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.