When Bjork released Biophilia as an iOS app in July 2011, it was hailed as a disruptive and innovative new format for albums, which would spawn other projects. Then things went a bit quiet. As Bjork’s Biophilia collaborator Scott Snibbe releases a follow-up app for Passion Pit, how does the album-as-app concept shape up in 2012 and beyond?
Passion Pit: Gossamer is smaller in scale than Biophilia, although equally fizzing with ideas. It’s more of an EP with two songs – each of which gets an interactive music video and a separate remixing mode.
The former brings together graphics, animation and photographs which jumble together differently every time the video is watched. If fans touch the screen, they can influence the animation too.
The remix mode uses a harp-string spider web for one song and touch-tiles for the other, with a mixture of loops and synth notes. As in some of Biophilia’s mini-apps, you can either make a new song using the sounds, or try to recreate the original.
It’s a beautiful piece of work, available for iPhone and iPad, which costs $1.99 on the App Store. But is this just a pretty distraction from the mainstream business of digital music, or a sign that albums-as-apps could become more valuable?
One interesting difference to Biophilia is that according to Snibbe, the Gossamer app started with Passion Pit’s label, Sony Music Group. “They told us about the new album, and seemed to think its aesthetic and vibe would match up pretty well with what we’ve done before,” says Snibbe.
“So it went through the label to management, and then the band rather than the other way around, although it was the management who ultimately got really excited about it.”
“This is a way of having another experience with the music that you love”
It’s an important distinction, and one that positions this kind of project less as a creative folly – as industry sceptics have been known to label Biophilia – and more as a piece of promotion that stands on its own creative merits. Less apps as the new albums, and more apps as the new music videos.
It’s also the reason why this shouldn’t be viewed in isolation as an app thing, but more as part of the wider experimentation going on around music and interactivity – those interactive HTML5 music videos for the likes of Arcade Fire for example, or last week’s Bobby Womack site.
“It’s something we want to do more with in the future, where music video becomes more like a live performance,” says Snibbe.
“If you go to see a band 20 times, you get the same vibe each time, but there are little variations. A big part of what a music app does, for me, is being more a way to have a live experience with an artist.”
Snibbe says that he still encounters the whole gamut of reactions from labels when talking to them about apps: “From ‘I’m scared of this, it might take away recording revenues’ to ‘This is irrelevant, nobody cares about it’ to ‘Oh! This is going to completely subsume recorded music!’,” he says.
“But this is a way of having another experience with the music that you love, more like the concert.”
Snibbe also thinks that apps have the potential to attract people who are interested in apps and technology, rather than in music or the specific artists. “These app fans might be introduced to this music through the app, then buy the tracks later,” he says.
Far-fetched? Perhaps not, for this is a sentiment that goes beyond music. Earlier this month, Music Ally met Henry Volans, head of digital at book publisher Faber. He was beaming with pride at a review on technology blog The Verge of his company’s new iPad app based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
“It’s hard to get people who write about technology to sully themselves writing about content, but there should be more. It’s good,” he said.
Or to put it another way: if the music industry is worried about people caring so much about technology they forget why they cared about music, apps may be one route back in. It doesn’t make them the saviour of recorded music, but it does put a different spin on the investment required.
Albums-as-apps get some artists very excited, and labels are seemingly catching on too. But the risk is that this innovation is happening within a bubble that the majority of music fans will never really care about.
Especially if it relies on them having devices made by one manufacturer, Apple – these album-apps don’t tend to get ported to Android or BlackBerry devices, for example.
“Apps are a rising medium. I strongly believe they will rival music and movies…”
This also extends to enjoying the music from these apps more traditionally. Apple’s upcoming iOS 6 software will allow iTunes music to be sold within apps without kicking people out to the actual iTunes Store for the first time – a step forward, but it’s still not possible to ‘buy the app, get the downloads for free’.
The history of recorded music is littered with new formats that flopped – iTunes LP being the most relevant recent example of something that Apple and (some) labels got excited about, but which left fans profoundly unmoved.
That isn’t to say albums-as-apps can’t become a popular and valuable format. It’s more to point out that these are the arguments that their supporters will encounter when pitching their ideas. Hence the temptation to talk up their significance as much as possible.
“I believe we’re entering a new cultural era,” says Snibbe. “You do have this stodgier generation who’ll say ‘Apps? I don’t use any apps apart from my address book!’, but apps are a rising medium. I strongly believe they will rival music and movies in their popularity, while not necessarily replacing them.”
He also thinks more labels will follow Sony in commissioning these kinds of projects, with another reason being the ability for an app to offer something valuable in and of itself, distinct from the recorded music which will increasingly be accessed through all-you-can-eat services like Spotify.
“I’m sure the floodgates are going to open, probably sometime next year. Once there are more examples of big successes with projects like this, people will rush in.”