a matter of time before musicians utilized mobile devices for not only listening to music, but also experiencing music as well.
One of the first attempts at using apps to enhance an album was back in 2009, when U2 released a BlackBerry app to accompany their album No Line on the Horizon. According to IDEO, a collaborator with U2 and RIM, the app allowed fans to buy the album, get tour information and band news, and access a slideshow of band-chosen images to accompany the songs. The goal was to create an experience similar to opening a jewel case or record sleeve. “As music fans, the band has always enjoyed all the detail of an album gatefold or CD booklet. They want to make visual material available with their albums and this app is the ideal way to do it,” said U2 manager Paul McGuinness on IDEO.com.
The idea of an album released in an app didn’t really catch on until 2011, when Björk released her album Biophilia in a standalone iPad app alongside a traditional release. The app, which is $12.99 on Apple’s App Store, includes all 10 songs from the album, each with their own “game,” so to speak, within the app. The home screen of the app is a galaxy of 10 stars, each corresponding to a song. The theme of the album is nature, and the in-app experience for each song reflects that: For “Crystalline,” you fly through a tunnel catching crystals; for “Hollow,” you explore a DNA chain; and for “Virus,” a virus attacks a group of cells.
For now, albums with apps seem to be something of a niche product. Aside from Björk, Lady Gaga plans to release her upcoming album, ARTPOP, as an iPhone, iPad, mobile, and computer application that will include “chats, films for every song, extra music, content, gaga inspired games, fashion updates, magazines, and more still in the works,” according to Gaga’s website, littlemonsters.com. Little else is known about the album, but considering that Lady Gaga is at the helm, expect something never before seen.
Gaga-ites seem to be excited about the album. “I think it’s cool,” says Alex Duvall, a first-year in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I think she’s really good at staying ahead of the curve.” Duvall says that she usually prefers to go out to a record store to buy albums, but that the idea is “pretty inventive,” and she can see the concept catching on with more mainstream artists.
We’ll have to wait and see what ARTPOP brings to the table, but Biophilia is certainly an ambitious use of technology. It’s a clever marketing strategy, and also has potential to get people interested in listening to albums in their entirety again, not just singles. Maybe someday, apps could provide an immersive music experience that would harken back and even surpass what physical albums provided. However, the concept could also produce something very gimmicky in the wrong hands. (God knows what Disney could cook up for their tween idols.) Nevertheless, there’s something here.
On a different note (pun intended), Dan Deacon is doing something very different with apps and his music. Instead of using apps for album releases, he is focusing on concerts. Each concertgoer that downloads the free Dan Deacon app will become part of the show, their phones becoming “a source of synchronized light and sound depending on your location within each venue,” according to a press release. All this will be accomplished without the use of Wi-Fi or cellular data. It sounds like this app could produce some spectacular effects. Deacon will be playing the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Nov. 14 and the Bowery Ballroom on Nov. 16, so anyone planning to attend should download the app.
Will apps revolutionize the music industry the way the digital age did? The answer is no, according to Miwa Okumura, Senior VP of West Coast Operations and Licensing for the Beggars Group (the conglomerate of 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, and XL Recordings, whose roster includes Adele, Bon Iver, Sonic Youth, The Strokes, and Vampire Weekend).
“Björk did an amazing job, and it certainly coincided seamlessly with that album, but in general, I don’t think it’s going to be the new way of releasing records,” Okumura says. “Call me a purist, but the quality of music can’t be fully appreciated in that medium.” She also says that Beggars Group does not create apps for their releases.
So is music as we know it about to change? I say no—but who knows what mainstream fans will want? It will probably take a long time for album apps to really catch on, if they ever do, and Björk and Lady Gaga are hardly what you’d call normal musicians. Dan Deacon’s idea might have more potential for widespread adoption, but it’s probably not going to produce any radical changes. So for now, you’re just going to have to be happy with using your smartphone or tablet to play Temple Run. Sorry.
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