Artists Learn to Leverage Disruptive Technology

It is important to remember that disruptive technology cannot kill art. There is a great deal of doomsday thinking in the music industry when it comes to the effect of tech. While it’s important for musicians and their advocates to remain vigilant against abuse, it’s also worth reflecting on how advancements in technology, on the balance, have created far more opportunity for musicians than detriment. Just as those who have gone before, today’s artists and advocates need to learn to surf on the wave of new technology, rather than swim out against it.

A large disruption was created by the invention of audio recording in 1887. While it was a stunning technological development, classically trained musicians were initially trepidatious. Many opera singers and symphonies felt that recorded music inadequately captured performances, and were concerned their careers would be ruined if these recordings were heard by the public. Additionally, the first recording devices could hold only a few minutes of music. Musicians scrambled to navigate all of the new possibilities and limitations. The first musicians to successfully exploit the new technology were members of the lowest musical caste: common folk entertainers. In a way, they were the original punk rockers, spitting out three minute songs where the message and the melody were more important than the fidelity. The initial disruption to the music industry eventually gave way to empowerment for musicians. Music which would have only been heard by an elite minority was made available to millions, becoming a new revenue stream.

Another invention that initially caused tension for musicians was radio. First used in military and business communications, radio was adapted for commercial purposes enabling consumers to listen to music for free for the first time. Combined with the effects of the Great Depression, record sales plummeted from $75 million in 1929 to $26 million in 1938. However, after initially boycotting radio, musicians and labels became savvy at using it as a marketing tool to boost overall sales. Additionally, ASCAP (with help from legal rulings) became proficient at leveraging the opportunity, collecting royalties and transforming the medium into a source of income for artists. A technology first regarded as a threat to the livelihood of musicians became a powerful tool.

The current tension in the music industry stems from advancements in computing. Once recording was invented, the album became a commodity. This was a wholly new concept. Earlier, all music was consumed in the form of live performance, whether it be in a concert hall, a barroom, or a family home. The only physical form music took was in sheet music. With recording, an entire market was manufactured around captured moments in time. These recordings were copied onto physical objects, so they acted like any other tangible good for sale. However, computer storage, processing power, and networks have become sufficient to practically drop the cost of replication to zero. If your market is based on the supply and demand of physical goods, but the supply of those goods suddenly approaches infinity, it’s not hard to see how that would have disastrous consequences for those heavily invested in the old system. So, once again, musicians are learning how to inhabit this new space and make it work for them. Performing Rights Organizations are learning to adapt. Musicians are utilizing YouTube and Skype to maintain fan attention through online performances. Additionally, releasing music in the form of apps offers the potential for dynamism, updates, interactivity, and a new channel for connecting to fans.

It takes time for artists to fully understand how to harness new technologies to magnify our impact. Perhaps static, recorded music won’t carry much weight in the marketplace going forward. Musicians may need to adapt how they create revenue. Maybe we will return to songwriters thinking more deeply about compositions and unique performances, and putting less emphasis on traditional recording. After all, recording has only been around for a little over 100 years. We might not really understand how to use it, yet. Regardless, technology cannot kill music. Artists will always evolve, bending and twisting technology to serve human expression. As long as babies smack two blocks of wood together to hear the sound, music will flourish.

Challenges for Album 2.0

Album 2.0 is poised to revolutionize the way we consume music. Still, it’s important that we stay sober about the challenges facing its implementation, both from the technological and business perspectives. Being cognizant and respectful of these issues will help developers and musicians create an ecosystem that is more likely to be sustainable.

The primary technological challenges are in dealing with memory, storage, and speed. Audio files are large. We are just now getting to the point where it is reasonable to carry around uncompressed digital music on mobile devices (as opposed to MP3). If you start talking about songs that have multiple takes of solos, different versions of choruses, and so on, you can quickly create an unmanageable group of audio files (even if they are compressed). While storage gets better at a rapid rate, significant problems remain when putting dynamic music in an iPhone app, for example. Apple sets a limit of 2 GB for the binary code that can be delivered to an iOS device. And, you can forget about trying to download that app over the air, since Apple sets that limit at 100 MB. Storage capacities will likely continue to advance quickly, but will we have to wait another several years for a sophisticated Album 2.0 to live entirely on a mobile device? This is an important question, with strategic implications. If Album 2.0 needs to utilize a desktop computer, or computation in the cloud, that means we better get busy figuring out those implementations.

A related issue is that apps must load quickly on a mobile device to avoid being unacceptably sluggish from a user perspective. In the case of iOS, Apple gives an app about 15 seconds to load before it is terminated by the operating system. In practice, an app that exhibits such behavior won’t even get accepted into the iTunes App Store. Even if the storage capacities increase dramatically, effective strategies will need to be in place to manage load times in order for Album 2.0s to exist on mobile devices.

