The music biz has gone from fighting the trend of increasing technological involvement in how its product reaches the public to a tentative embrace. We're all familiar with the RIAA legal abuses of music pirates, the tussle between individual bands and Apple's mighty, monolithic iTunes, and various other ways the music industry seems reluctant to accept technology that enables new ways to get its product into consumer's hands. So it's no surprise that many of the most creative and innovative technological music experiments out there are being produced outside the traditional recording industry. Here are three examples worth knowing about:
Smartphone Music Games
If you're a fan of eccentric musician Dan Johnston, then you'll recognize the name of a new iPhone game— "Hi, How Are You?"—as one of his catchphrases...and yes, this game is a Johnston tribute. The artist himself took part in the design, which transports the player to a world peopled with creations from Johnston's whacky imagination.
It's amusing, dark, weird, compelling, visually beautiful and hums along to background tracks from Daniel. Put together by programmers Peter Franco and Steve Broumley, "Hi, How Are You" is one of those rare things: A performance art piece that mixes genuine gameplay and will undoubtedly raise the profile of the music, and probably sell an album or two. Think of it as an incredibly clever form of artist promotion, leveraging off the creative imagination of a particularly imaginative musician. Or as a more interactive work than the bizarre humanthesizer used to promote Calvin Harris' new single, or a more intellectual bit of PR than T-Pain's painful $2.99 auto-tuning iPhone app.
The newest layer for the promising Layar Augmented Reality app is designed for attendees of the upcoming Voodoo Experience 2009 music festival at Halloween in New Orleans:
Layar's already neat, and the creators, Zehnder Communications, are utilizing all those nice AR navigation hooks perfectly. For example, to find the music schedule, click on an act and tap "take me there." That sounds perfect for a late night when you're stuck among 100,000 music fans and your, ahem, impaired judgement and navigation skills might get in the way of finding a route to the right stage. Similarly it's ideal for locating food stands when you're hungry, beer tents when sobriety threatens, art installations, stores—basically navigating your way around when you don't know where the nearest facility is.
Sure, the music biz itself didn't have a hand in this AR app, but it's undeniable that many people will use it at the festival in a few weeks, and similar apps will become very common when AR explodes onto everyone's smartphone—as we believe it will. The music business's customers are getting way more tech-savvy.
iTunes LP—Apple's "Cocktail"
The next thing to think about is Apple's iTunes LP system, a media-rich effort to re-inject life into the fading music album format. While it's much simpler than the other tech mentioned here, creating an LP involves more effort by the artist, record label and programming team than a regular CD cover would—thanks to movie clip extras, bonus tracks, the Flash-like animations that bring the thing to life, and so on.
As we get more used to interactivity with music, from simple things like choosing music videos to watch on YouTube to the snazziness of iTunes LP, and the smartness of AR navigation around music festivals (to say nothing of AR music-title collaborations), the tie-up between the music biz and high-tech is only going to get stronger.
Remember, though, that none of these examples is making identifiably huge revenues for the artists concerned...yet. None of them is going to replace the sale of traditional albums, or seriously change the entire music industry around in the near future. But they do offer potent examples of how things could go in the future—building significant buzz and audience around music products that you might even be tempted to pay for one day.