July 25, 2016:The history of the album-app: creativity galore but commercially tough

The history of the album-app: creativity galore but commercially tough

As long as there have been app stores for smartphone and tablets, there have been musicians and developers exploring the potential for albums to be delivered as apps.

Many of these projects have been creative and technologically inventive, but few have been demonstrable commercial successes. That’s why many labels see the ‘album-as-app’ concept as something of a white elephant.

Artists and developers are still experimenting though: Music Ally recently interviewed jazz musician Christian Scott about his album-app The Stretch, and that sparked an idea to look back at some past examples, for a chronological story of a trend that peaked in 2011, but hasn’t entirely disappeared.

(Note, we’re being quite flexible with the term ‘album’ – some of these apps are more like EPs with a few tracks, while others expand to an artist’s wider catalogue of music. But what we’ve left out are what we’d describe as ‘artist apps’ that are purely promotional. Everything here delivers the actual music or, in cases where the music had to be bought from iTunes, is designed as a digital player for it.)

Some things we’ve learned:

– Sadly, a lot of these apps are no longer available, usually because they were originally funded by the marketing budget for a specific album, which made no provisions for future updates beyond the album cycle. These apps were software that could (and, indeed, would) be broken by operating system updates from Apple and Google – leading to their removal. That’s a shame: as a part of this industry’s history, album-apps are disappearing in a way that, say, videos from MTV’s 80s heyday are not.

– The album-apps that stick in our brain for their creativity tend to be the ones that were artistic works in their own right, by the artists, rather than marketing campaigns. Björk’s Biophilia; Bluebrain’s location-based albums; Gruff Rhys’ American Interior and now FLUX by Adrian Belew – these were creative works in their own right that made sense as apps.

– There is precious little evidence of anyone making their fortune from an album-app, despite plenty of experimentation with pricing models. Would music fans pay between £5 and £15 for an album delivered as an app? Would they download the app for free and buy the tracks as in-app purchases? In most cases, no. At one point in time, Apple’s rules were a challenge too: buying an app with the music didn’t mean you got the tracks as separate audio downloads, and developers were barred from giving you a code to get those downloads directly. Even Björk’s keenest fans may have balked at buying ‘Biophilia’ twice – once in app form and once in album form.

– There are some ideas in these apps that might be worth exploring again. Bluebrain’s location-based music could find another wave of interest post-Pokemon Go (see our recent Landmrk interview for more on that); Sting surely won’t be the last artist to try the sponsorship model (and likewise Kim Gun Mo for karaoke); and Kristin Hersh and Gruff Rhys have hinted at interesting crossovers for music and books in the apps world – although frankly, the publishing industry is just as cool on apps hype as music.

– A number of these apps were designed as almost ‘digital box sets’ providing the content around an album – from archive videos, liner notes and interviews to games and other interactivity – which a fan already had in their collection. Could this idea be revived for the streaming era, pulling in tracks from Spotify or Apple Music while providing the content around them that those services lack? The question is whether labels have the budgets and appetites to try.

Still, from U2 on BlackBerry and Gwilym Gold’s regenerative music to Calvin Harris dancing and John Frusciante orbiting the Earth on a satellite, here’s the story of album-apps so far. Let us know which examples we’ve missed by posting your own comments and thoughts.

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Presidents of the United States of America (February 2009)
How did music startup Melodeo get the rights to the entire back catalogue of the Presidents of the United States of America (of ‘Lump’ and ‘Peaches’ fame) for an app? Well, it helped that the band controlled their rights AND that band member Dave Dederer was an exec at the company. The $3 app streamed the band’s albums and rarities, while linking to the iTunes Store for fans to buy it if they wanted. Early, but very innovative. More info

U2 / BlackBerry (September 2009)
Long before U2 teamed up with Apple to give away an album to every iTunes customer, the band were working with BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion on an app for their No Line On The Horizon album. It tied in to a tour sponsorship, with fans able to buy the album within the app, then listen to it with a visual backdrop of images chosen by U2 – and by other fans. More info

Little Boots Reactive Remixer (December 2009)
London-based RjDj was one of the most inventive music-app developers in the early years of the app stores, with its ‘reactive’ music apps responding to the movements of their user as well as the sounds of the world around them. Its app for Little Boots explored how this might work for an artist, with fans remixing several of her songs simply by walking around. An intriguing attempt to get people out and about with their smartphones years before Pokemon Go was a glint in Nintendo’s eye… More info