There are also related issues on the CPU side. While processing power is growing steadily, there’s a reason you don’t see recording engineers running their entire sessions on tablets in the studio. An incredible amount of math is involved when working with multiple streams of audio, especially when placing any real-time effects (like reverb) on those streams. When you listen to a standard digital track, your CPU processes one static stream of audio. But, if we are talking about Album 2.0, the CPU might be tasked with doing calculations on multiple streams of audio at the same time, while simultaneously handling graphics, keeping the interface responsive for the user, and streaming information from a network. Again, these are issues that are mitigated when you talk about a desktop computer, but critical for the domain of mobile devices.

Given the limitations of smartphones, let’s say we decide to use a strategy that shifts the processing to the cloud, utilizing Amazon EC2 instances. This could make the app much lighter on the client side, but presents problems of its own. If the network is unreachable, what does the Album 2.0 do? Does it have any value without the network? We could implement some default behavior on the mobile client, with a few locally stored audio paths to provide a modicum of dynamism. Still, doing this would move some storage and processing demands back onto the user’s device, and therefore this strategy could quickly become cumbersome.

Now, let’s talk about the issue of moving between platforms. If we only come up with a great design for iOS devices, is Album 2.0 a meaningless concept for Android users? That would seem to be a poor business strategy, especially in the world of music. Hell, even Apple provided a way for PC users to use iTunes. The first few Album 2.0s might only be available on iOS, but this is not sustainable or scalable if there is growing demand. It would kind of suck if a band released an Album 2.0, but only the fans with iPhones could check it out. Therefore, it seems we should develop universally accessible Album 2.0s. Should we bridge this gap by utilizing cross platform game engines, like Unity3D? This is at least a proven strategy for game developers. It would have some advantages right off the bat. For instance, it would make available an existing marketplace of animatable, interactive visual assets which artists wouldn’t have to create themselves. Game engines also do the heavy lifting to make virtual worlds come alive with representations of such real world concepts as gravity, friction, and collisions. While Album 2.0 developers should be well versed in the music domain, game engines could free them from also needing to have degrees in physics. You wouldn’t need to hire a giant team of CG experts in order to produce a fairly engaging experience. If we do that, though, can the model of dynamic music mesh properly with the idioms which are part of gaming audio engines? Obviously game audio has mechanisms for changing when a user encounters a boss, or enters a new realm, but are those systems necessarily musical? Can we talk to the game engine’s audio API in the language of musical expression without pushing it until it breaks? There would be a period of discovery as Album 2.0 producers worked with the people who develop game engines. Releasing for multiple platforms is a common enough practice, and there are a lot of tools to help accomplish this for developers. It is important to be mindful, though, that cross platform implementations could still mean larger development teams and cycles.

Thankfully, most of the technological issues mentioned provide more opportunities for exploration than they do barriers to development. Since Album 2.0 is in its infancy, we are in a position to try different paths until we find what clicks. Remember, at its core, Album 2.0 is simply the idea of a music album released in the form of an app. While there are many choices for the implementation, the technology already exists for an artist to release a basic Album 2.0.

If we address all the technological concerns, is Album 2.0 capable of making the jump across the chasm from novelty to industry? The fact that we can make an Album 2.0 doesn’t make it a business model. You’ll want some indications of demand before you become an investor. There was a lot of positive reaction and intrigue caused by Bjork’s Biophilia and Radiohead’s PolyFauna, which can be considered the first explorations into Album 2.0. While all the press is encouraging, it’s difficult to get an idea of how many sales these respective artists have had for their app albums. Both have hundreds of positive reviews in the iTunes App Store. Do these hundreds of reviews equate to thousands of active users? Hard to tell.

Demand is only one side of the proposition, though. The supply also needs to exist. Put simply, are enough artists willing to put in the extra work and creative energy to produce an Album 2.0? While an emerging marketplace can certainly be spearheaded by maverick artists like Bjork and Radiohead, an ecosystem requires a multitude of players before it can be profitable. If it seems too difficult to make an Album 2.0, then artists who might be capable of genius Albums 2.0s may be dissuaded from making the attempt. That said, great artists are often driven by an insatiable desire to create using cutting edge mediums. While a garage band motivated only by the pursuit of fame may not get around to making an Album 2.0, it seems silly to preclude passionate artists from exploring the possibilities of Album 2.0 if they are given a basic toolbox for their construction.

