Earlier this year, recording artist Tom Vek got some attention with his criticism of Apple Music, sparked by an interview given by Trent Reznor.
“Apple Music currently is basically exactly like any other streaming service out there ie — you have no control about how your music is presented,” wrote Vek in a blog post.
“I want to see more control truly back in the hands of artists, I want more artwork — tracklist art, booklet art, lyrics (If I want people to read them!), credits, thank-yous, essays, whatever artists do or don’t want to accompany their music.”
What you might not know is that Vek isn’t just complaining about this as a musician: he’s trying to tackle the problem as a startup founder.
Vek is behind an iOS app called Sleevenote which launched in early 2013 as a way to provide “interactive sleeve artwork for your digital music”.
“Four years ago, the App Store was the new rock’n’roll. It felt like you could put an indie app out and it could go nuts. Everyone in the pub had an app idea!” Vek tells Music Ally, when we speak to him about Sleevenote and his wider views on music streaming and artists.
Sleevenote wasn’t originally an app idea, though. Sparked by Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, Vek was mulling a similar device for music – like Apple’s iPod but better at showing artwork and information about the music stored on it.
“I looked at the Kickstarter route, but I had no idea where to start. How the hell would I get music on it? Would I need my own store? But when I discovered that as an app developer you could access the music library on a device, that was the epiphany.”
Cue Sleevenote, where you can “flip over” the artwork for albums to play your iTunes music – now including albums saved to your Apple Music collection. The back cover artwork, unique to Sleevenote, has embedded play buttons, so songs are played directly from the artwork.
“The big vision for me is to get all the booklet artwork in, photos, lyrics, credits, all this information that’s still floating around out there: but instead of just chucking it in, it should be made interactive and linkable to make a really effective digital experience,” says Vek.
“My pitch to labels is it’s only a small amount of reformatting by your designer doing your physical artwork: for CD or vinyl say, and you can retain that same aesthetic control of the experience”
As for back-catalogue albums, Vek is keen to tap a crowd-sourced element. “There are lots of communities scanning artwork, pretty thoroughly in the case of Discogs and the like, but nothing is happening with it, I really want to see it connected back with the actual music experience.”
He currently takes all responsibility for uploading artwork to the Sleevenote system, with incoming requests from users influencing which albums he tackles. “I’ve singlehandedly put in over 1,000 back covers, a decent amount provided officially by labels” he says.
“I’m looking for help to take it to the next level, it’s hard to keep going just on my own,” he says. The database could power a digital packaging experience for any platform: Sleevenote’s product is not the reformatted artwork (ultimately owned by the labels) but rather the all-important code that makes it interactive, plotting which parts of the artwork link to more information.
“It could work with Tidal’s database, with Spotify’s database. If someone does want to have a virtual vinyl sleeve in their own environment, a hi-fi system even, they could use our API,” says Vek.
“I’ve been using the term ‘post-discovery’ a lot to describe what Sleevenote is. There aren’t any other digital products that help you focus and really get to know a record, after you’ve discovered it. For me artwork really helped you get into an album, I just want to see more of an artistic stamp on digital music.”
There have been a few failed products that have tried to put an interactive wrapper around albums in the past, of course. A number of album apps have come and gone in recent years – sometimes at great expense – while Apple’s iTunes LP never took off on the desktop.
“Backwards compatibility is the big consideration with any new digital-music format. I believe iTunes LP was a case of asking for too much from labels, everything needed to be reformed to a landscape shape. That’s why Sleevenote retains the square most music designers have traditionally worked with, and is device-agnostic for the future.” says Vek.
“I strongly believe that a digital music package needs to be accessible and affordable to small labels, unsigned acts, as well as big labels. That will be what makes it work. It’s my understanding that only official designers could create an iTunes LP package, and it was a costly process for the labels, and seemed dull tied to the desktop. I feel it put Apple off the idea of trying anything similar.”
Perhaps Apple may yet try it: remember Bono talking in September 2014 about U2 working with Apple on an “interactive format for music” that would “prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music – whole albums as well as individual tracks”?
Bono was aiming for a launch within 18 months, which would have been June 2016. However, assuming the plans were tied to his band’s next album, which has since been pencilled in for 2017, the project may well still be in development.
“To Bono’s credit, he is on file as telling Steve Jobs that iTunes looked like an Excel spreadsheet when it first came out,” says Vek, who confirms that Apple’s current executives have not contacted him following his critical blog post.
“I don’t really like bitching, but it was really really frustrating for me to read Trent Reznor saying these things that I agree with, but which are not being implemented at all in the product [Apple Music] that he’s talking about,” says Vek referring to Reznor’s statement that “every time there’s a new innovation, the musician is the one that didn’t have a voice at the table about how it’s presented”.
“This is a battle that I want to fight. The reason I got in to design was the power of music artwork. And as an artist, that’s all about control: edge-to-edge control over your canvas.”
“There should be an iTunes LP version two. Version one wasn’t good enough, but no one has tried to give a superior digital offering since.”