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.