The need for tools creates a bit of a paradox, though. Enough artists must be interested in producing Album 2.0s in order to create the demand needed to sustain those who will build Album 2.0 tools and infrastructure for them. But, without the tools and infrastructure, it will be hard for Album 2.0 to get off the ground, since artists will need to have somebody on their team that has serious tech savvy and time to devote. And, we all know time is money. Even if some solid tools are developed, it may still be that the more realistic approach is that studios in the future will employ Album 2.0 engineers trained to use those tools, at least at the start. While many artists now use Pro Tools at home, there was a time in the not-too-distant past where such software was only a reasonable investment for full-service, professional studios.

Also, there isn’t really a strong definition of what an Album 2.0 is, so that presents a marketing challenge. We say it is music distributed in the form of software, and we know that has awesome potential, but that’s a lot more abstract than selling a bar of soap. Will Apple eventually have a separate section on iTunes devoted to Album 2.0s? Or, will Album 2.0s be so varied that it is unrealistic to have specific channels of distribution and marketing schemes?

Album 2.0 is coming. It is a bit nebulous, sure. And the problems it faces are real. Still, none of these issues are insurmountable. They just require some clever strategy. It’s hard to design a factory if you haven’t built a few prototypes of your product by hand. Eventually, developers will write some great code that will mitigate many challenges, and empower us with tools. We need continued experimentation, thoughtful application of existing mechanisms, and a little faith in the power of creative people to advance art and technology.

 

 

 

 

 

The (Eventual) Return of Hi-Fi

The success of Pono’s Kickstarter campaign has spurred a debate as to whether or not a sufficient market exists for high fidelity music players. As of this writing, the campaign had raised over $5,800,000 with 3 days to go. Neil Young’s passionate promotional speech at SXSW gave Pono a nice lift. It would certainly appear that they’ve had a tremendous launch, considering their stated goal was $800,000. Pono looks poised to carve out a nice niche for itself from those consumers who have always demanded high quality audio. Most of us who are passionate about music would love to see high fidelity make a triumphant return. However, it will take more than Pono to change the market and improve sound quality for the general consumer.

While Pono will be examining its profit to measure its success as a company, Pono’s influence on the standard of audio quality for the masses will be better calculated by measuring the number of units sold. According to Apple press releases, the iPod sold 600,000 units in the first two years, and a total of over 10,000,000 units by the end of the 4th year. The iPod, an absolutely wonderful innovation in terms of storage and access to music, was disastrous for fidelity. Its massive market penetration moved MP3 from a convenient storage format to the common denominator of expected audio quality.

There are a couple of reasons it is unlikely that Pono will be able to find the kind of market share required to raise the standard. As Troy Wolverton points out, one of the key issues is that iPods have been absorbed into iPhones. People rarely carry a separate device for listening to their music now. The idea that the average consumer will return to carrying two pieces of equipment seems highly implausible. Another is that usage patterns have changed, with most casual music fans utilizing streaming audio and cloud storage. The new normal is one client device and a cloud, not multiple hard drives carried on your person.

So, in the face of such audio downers, why is it that the dream of Neil Young and Pono will eventually be realized?

The first reason is that a person can only logically listen to one song at a time. This means that while there is still room for growth in the streaming audio market, sometime quite soon the competition will be far too bloody to survive on access alone. Competitors will be trying to find ways to differentiate themselves. We already see this in the efforts of streaming services such as Beats Music and Songza, which promote curation (basically human DJs instead of algorithms) as their principal value add. If you’ll notice, Beats is also a leader in the headphone arena. This is no accident. This is savviness, recognizing that a return to high quality audio is coming, while also understanding that the usage pattern of listeners has changed dramatically. Just wait. Before you know it, future providers will be marketing themselves as if they invented the kind of audio quality that’s been around for decades.

The next reason audio quality will improve is less obvious. All signs point to a return to patronage in the music industry. For most artists, crowdfunding services, such as Kickstarter, have become the new record labels. While casual music listening will be done through streaming, true fans of a particular artist demand a personally meaningful experience that services like Spotify will never be able to supply. If we accept the premise that listeners are only going to carry one device, the logical encapsulation of that special relationship will be through apps. These “Album 2.0s” will merge the power of musical expression with all the benefits of software, such as dynamism, updates, and interactivity. Whereas record labels are motivated most intensely by profit, artists want you to hear the best version of the art they create. As music apps become a successful source of revenue for companies such as Apple, that community of artists and true fans will push such device makers to improve their digital to analog conversion, and add a framework to nurture that marketplace.

