Apple's musical revolution
- 25 February, 2013 16:32
Despite persistent claims to the contrary, the album isn't dead -- yet. Adele has sold more than 25 million copies of her second full-length recording, 21, since it was released in January 2011, while back in September, hoedown-loving folksters Mumford & Sons shifted some 600,000 units of their second record, Babel, in its first week.
In less mainstream circles - especially amongst DIY indie and punk scenes - vinyl has been making an impressive comeback, too. The figures, naturally, aren't quite so colossal, but, nevertheless, there's certainly a renewed sense of sustainability when it comes to independent record labels that would have shocked the soothsayers of yesteryear.
A new approach
Of course, the music business is a fickle and capricious beast, and one which has changed immensely as technology has advanced. iPods and iTunes irreversibly altered the musical landscape -- both in terms of artistic perspective and business models -- but it's only recently that artists have started truly adapting and responding to that technology by incorporating it into their art rather than using it as merely a vessel for distribution.
Since the iPad's launch, the possibilities for an artist have increased dramatically. One of the most high-profile instances of this was the launch of Bjork's Biophilia project/album -- part of which was recorded on an iPad -- as a series (or sequence) of apps in October 2011.
Known for her idiosyncratic, experimental and inventive approach to music, it was perhaps little surprise to see the Icelandic artist pioneering this new approach. By fusing each of the 10 songs with a visual and interactive companion piece, Bjork created an immersive, multimedia world that challenged the traditional notion of the album -- Biophilia isn't so much about listening to music as it is about experiencing and engaging with it.
The multifunctional apps consist of themes and games related to their songs, as well as a written score of said song, animations and essays. The app for the song 'Virus', for example, can be used in an instrumental mode in order for the listener to assume the role of musician and play/create music of their own. If you want to just listen to the song, it will visually recreate the life-cycle of a virus on screen while you do. The app for 'Sacrifice' contains samples from the song which you can combine as you type, while the 'Cosmogony' app diagrammatically superimposes the Big Bang theory with native American, Chinese and Australian aboriginal creation myths, simultaneously uniting and contrasting them.
It's complicated, intricate stuff, each app and its graphics and processes inextricably linked to the music. It's important to note, though, that the Biophilia app doesn't serve as a replacement of the traditional album, but as an extra way of listening to and engaging with it: a counterpart, not an alternative.
Interactive music experiences
It's worth pointing out, however, that while Biophilia was the first iOS app to be released by a mainstream artist -- and the first to be designed in conjunction with Apple -- it wasn't the first app-album. That distinction belongs to The National Mall by a Washington band named Bluebrain. Released at the end of May 2011, it uses GPS to determine the physical location of the listener, and plays different music accordingly: as the listener, iPhone in hand, moves around different Washington landmarks, so the soundtrack changes.
Of course, this is less an album than an interactive tourist trail set to music, but the pairing of music with iDevice technology was an important, innovative step. And since the release of Biophilia, others are lining up.
Going gaga for technology
Unsurprisingly, given her internet presence and the role technology has played in her popularity, Lady Gaga has announced that her next album, ARTPOP, will be released as an app. Though details are minimal at the moment, the performer, posting on her website, stated that her fans, "inspired me to create something that communicated with images because YOU communicate with me and each other with .gifs and pictures and artwork and graphics ALL DAY 24/7... I'm hoping you will all continue to grow together and stay connected through your creativity."
It remains to be seen exactly what the app will entail, but given her insistence that it'll be "unique and different" from the other released formats of her album, it seems very likely that it'll make the most of what the iPad/iPhone platforms have to offer to create a platform for her fans and add an extra dimension to the usual listening experience.
Keep up, grandad
But it's not just new artists and new albums that are taking advantage of the possibilities offered by iPhones and iPads.
Both Blur and (perhaps surprisingly) veteran rockers the Rolling Stones have launched apps -- both free to download -- that encompass their entire careers. The former acts as an interactive scrapbook which presents a chronological history of the band's two-decade career, offering photos, a discography, videos and concert set lists all embedded on a Facebook-esque timeline. Meanwhile, the Stones' app offers videos unavailable on their website and further content that can be unlocked for a minimal price, as well as allowing fans to interact with each other. Industrial metal types Nine Inch Nails did something similar with nin: access, allowing fans of the band to interact with each other.