Gorchitza’s ‘Appbum’ (August 2010)
With hindsight, it’s obvious why the term ‘appbum’ didn’t take off as a way to describe an album-app. Developer FlySoft was ahead of its time though: we came across its platform with an app released for the band Gorchitza. It included a slideshow, videos, lyrics displayed in time to the music, a band biography and discography, and the ability to comment and read other fans’ comments. App link

Kristin Hersh: Crooked (November 2010)
An early example of a crossover between music, apps and books – there are more further on in this feature – centred on Hersh’s new album ‘Crooked’. The app included all the songs from the album, the artwork from its book, audio commentary from Hersh, and links to web content and forums for fans to interact with the artist. And at £0.79, it was a snip – an attempt to get fans exploring a new medium for music without worrying about buying an album twice. App link

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Nirvana, Rush and the Rolling Stones (March 2011)
Universal Music was also early to experiment with the idea of album apps, with three releases from its archives: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Rush’s ‘2112’ and ‘Moving Pictures’, and the Rolling Stones’ concert film ‘Ladies & Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones’. Sold for between $5.99 and $7.99 for iPads, the content was more video-focused: fans still had to buy the full songs from iTunes. More info

Cold War Kids’ ‘Applum’ (April 2011)
2011 was clearly Peak Silly Branding for app-albums. Universal Music described its app for the Cold War Kids’ ‘Mine is Yours’ as an “applum” – a term we haven’t heard since. Again, the actual music wasn’t included: but fans who’d bought it from iTunes could “experience unique album artwork, lyrics and liner notes” in the free app. App link

Bluebrain’s The National Mall (May 2011)
This is one of the album-apps that still gets talked about today, especially given the current Pokemon Go-fuelled re-interest in location-based tech and augmented reality. ‘The National Mall’ was an iPhone app with more than three hours of music, pinned to specific locations in the National Mall in Washington DC. Fans heard the album in different ways depending how they moved around the landscape. Bluebrain would later follow it with two more similar projects: Central Park and The Violet Crown, as they refined their ideas. App link

Gwilym Gold’s Flesh Freeze (June 2011)
Admittedly this was more a ‘single-as-app’ than a full album, but it was a fascinating project. Gold and collaborator Lexxx actually invented a new format called Bronze for the release of ‘Flesh Freeze’. It reinterpreted a song as it was played, “manipulating all aspects of the sound, from the rhythms to the texture and structure” so that each time it was played, it would be different. Bronze lives on as a technology: it was used by Sigur Ros for their recent 24-hour ‘slow TV’ video in Iceland. More info

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Radio Soulwax (June 2011)
This wasn’t an app for an individual album, but rather a repository for a series of Belgian duo Soulwax’s mix sets. The hour-long sets were teamed with visuals based on the artwork of the tracks they played, often to comic effect. The plan when it launched was to add a new show every week, although the app has since been removed from the App Store. More info

Björk’s Biophilia (July 2011)
The most famous example of an album released as an app, and one that was hailed for its creativity and technical innovation, even if figures for its commercial performance were hard to come by. The Biophilia app offered an interactive mini-app or game for each of the album’s ten tracks, and adopted a freemium model where fans could download the app for free, then pay for each mini-app as an in-app purchase. It has since shifted to a £9.99 upfront price. A later crowdfunding campaign to make an Android version flopped, but thankfully it was released anyway. App link

The Analog Girl’s A/B EP (November 2011)
Singapore-based musician Mei Wong (aka The Analog Girl) teamed up with a company called Delaware in 2011, after it came up with a concept for two-track app releases under the brand Re<ords. Her A/B EP was only released as an app – the music wasn’t available elsewhere – with Wong describing it as “a virtual vinyl copy of my music” for fans to own thanks to its spinning-record design. App link

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Calvin Harris’ 18 Months (November 2011)
We loved the mischievous intent behind the official app for Calvin Harris’ ’18 Months’ album: fans could use this iOS and Android app to stream the album in full, but only by dancing. The full album tracks would keep playing as long as the smartphone was in motion – so admittedly fans could run or simply waggle their wrists if they didn’t want to dance. The app was the work of agency We Make Awesome Sh, which continues to pop up with interesting ideas through 2016 – for example with its Facebook Messenger bot for Hardwell which recently launched. App link