A final, fairly simple reason, is Moore’s Law. Essentially, this is the observation that computing power increases exponentially over time. This means costs per units of both memory and processing speed get dramatically less expensive, and come in much smaller packages. While some say we may hit limits of physics before long, betting against this exponential growth has been a losing proposition for over half a century. This is the part of the equation Pono is counting on, and it’s why Pono is just now becoming a viable, if niche-focused, product. While Pono has probably got it wrong that consumers will carry around an extra device, they are on the right side of history in being optimistic about processing and storage. As soon as it is painless for the average studio to do 192kHz/24-bit recording, as well as cheap to store tons of files at that resolution, and improving networks make it fast to steam and download these files, why wouldn’t everybody use them? It becomes a very easy way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Whether or not the average listener can tell the difference, all it takes is somebody marketing MP3 as the format “your parents listened to”. Sure, 8-bit graphics are nostalgic, but nobody accepts them as a standard anymore. In a sense, Pono’s vulnerability is that Apple will just absorb the technology into the iPhone (or whatever comes after the iPhone).

Take heart, musicians and audiophiles. While Pono may not survive the battle, there are larger forces at play, and higher fidelity rides the wind.

Album 2.0 vs Song Toys

When we look at how people enjoy music, we see a continuum from passive listener to active participant. On one end, you have a person listening to a song in the background while they carry out some other activity like driving a car. On the other, you have a fan willing to devote their full attention in order to have the most immersive experience possible. In between is everything from singing along to a song, to watching a video, to going to see a live show, to recording a tribute to an artist and posting it on YouTube. Now that artists are beginning to release music in app form, it’s crucial that they understand the type of user they will be serving. The chosen audience should have a major impact on the design of the user experience, how the app is marketed, the type of art created, and the tools used to produce the app.

We can accordingly place music distributed as apps into two categories based on each end of the continuum: Album 2.0 and Song Toys. Album 2.0 apps add dynamism without demanding constant attention from the listener. Song Toys provide a wholly immersive experience where interaction from the user is encouraged if not downright necessary.

One approach is not inferior to the other; a Song Toy is every bit as valid as an Album 2.0. However, if a user really wants an Album 2.0, and they get a Song Toy, they will have an unsatisfactory experience. Ben Greenman recently reviewed Radiohead’s new app release, PolyFauna, in his blog post for the New Yorker. He sums up his opinion of why apps like it won’t catch on as thus, “Apps like this are immersive—they tie up your phone or your tablet. Most often, the outside world is all the accompaniment that music needs.” This assessment goes to the heart of why it is important to define whether you want somebody to see your app as automatically dynamic or fully interactive.

So, how do we begin to determine which design elements align with Album 2.0 and which are better suited for a Song Toy? Let’s start with a simple example of possible dynamic behavior in a music app: alternate solos. This could be every bit as interesting to someone who listens in their car as for the person willing to dive into a mesmerizing app on their tablet. However, a person listens to an Album 2.0, and plays with a Song Toy. The passive listener will want to experience this cool dynamism without having to take their hands off the wheel (we hope). There are many ways this could be achieved. The Album 2.0 app could simply choose one of the solos at random. Or, it could make the decision based on whether a person was driving north or south. It could base it on their current velocity, playing a slow solo at a stop light or a fast solo on the highway. Meanwhile, a Song Toy would implement the behavior quite differently. A user with a Song Toy could trigger a solo based on which bird they touch as it flies across a screen. They could “play” the solo themselves, as with the technology developed for JamBandit. They could shake their device and add a reverb effect to the solo. The fact that the creative possibilities are so endless is exactly why it is important to know the user, and how to market to them.

So, that is the key reason why it’s important that an artist understand what type of consumer they want to appreciate their app. But, there are significant ramifications on the art itself, and these must also be taken into account when choosing whether to create an Album 2.0 or a Song Toy.

Before we talk more about what is divergent, let’s reinforce what Album 2.0 and Song Toys have in common:  They both distribute songs as apps. There are also other kinds of interesting musical apps, such as Scape by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, but they don’t deliver the hooks or lyrics you find in a traditional song. Such ambient apps might be a better fit for a separate category called “Music Toys”. Beyond the shared focus on songs, however, Album 2.0 and Song Toys can be quite different in how they execute artistic direction.

Album 2.0 implies tighter controls over musical compositions and their behavior within an app. Since these apps don’t rely on direct human interaction to trigger dynamism, the artist can have complete control over the vision they are putting forth. A song in the app could have dozens of versions of a solo, and they could be selected based on all sorts of creative criteria, but all the permutations of the song contain performances that were approved by the artist. If you have an Album 2.0 put out by Prince, every time you listen, you hear Prince. Your delight comes from all the permutations of Prince performances, and not from “playing” the guitar for him.

