Musicians and Coders are Banding
We’re in the age of the iPhone. Nearly everyone has one. how is the music industry coping with the influx of apps?
We have a problem. We’re about to get on the phone with Adam Tensta – we’re supposed to call him in ten minutes – and we haven’t heard his new single. Haven’t even gone looking for it. This might sound criminally negligent – in journalistic terms, at least. It’s the kind of schoolboy error that has grizzled editors reaming out junior reporters. But, in our defence, there’s only one place to hear Tensta’s new single. If we want to listen to the Swedish rapper’s new track Pass It On, we need to, quite literally, get in line.
Pass It On plays only through a Facebook app, and only one person can listen to it at a time. Register your interest and you get a place in the queue. You can bump yourself up a few places by sharing the app or tweeting about it and the app tracks where the song is being played in real time. When you get to the front, you’ve got an hour-long slot to listen to the track.
The payoff? When Pass It On does start bumping through your speakers, you’ll be the only person on planet Earth listening to it.
“The track is made exclusively for the app. It won’t be on the new album, and I won’t even play it live,” says Tensta, when we dial him. He’s on the train in his native Copenhagen, and fortunately doesn’t seem too gutted that we haven’t heard his single (and since we’re 416th in the queue, he’d better not be). “It’s super-exclusive … I wanted to take it back to [waiting] for the new album, where you’d stand in line for a couple of hours. Today when everything is accessible through iTunes, Spotify and so forth, it makes the anticipation diminish. I wanted to bring that one back. One person in the world listening to it at a time. It only makes it that much more special when you know you’re only able to listen to a song once.”
Tensta (born Adam Momodou Eriksson Taal) says that in the three months Pass It On has been out, a few thousand people have listened to it – as we write, someone in Nassau is getting their groove on. We suggest to Tensta that he needed a good deal of faith in his fanbase to go down this route – when music is available so freely, you’ve got to really love the artist to get in line. He laughs: “I wasn’t worried [that people would leave it]. My thinking was, it’s for a select few. It’s not for everybody. I was aiming for the die-hard listeners.”
Later, we’ll hunt around online for a copy of the single. Surely someone will have Hulkshared it or put it on YouTube? Nope. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Which is pretty impressive if you think about it.
Tensta’s idea for his single is a great one, but it reflects a much wider trend. You don’t need us to tell you about apps – you probably own an iPhone, or an Android phone, already. But apps are starting to evolve. They’re getting smarter. And when it comes to music, the actual apps are starting to become part of the listening experience. Technology isn’t just a facilitator anymore; it’s right there with you.
It’s not just smaller acts that are getting in on the game either. In October 2011, Icelandic superstar Björk released her album, Biophilia, as a series of apps. These apps blended images and games together with the music, and the album was among the first to demonstrate that music didn’t just have to be listened to passively anymore. Björk’s label Polydor hasn’t released exact sales figures, but the album debuted in the UK app charts at number three, and apocryphal sources suggest that over 20,000 copies were downloaded in the country. Then, this year, dance act Simian Mobile Disco released their album Unpatterns as an iPhone app.
The exciting thing about all of this is that these are just the first steps. The real breakthroughs will start happening when artists realise that apps don’t just have to be for listening to music; the music and the app can blend seamlessly together.
A group which has cottoned onto this is Bluebrain. Ryan and Hays Holladay of Washington DC are two electronic composers who have created a series of geographically-aware apps. These apps – which focus on Washington’s National Mall, New York’s Central Park and a section of the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas – take dedicated listening to the absolute extreme. Tensta might make you wait, but at least you can then listen to his single in a place of your own choosing. With Bluebrain’s location-aware apps, there is one catch – you can only play the music while you’re walking around the location in question. The apps might be free, but you’ll need to buy a plane ticket to use them.
The beauty of this is the seamless melding of technology and music. As you walk around the National Mall, the music playing in your headphones will change. It will warp and shift, using the GPS in your iPhone to dictate what plays. “The impetus behind it was us having a conversation about how remarkable it is when music syncs up with your daily life,” says Ryan Holladay. “You’re walking and the chorus hits right as the sun comes out, or you’re driving in your car and the song ends as you pull into the driveway. That’s kind of an amazing, magical feeling, when it feels like music is a soundtrack to your own experience. We got talking about whether it’d be possible to engineer this kind of experience.”
He continues: “Separate to that, the iPhone had just released the capabilities for third-party developers to create their own apps. We thought GPS might be the key to doing this: what if an actual space was geotagged with music? What would it be like for a listener actually to play an active role in how the album unfolds? Is it possible to make an album that is non-linear; a choose-your-own-adventure type experience?”
Of course, releasing a music app that does things differently comes with its own set of problems – things completely foreign to the regular experience of recording an album. When an album or song is released, the actual technical work is done. All that’s left is to promote it. But when an app is released, it needs constant care. Operating systems update. Handsets and computers change. An app that works today may not work tomorrow. So apps are labour-intensive, and not suited to big, cost-conscious outfits. For the moment, this restriction means that apps are the province of smaller developers. Nothing wrong with that – but it’s a hurdle that the tech will have to jump, sooner or later.
Then there’s the issue of cost. How much do you charge for a music app? Look at it like this: a digital album costs, typically, £7. But apps often cost less than £1. So what do you set the price at? You’re either going to charge for a very expensive app or a very cheap album – and if you go somewhere in the middle you risk alienating a good chunk of your dithering audience.
Björk is selling the Biophilia apps in the Apple Store for £8.99, but both Tensta and Bluebrain have made theirs free. Says Holladay: “Because we aren’t really big artists, we felt like people would be more willing to give it a shot if they didn’t have to spend money on it.” It seems to have worked: Hays claims that over 17,000 people have downloaded National Mall.
But the upsides, in this case, far outweigh the downsides. The best bit is that, like classic albums, apps will get better over time. As the technology improves, so too does the listening experience. Currently, the iPhone’s GPS signal can triangulate the user to about fifteen feet, so Bluebrain can’t make the music change if the user stands on a very specific spot. But that didn’t stop them from coding this in, and when the tech improves to the point where GPS accuracy gets down to a foot or so, then listeners will start hearing things they haven’t heard before. Hays has told us what these will be, but we won’t spoil it.
As for Tensta? He and the company that developed the app, New York’s R/GA, have made the app code available for anybody to use. Now, anybody can create their own one-listener-at-a-time app. “Within a year,” says Tensta, “you’ll see a hundred of these apps: we’re making it accessible. The one-copy song theme has been made available for any other artist to use. The people at R/GA had a vision that this would be the prototype, and they always wanted to make this accessible for everybody. Every programmer can do this. The idea is out there.”