Kim Gun Mo’s karaoke app (November 2011)
We hadn’t heard of South Korean artist Kim Gun Mo before this album release, and he hasn’t made much of a dent in the west since. But his Autobiography OKESTRA app had an interesting feature: its music was available in OKE files – as in karaoke – so that fans could sing along. We’re surprised we haven’t seen more karaoke options in artist apps since 2011, although Smule, Musical.ly and Dubsmash could be seen in a similar space. More info

Sting 25 (November 2011)
Less an app for an individual album, and more an umbrella app for Sting’s entire back catalogue, released to celebrate his 60th birthday and 25 years of his solo career. The app included concert video footage, interviews and photos, while fans who owned his solo albums could play them from within the app. Also interesting: the app, which cost “in the low seven figures” to develop, was sponsored by Chevrolet and American Express. The famously happy-to-be-topless Sting certainly wasn’t going to lose his shirt on an over-expensive app project. App link

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Adam Jansch’s Futures EP (July 2012)
Musician Adam Jansch (son of Bert) was exploring similar ideas to Gwilym Gold with his idea for an “open outcome record”. Listeners got their first experience of it with iPhone app Futures EP, where every time its two tracks were played, they would sound different. “Recorded music shouldn’t be shackled by the fixity of the record medium; instead, the record artist should have the power to instil a degree of variety between renditions,” is how Jansch explained it. App link

They Might Be Giants (September 2012)
This app harked back to the Presidents of the United States of America’s in the way it mined They Might Be Giants’ entire back catalogue. The difference was in its built-in limitation: at any one point, TMBG’s app held five tracks, which swapped in and out regularly. The app was part of a wider history of digital invention from the band: for example their Dial-a-Song service. App link

Warren Charles’ More Than Music app (December 2012)
US band Warren Charles launched their ‘Head in the Clouds’ album as an iOS app, including a built-in player to stream the album in full, as well as four games based on specific songs, a digital lyric book, artwork and a “hand-painted video player”. The approach to pricing was interesting too: the app cost $1.99 all-in, but a free version ditched three of the games and some other band content – but kept the album stream. More info

REWORK_Philip Glass album (December 2012)
Björk’s creative partner for the Biophilia app, Scott Snibbe, also worked on this project for an album of remixes of Philip Glass tracks by the likes of Beck, Amon Tobin and Cornelius. The app, which cost $9.99 for iOS, included 11 “interactive visualisations” for the album’s tracks, as well as a feature called Glass Machine where fans could create their own music inspired by the composer by sliding two discs around the screen. More info

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Hurts’ Exile app (March 2013)
British duo Hurts didn’t just launch an app for their ‘Exile’ album, they launched a “voice controlled immersive theatre experience, created with 3D binaural sound”. But yes, an app. It was developed by London agency FOAM, and was essentially an audio adventure game controlled by the player’s voice, with Hurts’ music providing the soundtrack. More info

Snoop Lion’s Reincarnated: Track Notes (March 2013)
Another example of an artist partnering with an apps startup: in this case, Citia, which had previously made app based on books. Once again, the app wasn’t intended to deliver the full album – fans could buy that from iTunes to play it from within the app though – but rather the information around it. “It’s liner notes for the 21st century. Multimedia, multi-sensory, made for the fans,” as the blurb explained. More info

Jay-Z’s Magna Carta (July 2013)
Two years before he bought streaming service Tidal, Jay-Z was exploring app-based music distribution with Samsung. His new album ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’ was made available to a million fans for free, if they downloaded the app, as the result of a reported $5m sponsorship deal. In truth, the app was merely a vessel for fans to get the digital files, rather than any kind of experience in itself. It was also controversial, after fans started to wonder why the app needed access to so much of their personal data in its installation process. More info

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The Shocking Miss Emerald (September 2013)
Dutch singer Caro Emerald got her own app for ‘The Shocking Miss Emerald’, and again, its price compared well (from a fan’s perspective) to the download or physical version. Fans paying £1.49 got unlimited streams of the album, as well as lyrics, liner notes and images. The plan at the time from label Grandmono Records was to add new, exclusive tracks over time. More info