Song Toys play on the fringe. An artist who makes a Song Toy is pleased that the user wants to poke their finger into the composition. The artist provides some musical parameters—enough to define a song—and then they want to see where somebody else takes it. In the Song Toy world, it’s okay if a person who has never played an instrument in their life suddenly has the ability to muck around with the groove of the song. The kind of artist who loves making a Song Toy is okay with the idea that somebody could hear a version of the composition the artist would never have arranged or performed.

Finally, another very important reason to divide the world of music apps into these categories is that musicians and producers will need tools in order to make songs delivered as apps viable on a large scale. In these early stages of the domain, only a handful of artists have the means and team to create and distribute their songs in the form of apps. Everything must be built from the ground up. Some people are working on tools for Album 2.0 style behavior, such as Featuring.Me, but they ask the artist to come to them for distribution. We will need tools that make it easier for artists to distribute dynamic music apps independently. Just as the DAW has removed many of the limitations of home recording, similar specialized tools will be needed to serve the Album 2.0 and Song Toy communities. Since the underlying mechanics and architecture of Album 2.0 and Song Toys are so different, the tools will be much stronger and less painful to build if software developers can focus on serving only one category of app at a time.  Nothing bloats a tool like trying to solve all problems for all people. Just ask your friends who write code.

Album 2.0 and Song Toys are poised to deeply enrich our appreciation and enjoyment of music. They offer a chance for artists to express themselves in fascinating new ways. The industry can create new companies and jobs where musicians, software developers, studio engineers, and 3D graphic artists meld talents to create works of staggering beauty and depth. It will take time to build the vocabulary for the language of music as apps. New artistic forms and technologies always have detractors and naysayers, but great artists and technologists are the last people to accept limitations or the status quo. Let’s just make sure we all understand the different motivations for listening to a song and playing with a song.

The Tools We Choose For Recording are Ghost Producers

Those of us in the music business understand that record producers can play an important role. Sometimes, though, we don’t pay attention to how the tools we choose are also making fundamental differences in our art.

We all know whether you first sit down at a piano or a guitar can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the song. Don’t agree? Try doing a pitch bend on your piano, or chording seven notes at once on your six-string guitar. From the moment you choose your first tool, you have begun electing a team of inanimate objects which will be co-producers on your song.

Some labels and artists pay a large sum of money to work with a great record producer. One of the reasons they do this is that truly talented producers understand the intricacies of tool choices, and therefore maximize the impact of an artistic vision. They say things like, “You know, you should really play that on a Wurlitzer instead of a guitar”. Or, “Man, a click track is just wrong for this song.”

The vast majority of artists, however, don’t have access to a great producer. This makes it all the more important that they consider the tools they are choosing and whether or not those tools will amplify their artistic will.

One of the most impactful elements on a recording is the choice of capture methodology. DAWs give us vast improvements in our ability to edit tracks compared to recording to tape. Whereas we once had to physically cut tape and splice it back together, now we can make edits in seconds. The relative expense of recording another take of a performance has increased, while the cost of editing has dropped sharply. This reduces the need for an artist to perform well, and creates a temptation to rely on the editor to “perfect” the timing later. There are even built in tools that can use transients to automatically lock all the elements of a performance to a specific tempo.

While these techniques do have the benefit of leveling the playing field for musicians, they ultimately have homogenized much of the character out of the average recording. You’ll hear people say that vinyl or tape sounds better than digital. Part of this is due to the warmth of naturally occurring compression on tape. Some of it has to do with the fact that digital uses samples, while analog can better emulate the true curve of a sound wave. But, in terms of clarity and noise reduction, nothing can compete with digital. So, what people really mean is there is more feel in those old recordings. While musicians back then might have tracked to a metronome, they didn’t edit to a metronome. Vibe, performance, and tone were essential on the front end, not something that got fixed in the mix.

Add to this the “loudness war“, and you have a recipe for disaster. The loudness war is at the heart of why, when you watch something on HULU, the commercials are often annoyingly higher in volume than the rest of the content. They know you are about to get up to use the bathroom, so they jack the volume up to try and make you look at the products, while they pummel you with their slogans. With the advent of digital technologies, labels quickly realized music could be cleaned and compressed to it’s maximum potential volume. If your band’s song came on the radio and was louder than the last band, you had a better chance of grabbing the attention of the listener. By the nature of the process, maximizing the loudness across a track has the tendency to reduce the original dynamism of a performance. It’s like trying to tickle your ears with an anvil.

The economy of the music industry is changing dramatically. New models are popping up to replace the old label-driven touring system. Without this change, the idea of music as a profession may completely disappear for all but a tiny number. With the advent of Kickstarter and Album 2.0, music will likely return to being supported chiefly by patronage and subscriptions, as opposed to record sales and touring. As these new models emerge, we have the opportunity to look more closely at how we are using our tools, and assess whether they focus or detract from artistic intent and feel. Do we want our digital tools to make us louder, or do we want them to help us with feel? Do we want digital distribution to deliver static objects, or recordings in the form of apps that can deliver richer, interactive, and immersive experiences?

