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 Björk’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, Björk 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.