“I had no plans to make a musical jacket or do a deck of cards. Or even make an album! But then I was at an event and met this rock-star tailor who’d just moved into Yoko and Lennon’s first home…”
Beatie Wolfe is telling Music Ally about the train of events that led to her most recent album Montagu Square, which was released as a deck of cards with integrated NFC chips, before being transformed into a wearable jacket.
The British singer/songwriter is an example of an artist who found 2016 to be fertile territory for partnership with technology companies to find new ways to get her music heard and talked about – without detracting from the songs.
“When you do something that’s a gimmick, people see through it. When there’s a really great narrative, a reason for doing what you’re doing, it can be so strong,” says Wolfe, whose exploration of tech led to her nomination as best digital artist in Music Ally’s awards in November.
“I never saw my musical career as being something limited to writing songs, being in the studio and performing. I saw it as a 360-degree artistic vision. I really wanted to extend the music into other spaces, but only with the right partnerships and the right fits,” she adds.
“It’s a way of trying to bring back some of the art of music in the digital age. That’s been the intention with everything I’ve done. When music has become quite compressed, both literally and creatively, how do you bring back some of the stuff that gives it that emotional charge?”
Wolfe is one of several artists this year to have talked about digital music in the context of vinyl – or rather, of the “ceremony” of playing a vinyl record.
“You’d open the record and think about the world of the album. You’d put yourself in a frame of mind where you’d create time to listen to it, without tons of things going on in the background,” she says.
“So how do you bring tangibility, storytelling and ceremony into a digital music experience so that people want to switch things off and make time for it?”
2016 was also the year when Wolfe forged a partnership with Bell Labs, the Nokia-owned research company with a storied tradition of technological inventions.
She used its “human-digital orchestra” platform to incorporate crowds into her live performances, and is plotting a new project with the company for her next album in 2017.
“We are creating an entirely new way to experience an album, that will be streamed out of one of the quietest rooms in the world – the anechoic chamber in Bell Labs. They will be inventing new technology for the release: it will be a complete world-first! But the music still comes first,” she says.
“The music for me is the heart of everything, but that’s actually why I’m doing a lot of these weird and wonderful things. I want people to be excited about music, as I am.”
“The words, the music, the production: that for me is so important and should never be compromised in any way. The music comes first, and the tech stuff I see as presentation: an extension of the music.”
Wolfe has been following the debates around artist and songwriter royalties from streaming services, but says her main concern is less about whether to stream or not to stream, but rather how to build up a body of work that fans will want to stream in the first place.
“I’m putting a lot of time into this new record, even though a lot of people are saying I shouldn’t. ‘Everyone will just listen to the one track that gets picked up for that popular playlist’. But it’s more important than ever to put together that catalogue of work,” says Wolfe.
“People who hear the song on the playlist can then go and discover the rest in their own time. The only worry I have about the generation that we’re living in at the moment is whether in 15 years time there will be really great albums made – if there’s not so much reason to make great albums?”