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.