Digital tools are fabulous. They allow mere mortals to make great sounding recordings in their bedrooms. They dramatically increase productivity. More productivity means more music can be shared, and that’s a great thing. We should remember, though, that the tools we choose can lead us to erase all the blemishes, nuances, and feel that make music among the truest of human expressions.

The Expanded Potential for Studios in an Album 2.0 World

If we continue the path we are on, the future is bleak for those studying to be recording engineers. Recording studios need artists in order to stay in business. While they do not require that the artists themselves be financially successful, it is certainly true that a healthier fiscal environment for artists leads to more income for studios. You won’t get a lot of repeat business if every band you record goes bankrupt immediately after producing an album. So, if it is nearly impossible for artists to make decent money on their recordings (the current digitally based trend), then a very small number of artists will be able to justify using the services of a professional studio. If only a few artists need studios, only a few studios need to be in business.

Fortunately, if you shift the focus towards artists releasing albums as apps, there is suddenly the potential for a revitalization of both the artist and studio communities. The evidence is mounting that apps are becoming the best way to distribute art and make a profit.

For Album 2.0 projects to come to fruition, somebody needs to build an app. Recording engineers are in an unique position to add the necessary skill set to their arsenal. Building Album 2.0 apps will require understanding music, the ability to communicate with artists, being comfortable using tools that manipulate audio data, and having some ability to code. Most decent engineers only need to add the coding part to their repertoire. Eventually, much of the necessary coding will be mitigated by tools that are developed to service the emerging Album 2.0 industry.

Having someone on staff at a studio who is capable of building Album 2.0 apps also has the potential to improve both the efficiency of the workflow and the quality of the final product. That person would have immediate, intimate knowledge of all of the audio files for the project, and how they are related. Such access and awareness would make it easier to understand the dynamism the artist is seeking, and speed development.

So, where will engineers find this specialized training? There are already institutions with models requiring only modest tweaking. Full Sail is a well known educator for entertainment, media, and the arts. They currently offer Bachelor of Science degrees in both Recording Arts and Software Development. It certainly doesn’t seem like it would be much of a stretch to create a hybrid Album 2.0 track. Full Sail is one of many institutions which could develop such a program.

Over time, it will get easier for engineers to add the ability to make Album 2.0 apps. In addition to creating tools that manage audio assets destined for an Album 2.0 project, we can encourage the community to develop open source code templates for Album 2.0 projects on GitHub. The first Album 2.0 apps will likely require a lot of bespoke code. They are going to be very “manually” created. Over time, however, as the available tools and open source code gets better, it will be more about understanding the workflow than doing the nitty gritty coding.

Album 2.0 has great potential for creating jobs in the industry. Recording engineers and producers may add coding skills to their knowledge base to increase marketability. Some studios may choose to hire Album 2.0 specialists to round out their team. Studios that can offer Album 2.0 as an in-house service will have a competitive edge. Additionally, much like the mastering process, third party Album 2.0 service companies could work with the studios to create the finished project.

Let’s not forget about another advantage to being a recording engineer who knows how to code: when the shit hits the fan and you need another gig, you have a secondary skill. A skill which is highly sought after and can be very lucrative.

Album 2.0 and the Patronage Model

Spend about five minutes Googling the state of the music industry, and you’ll find doom and gloom reporting that is hard to rival in any other sector. Unfortunately, much of that opinion is not unfounded. It’s easy to collect myriad statistics supporting the idea that even the most talented artists should give up on making livings as professional musicians ( Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, Exhibit 3). Musicians and composers are sold the idea that nobody wants to pay for their music. The only chance for financial success is to have a single become a viral sensation. While that may be the last viable model for the old school record label, it’s a terrible approach for the indie artist. As David Byrne points out, if services like Pandora and Spotify continue to grow as the principal way casual music fans consume songs, then the revenue from that group of listeners will be woefully inadequate to financially support all but a handful of artists. Free streaming audio is essentially a parasite that artists have willingly ingested.

Songs are currently sold as commodities, the same as toilet brushes and pink flamingo yard ornaments. This made sense to some degree when people paid for a physical album in order to obtain a song. This model simply doesn’t work in the digital age, where songs are represented as a bunch of effortlessly copied bytes of data. As blogger Seth Godin points out, the economic principal of scarcity doesn’t exist if it takes essentially no resources to duplicate your product. Those who keep fighting to find a way to monetize these digital copies are in denial. That battle is over. The genie is already out of the bottle.

