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.