Some of the most intriguing album-as-apps projects aren’t being done by famous bands, but by emerging artists. Two that have caught our eye in recent months are Adam Jansch in the UK, and Bluebrain in the US.
Jansch – yes, son of Bert – has just finished a PhD in music composition, where he worked on the concept and technology for what he calls the “open outcome record”. It culminated in his recent launch of an iPhone app, Futures EP.
The idea: every time one of the two songs is played back, it sounds different to the last time – an idea also being explored by fellow British artist Gwilym Gold in his Bronze project.
“The idea has been there in the past: we’ve just been waiting for the technology to distribute it on a wide scale,” Jansch tells Music Ally. Those past ideas including work by avant-garde composer Henri Pousseur, Brian Eno’s generative music, and even The Flaming Lips’ four-CDs-at-once album Zaireeka.
Jansch says Futures EP wasn’t about showing off technology at the expense of music. “I’m a musician who wants to make good music,” he says.
“It was important to me that this was something people would actually want to listen to, rather than just a showcase of technological advancement. I’ve seen those kinds of things, and they’re really boring.”
One notable point about Futures EP is that it’s not interactive: the changes are algorithmic rather than triggered by the listener – in contrast to the Passion Pit app’s interactive videos.
Jansch said he looked closely at interactive music technologies by companies like RjDj when starting his project, but opted in the end for something closer – to the listener at least – to the way recorded music is delivered.
“I’m fascinated to see how the whole app thing plays out, and what effect it’s going to have on the way people consume media,” he says. “It’s important to have artists being the drivers in this scenario though: using the technology to achieve the artistic and creative goals that we have, rather than the other way around.”
Offered as free downloads for iPhone and iPad, both were designed to be listened to – well, used might be the better word – in specific locations: the National Mall in Washington DC, Central Park in New York, and Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival.
“One of the hardest parts about this project was explaining to people that this was the album itself, not a bonus feature or compliment to a traditional record,” says the band’s Ryan Holladay.
“We weren’t interested in making games or videos to complement a normal release, but rather use these new capabilities to re-imagine how music is composed, in this case integrating the landscape as an integral part of the composition.”
Holladay says the projects have “certainly hit a nerve”, with fierce enthusiasts and detractors alike. He says Bluebrain has also learned some important lessons about the challenges facing artists who launch albums as apps.
“As an artist, you tend to want to move on once you’ve finished a musical project and begin working on the next thing. With apps, you have to continue to maintain them,” he says.
“Because we aren’t a big team and don’t make any money from these free apps, we aren’t really able to maintain them and update them to function properly as much as we probably should. We still aren’t exactly sure what the right solution is.”
Even so, Bluebrain are working on their next project, which also involves virtual technologies interacting with physical spaces.
What relevance do these projects have to the wider music industry? Scoffing at them for being niche is missing the point, in the same way that writing off Music Hack Days as uncommercial geekery is missing the point of those.
If Scott Snibbe’s belief that album apps will become more mainstream is correct, it’s the experimentation happening in these kinds of projects now that may filter into more high-profile apps in a year or two’s time.