In the Album 1.0 world, the artist lumped a bunch of static content into a package with the quantity mostly determined by the technology of the day. If you were releasing on vinyl, you filled up a record. If you were releasing a CD, you filled up a CD. The consumer got a thrill opening the jacket, looking at the liner notes, and holding a physical representation of the artist. Sometimes the whole record was brilliant, but often many of the songs were forgettable. Digital downloading meant you could pick and choose songs. It also made it extremely easy to get a copy of a song for free. But the key factor is that it meant casual fans no longer needed to make the same commitment as serious fans. Casual fans didn’t have to purchase anything. If they did purchase something, they’d just purchase the one song they liked. And they sure as hell weren’t going to the record store to buy a single anymore. We are still trying to force the Album 1.0 mentality on the digital world, and it just isn’t working.

If the casual fan has all but been eradicated from the picture of financial success for an artist, what are we left with?

Patronage. The future economy for music artists lies in connecting with fans who are passionate and loyal enough to provide the money and support needed to continue making music. Patrons are those people who love an artist so much they want to invest their most valuable asset: their time. They want to interact with the artist on a higher level. They want to watch interviews. They want to talk about the artist with other patrons. They cherish being in the elite group that hears a new song first. And, they adore anything resembling a direct interaction with the artist. Incidentally, fans who have that level of commitment also don’t think twice about spending money on the artist, because it’s an honor to do so.

So, how do we encapsulate that behavior so the artist can monetize the relationship to earn a reasonable living? Enter Album 2.0, where artists distribute their projects as apps. The traditional album may be on its way out, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in larger artist statements. We just need to add a distribution format that is a better fit for the times. Apps can provide a much richer experience than the static model of music distribution we’ve essentially been using for over 100 years. As I discussed in my previous post, there are many capabilities provided by apps that are not available in the current model, such as dynamic songs and pushing out album updates to users. But, apps also have tremendous potential for a new level of intimacy between artists and true fans. When you have an artist’s app, it’s a destination. When you tap on an app’s icon, you are saying I want to spend some time with this artist. Apps not only recapture the thrill of exploring a physical album, but they offer a continuing relationship with fans that is scalable in a way that was impossible before now.

There’s a very nicely put together app called Jimi Hendrix: The Complete Experience. It is immersive and beautiful, brimming with content. It’s a fascinating look at how an app can take static content and make it very satisfying and interactive. Now, though, imagine Jimi is still alive, working his butt off in the studio (like he loved to do), constantly putting up new content on a server. Picture that you have his app, and you can subscribe to him for a small monthly fee. This gives you access to all of his content. He makes a track with 38 versions of a guitar solo, and your app has a mechanism so it can pull these solos from the server and play them along with the rest of the song (without pulling 38 individual singles like you would from iTunes). He pushes out special fan-only editions to the patrons who have the app. He writes a new verse to an old song and bam, you’ve got that, too. It also has something akin to a Twitter feed that is only accessible to patrons who have the app. Maybe there’s a game in the app that changes the music as you play, and unlocks songs as you win levels. All this is doable! But, most importantly, the app is a conduit between an artist and a real, human fan.

When I say “musical entrepreneur”, what comes to mind? Chances are it was somebody like the creators of Pandora or Spotify. Somebody using technology to make money off musicians. Why can’t the musical entrepreneur be the artist? Musicians become more technologically savvy all the time. Is it really that ridiculous to ask them to put out apps? Not if you give them, or the studios they use, the training and tools to get the job done. Perhaps it’s an opportunity for new jobs to be created for students who go to recording school and also get training in programming. It could be an ancillary operation, such as what happens now when recording studios pass along their tracks to mastering studios.

Does this new model mean artists need to be more sober about the definition of economic success? Yes, it probably does. As Jeremy Schlosberg writes, how artists will find financial security in the digital age is the “$64,000 question”. More than just a reference for a gameshow from the 1950s, it’s a great target for what success could mean to an artist as a yearly income. More than ever, musicians need to think like small business owners, and embrace both the challenges and flexibility of being one’s own boss. It’s time to abandon the idea of the rock star, bathed in riches and glory, propped up by extravagant major label support (i.e. debt, as Steve Albini illustrates). But, guess what? That crap wasn’t happening for you, anyway. How about trading it in for an app, 1,000 patron subscribers at $5.99 a month, and a full time career in music?

Why it’s Time for Album 2.0

We haven’t changed the way we listen to recordings since the phonograph was invented in 1877. Yeah, stereo was a neat addition. And, sure, we have cool things now like digital compression and distribution. The fact that you can carry around thousands of songs in your pocket and download more while on the move is pretty outstanding. However, the track you listen to on your iPhone is just as static and invariable as the recording Thomas Edison heard.

