Björk an artist intent on delivering more than just music
Does Björk’s forthcoming album, Biophilia, signal the future of the music industry? It looks that way: the content, which will be premiered at the Manchester International Festival in the UK in June, will encompass “music, apps, internet, installations and live shows”, according to a press release, and will later be released through iTunes and the App Store. It will celebrate the science of sound, and the “infinite expanse of the universe, from planetary systems to atomic structure”.
The performances will be as out-there as the technology, with the singer using specially designed instruments, such as a 30-foot pendulum that harnesses the earth’s gravitational pull to create musical patterns, making visible the physical processes that some of the tracks are about.
Sounds ambitious, although until it’s out, we have no way of knowing if it’s anything more than a gimmick, along the lines of Justin Bieber’s new app, Justin Bieber Revenge, which users can play by tapping along to the music on their screens. In the meantime, we can whet our appetites for the Björk release by downloading an iPad app called Solar System, to which the artist contributed an orchestral instrumental track that will also be on Biophilia. The app includes Nasa footage, 3D images, animations and diagrams, and went on sale for around the price of a music CD.
Musicians have been releasing apps for a while now, and it’s become impossible to keep up with how many artists have their own official or unofficial apps. The Cribs, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and almost every other big seller you can think of have them (except the metal band Nine Inch Nails: their app was rejected by Apple in 2009 for offensive content.) It’s a smart idea: another revenue stream in a business that’s terrified of losing everything to free, pirated downloads.
The apps’ content takes all kinds of different forms. The British guitar-pop band Mcfly, for example, have released one for £2.99 (Dh18) that allows fans access to a live stream of their recent Wembley Arena concert. In June, David Bowie will release an app version of his 1975 single Golden Years, which can be remixed and exported as an MP3. And Black Eyed Peas have released an app called BEP360 through which a music video looks like virtual reality, shifting as the handset is moved.
The best apps make full use of all the possibilities of a hi-tech handset: earlier this year British rapper The Streets released an app allowing users to scan barcodes of household items in shops, such as tins of baked beans, unlocking access to extra material in the process.
The above are all add-ons: games or distractions rather than creative content, and some apps simply give users access to news and tour dates. Others have been used as a way of revamping whole albums and making the idea of shelling out a bundle of songs, rather than individual tracks, worthwhile again.
The Universal Music Group has recently created iPad app versions of classic albums, such as Nirvana’s Nevermind, which come with social networking features, documentary video and live footage. (The songs themselves are only excerpted, though.)
Apple tried something similar to app albums a couple of years ago with iTunes LP, which added digital liner notes, artwork and lyrics to the music for a bit more money than the basic album, but it didn’t catch on. Perhaps the rise of apps will change people’s minds about paying a bit extra for added content, especially with a high-profile, innovative star such as Björk getting involved.
There are reasons to welcome this new technology: firstly, it might quell fears within the music-industry that pirated content is killing music. It’s true that tours are lucrative for some bands, but only the big ones. Carefully created apps overseen by the artists themselves could provide a much-needed new revenue stream for big and emerging bands, and rehabilitate the idea of the album in the meantime.
Secondly, the possibilities for innovation are overwhelming. Well-designed apps could see us interacting with music in a whole new way, making use of the time-keeping feature, GPS or data-transfer capabilities of electronic tablets and smart phones so that special content is released only when you stand in a certain place, or at a certain time of day, for example.
It’s not all good news, though. One of the problems with buying music in the form of an app is that it’s locked into one device: once you’ve bought it on your iPad, for instance, you can’t transfer it to another computer or phone - even an Apple one. This was also a problem with iTunes LP - there were difficulties accessing the music from more than one piece of hardware.
There’s another complaint surrounding the idea of musicians collaborating with Apple as well. Why are free-thinkers such as Björk and Damon Albarn, who created the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach on an iPad and was quoted in the music press as saying: “I fell in love with my iPad as soon as I got it”, giving away so much free publicity to one of the world’s most successful American companies? Many see Apple, with its high prices, market control and software that’s incompatible with non-Apple products, as anything but the salvation of the music business.
"I hate to sound like an old man now," Jon Bon Jovi was quoted as saying last month, "but you mark my words: in a generation from now people are going to say… Steve Jobs is personally responsible for killing the music business."
Bon Jovi’s beef was that iTunes takes some of the serendipity out of record buying. We no longer take a chance on something because we like the sleeve - but we can also assume he won’t be making an iPad app any time soon. There’s a chance he’s right with his first “old-man” assertion, though, and his romantic ideas are a result of his advanced (49) years rather than his wisdom.
Whether we welcome them or not, however, it looks as though apps are the future (until something else comes along) and Björk’s forthcoming “app-album” may be the first glimpse we’ll get of the form’s possibilities.