John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes (September 2013)
Rather than focus on a commercial album, this app was based on a trip to Bermuda made by John Lennon in 1980, and the demos he recorded there of tracks including ‘Woman’, ‘I’m Losing You’ and ‘Dear Yoko’ that would make it onto his ‘Double Fantasy album’. Endorsed by Yoko Ono, the app’s revenues went to the Imagine There’s No Hunger charitable campaign. App link

Bob Dylan Bootlegs (October 2013)
Apps as the new box-sets? There was a sense of this in 2013 thanks to the number of heritage projects hitting the app stores. This free iOS app from Sony Music was released alongside a new (well, “new”) album of Dylan bootlegs recorded between 1969 and 1971 called ‘Another Self Portrait’. Described as a “digital companion piece” to the album, it offered interviews, lyrics and photo galleries as well as content for each song, but not the actual music itself. App link

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Lady Gaga ARTPOP (November 2013)
The most disappointing album-app in recent history? ARTPOP wasn’t bad, as such, but it didn’t live up to the hype stoked by Lady Gaga herself before her album of the same name. In 2012 she promised that its app would be “the most major way to fully immerse yourself in ARTPOP” promising “chats, films for every song, extra music, content, gaga inspired games, fashion updates, magazines, and more”. What actually came out in 2013, though, was part virtual-turntable for the album (if bought separately) and part GIF-creation tool for fans to express their love of Gaga. Fun, but nowhere near as ambitious as what had been planned. It has since been removed from the stores. More info

Metric Synthetica (November 2013)
This app for Metric was another production from Snibbe Studio (see: Biophilia, Philip Glass earlier). It was pitched as an “interactive song experience” for fans to remix, filter and sequence the songs from Metric’s last album ‘Synthetica’ for themselves. One track was included in the free iOS download, with others sold for $0.99 each as in-app purchases. It was an example of a music-remixing app that didn’t rely on any musical or tech expertise to have fun with. More info

The Who Tommy (November 2013)
Another example of a “digital box set”, this time from Universal Music Group’s catalogue division. Interestingly, it was focused not just on The Who’s 1969 album ‘Tommy’ but also a new book about the band by Richard Barnes. Fans downloading the free app got song samples, artwork, videos from a 1969 London gig, a Tommy-themed game, and the first chapter of the book. To listen to the full album fans had to either own it in their library or buy it from iTunes, while the rest of the book was also an in-app purchase. App link

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Gruff Rhys American Interior (March 2014)
The Super Furry Animals’ co-founder’s ‘American Interior’ wasn’t an app of an album: instead, it was an imaginative cross-platform project spanning an album, a film, a book and this app from publisher Penguin – all addressing the tale of 18th-century Welsh explorer John Evans. There was music within the app, but also artwork, animation, videos and text from the book. The reason the project worked so well is that any element worked on its own, but listening / reading / watching / using them all told the fully fleshed-out story of Evans. App link

Francois & The Atlas Mountains Piano Ombre (March 2014)
Domino made this iPhone app for François & The Atlas Mountains, making the bold decision to charge fans £7.49. That included all the album’s tracks but also a code to get a digital download link for the audio version sent to their email address. That dealt with one of the key problems of selling an album as an app: the difficulty of then playing it on other devices. We also liked the app’s “Sun Tracker” feature, where fans were encouraged to snap, filter and share pictures of the sun to unlock tracks. More info

John Frusciante Sat-JF14 (April 2014)
Its emergence on April Fool’s Day made us fret that the story of former Red Hot Chili Pepper Frusciante sending his new album into space was a big porkie. It wasn’t though: Sat-JF14 was an iOS and Android app that tracked an “experimental Cube Satellite called Sat-JF14” in its orbit around the Earth. Whenever it was overhead, you could stream the album for free. Two years on, with the satellite no longer active, neither is the app – although the album is sold through Frusciante’s other channels. More info