What if the recordings we listened to were dynamic, changing in subtle (or dramatic) ways each time we listened? What if you could get updates to your favorite albums and songs? What would it mean to artists if they didn’t have to choose just one take of their solo, or one set of lyrics for a verse?

Apps give us a way to deliver such evolving music.

We all use apps for entertainment, communication, and to increase our productivity. We are very accustomed to the idea that as companies improve their technology, they push out software updates that enhance our experience.

Software can help us accomplish truly sophisticated tasks. In the music domain, we have powerful DAWs like ProTools and Logic that are used to digitally capture, edit, and mix music. However, somewhat ironically, all that power goes into delivering a fixed, unchanging recording of a song.

Before recorded music, every listening experience was unique, because the only way to hear a piece of music was to have it performed live. To be fair, the reason we haven’t seen dynamic recorded music is probably due to the fact that we haven’t had a delivery system capable of handling it. The idea of an evolving song experience on a cassette tape doesn’t make any sense.

But, if you think about delivering an album as an app, everything changes.

The collaboration between Björk and Snibbe Studio to produce Biophilia as the first app album is an example of the potential. It is an immersive experience that provides the kind of juice the music industry could use right now. By allowing the music to be interactive, it excites the user and prevents two experiences from being identical. Artists at the cutting edge sense this creative power, and have begun exploring apps as vehicles for expression.

If apps as albums are to succeed, however, we can’t expect musicians to have the graphical skills of Snibbe Studio, or the resources to hire such immensely talented people. And, although an immersive experience that demands all of your senses is fascinating, most of us listen to music while doing other things. The last thing we need is some ass driving down the highway trying to have a mesmerizing, hands on experience with his music. You thought texting was bad.

We also are not talking about loops here, or re-mixes as they are understood in the common vernacular. Songwriters and composers use nuance and timing to convey emotion. They make choices. They don’t want a system that just roughly chops up a verse and sticks it where another verse might go, especially without their approval. They may want you to hear two different solos, but they don’t want you to have access to their mistakes. And, they don’t want some terrible auto-remix being associated with them when it is overheard at the lunch counter.

Artists and recording studios will need tools to make it practical to create an Album 2.0 culture. At this point, it’s pretty standard for at least one member of a band to have a DAW at home, even if it is just GarageBand. And, obviously, almost every studio has a DAW. We’ll need software to help organize the tracks they record with their DAWs into packages that can be delivered as apps. Think about marking several different solos in a timeline of a song, so that an app knows it could play either solo at a particular point. Or, think about the nuance created if all the snare hits are identified and then can be randomly reorganized to give a different feel to the song each time you listen, making it seem like a live performance. In visual terms, picture MP3s as two-dimensional objects, while Album 2.0 songs are three-dimensional. This really isn’t a wild idea. DAWs already use the concept of non-destructive editing, meaning that the other take is still there, buried under the take you decide to keep. Album 2.0 simply means you can use anything from that stack, not limiting yourself to one “perfect” take.

We’ll also need a basic framework for describing an Album 2.0. If it is to be scalable, there needs to be a supported architecture for the apps. It may be open source code that studios or artists download as an Album 2.0 template. It may be that the woman in your band right now that has the DAW will also learn some essential coding. It’s really not that hard to imagine.

As for distribution, most of it is already in place with the various app stores. A band updates their Album 2.0, and Apple or Google push them out to the users. The listener gets a new vocal, fixing that horrible pitchy moment the singer hated in the first release. All that needs to be developed is a nice way of managing big data on the servers and an efficient system for transferring those audio files and their metadata.

Updates to albums also have immediately apparent financial benefits to artists. First, they give the artist or record label options such as in-app purchases or subscription models. Instead of only one transaction when a user downloads an album, each song can continue to produce new revenue. In a world where content is king, it also provides a constant pipeline to keep a fan engaged. Whole new forms of social media and “gamification” could be developed around this relationship.

What about the nostalgia implicit in hearing the same exact version of a song you heard on a first date twenty years ago? Well, maybe the original release is the default setting in the app. You know that moment where you hear a song for the first time, and it blows you away, and you stay in your car until it finishes playing? Now, imagine having that “first kiss” thrill over and over as your favorite song evolves, continually surprising and delighting you.

Welcome

Welcome to the Volcanos for Hire web site. VfH is a spinoff from Binary Concepts Our excitement and passion for Artist Apps gives us a drive to talk about and explain our ideas. WordPress is a good tool for that since it supports both blogging and regular static pages.

— Ed