So, while the world of band apps is still relatively uncharted territory, there's certainly a movement towards making them a more integral part of the fan experience. What that means is bringing fans and artists closer together, and allowing fans to be more involved and engaged with the creative processes of their favourite acts. Apps won't replace albums -- whether on iTunes or vinyl -- but, if the examples of Biophilia and its successors are built upon, they should open up a whole new avenue for the enjoyment of music. Right now, they may seem like more of a novelty, but, so long as due care and attention is implemented in their making, that will most likely change. Watch this space.
5 Musicians' apps worth downloading
Blur -- The Blur App (free) - After more than two decades together, Blur have a lot of lot of history behind them. Now you can hold the bulk of it in the palm of your hand. For free. Modern life's not so rubbish after all, is it? The app promises interviews, demos, remixes and archive performances. itun.es/i6JV8c9
Bjork -- Biophilia (£8.99) - The mother of all band apps, this is one of music's most innovative artists using the most innovative technology in the most innovative way. Suffice to say, there's a hefty price tag (for an app), but it's worth it -- as much for a sign of what's to come as for the app itself. itun.es/i6JV8w2
The Rolling Stones -- The Rolling Stones Official App (free) - Given the iconic band have been around five times as long as the first ever iPod, their adoption of new technology is as impressive and surprising as their longevity. The app offers video content and the chance to vote songs into the band's set lists. itun.es/i6JV9Qs
Nine Inch Nails -- nin: access (free) - Trent Reznor and co's official app gives fans a community through which they can interact with each other, as well as gain access to music, videos and image -- hence the app's name, presumably -- and keep up with news and blogs from the band. itun.es/i6Jk5J3
T-Pain -- I Am T-Pain (£1.99) - The American rapper's music might not be to everyone's taste, but his app -- which lets fans sing along to his songs and have their voices Auto-Tuned -- is the epitome of interaction. itun.es/i6Jk5JS
The iTunes hold-outs
Not every musician has eagerly embraced Apple's new digital music ecosystem. Here are some notable long-term refuseniks.
The Beatles: joined iTunes in November 2010
Despite Steve Jobs' well-known admiration, the biggest band of the 20th century could not be found on iTunes until 2010. Shortly after Apple's inception, the similarly named Apple Corps (the Beatles' own business venture) sued it for trademark infringement. The firms settled a few years later, with Apple agreeing to stay out of the music business, but when Apple launched a Mac that could synthesise music (in 1989), Apple Corps sued once again.
"We love the Beatles and are honoured to welcome them to iTunes," a relieved Jobs said when the mess was finally cleared up.
AC/DC: November 2012
For many people, the Beatles' arrival in iTunes sealed the deal -- the iTunes Store was the place to find all the digital music you desired. "Not so," said others. "For iTunes to rock, it must have AC/DC." They had to wait another two years.
Like Metallica before them, AC/DC firmly believe their music should be consumed in album form rather than as scattered singles.
Def Leppard: intermittent, limited availability
Surprisingly tech-savvy for a bunch of rock dinosaurs, Def Leppard came up with a unique response when a record label dispute saw their music disappear from iTunes. Last summer, the band took matters into their own hands and re-recorded covers of their own hits -- they referred to them as "forgeries" -- in an attempt to score some digital revenue. The current range of Leppard material on iTunes remains distinctly limited.
At press time the following bands are still not available on iTunes.
Maynard James Keenan and his confrontational art-metal collective are yet another group that don't wish to have their music splintered into mixtape-ready pieces. Though you can purchase the band's CDs just about anywhere you like, digital downloads are off limits.
The 1990s country star feels much the same way about digital downloads as he does about fancy-pants city folk.
A seminal progressive rock band of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, King Crimson aren't very progressive about digital downloads.
No, that's not the name of a new indie band. Instead, we're referring to the numerous gaps in popular artists' digitally available back catalogues.
Aside from albums that have simply gone out of print, many are available on CD but not in downloadable form. Captain Beefheart's astonishing Trout Mask Replica can't be found. As for Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac, sorry: the Stevie Nicks line-up is well represented, but not the early stuff. And well-loved material from near the start of the Kinks' career is not to be had on iTunes.
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