Bernhoft Islander (June 2014)
Norwegian musician Berhnoft’s ‘Islander’ was another app that delivered the full album, rather than just digital content around the music. Fans could pay £13.99 on iOS for the app, which was described at the time as “the first true HD music app” by its makers HD360 and Brandwidth. This was also an app that encouraged fans to interact with the music: a mixer console to remix and add effects, as well as a “Loop Station” to make their own music using Bernhoft samples. This was also an early example of 360-degree video, before the current boom in VR and 360 content. App link

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Wings re-releases (July 2014)
When Concord Music Group re-released five albums from the archives of Paul McCartney’s Wings, it also made them available as iPad apps. Band on the Run, McCartney, McCartney II, RAM and Wings over America cost £5.49 each, and included remastered versions of their album, artwork, McCartney interviews, photos and an archive of videos. None of them are still available. More info

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (July 2014)
As much as we love Hans Zimmer, we didn’t expect to be writing about his soundtrack for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014. That was before we saw the official app for the album though, which was a partnership with audio-tech firm DTS. The app offered “Headphone X” versions of the soundtrack’s songs in surround-sound, offering one track for free and selling the others as £1.49 in-app purchases. App link

FLUX by belew (November 2014)
We’re actually new to this app: industry consultant Bas Grasmayer brought it to our attention on Twitter during the research process for this piece. It’s the work of musician Adrian Belew (of King Crimson but now solo fame), offering “an ever-changing variety of new tracks, sounds, and visual art that comes at you in quick, surprising pieces”. Longer songs are chopped up into snippets, with Belew controlling how often new content is added and how it’s shown/played. “New tracks may appear, others may go away, and rarities may only be heard once and a while…” It’s also a premium app: £7.99 on the App Store. App link

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Bat Lanyard BatPass (March 2015)
Does an app delivering your music have to be an expensive white elephant? Not if you develop it yourself? That’s what independent musician (and experienced coder) Bat Lanyard did in 2015 with his BatPass app. It offers his whole ‘Campfires’ album (complete with a link to download audio files separately) with liner notes, credits and other content. This is very much a creative work, not a marketing gimmick. “There’s so much flexibility in the content and presentation, and it really allows you to be creative in a new way,” Lanyard told the Dallas Observer. “As a programmer, it only took my time, sweat and drive to get it completed…A minimal press of stamped CDs or 180 gram vinyl was going to cost way more.” App link

John Moose’s app for the woods (May 15)
Swedish band John Moose wanted to give fans a way to listen to their new album – about a man who flees society to live in the forest – before its release. Their chosen method was certainly fitting: an app that would allow fans to listen to the album IF they walked out into the woods, as identified by the app’s location-based features. “The app uses Google Maps where forests have a specific green colour,” the band explained to Rolling Stone. “GPS coordinates are sent from the smartphone to a web service which scans the map through Google Maps Static API and uses a specific algorithm to determine if the user is in the woods ‘enough.'” App link

G-Eazy, Rob Thomas and more go Freeform (2015-16)
US startup Freeform Development thought the music industry could learn from a different kind of “freemium” model: that used by games like Candy Crush Saga. That didn’t mean ditching songs for sweet-swapping, though. Instead, Freeform encourages artists – G-Eazy, Rob Thomas, The Cult and Melissa Ferrick are among its clients – to give their apps away for free including a free daily play of their latest album in its entirety – but then prompt fans to “take action” if they want to listen to it more than that, or get a copy for offline listening. Said action involves signing up for “offers” – from other apps and DVD rental services to dating sites – with the artist and Freeform sharing the revenues. More info

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Christian Scott (July 2016)
The most recent example of an album-app that we’ve covered, from jazz musician Christian Scott. Stretch Music is both a traditional album and an interactive app. The app comes with the full album installed and the tabs allow the user to manipulate the different stems for each instrument as the tracks play, lowering or increasing the volume, silencing instruments, flipping the audio between left and right speakers and so on. It also has a tab with the sheet music and score so musicians can play along. Scott worked with tech firm Spectrum Interactive on the release. App link

Stuart Dredge
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One response
  • I worked with the late Larry Rosen, who was the first to do a CD-only label with GRP and well ahead of the crowd with all aspects of N2K – on a tablet album platform called ROBA. It put out two apps: Dave Grusin’s “An Evening with Dave Grusin” in April 2011, and Pitbull’s “Planet Pt” that June. They were beautiful apps, but could have been even better if Apple did not require the removal of any exclusive audio or video content.

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