Let’s just say it: When it comes to the whole “bands doing cool things with tech” thing, we’re starting to get a little complacent. And by “we” I mean the majority, not extremely industrious and creative folks like Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Dan Deacon. Those guys are currently blowing the rest of you out of the proverbial water.
When Bjork released her Biophilia app in 2011, it seemed to shine a light on the concept of the artist app — this extension of a band residing in the palm of the fan’s hand.
Sure, artist apps were a preexisting thing, and there were tons of services that made it easy to create them already on the market, but Biophilia was innovative: a new way to package and present music that let fans interact with it as they listened. It was a crazy, out-there suite of songs and tools that so perfectly fit Bjork’s crazy, out-there personality. It was a whole freaking experience — complete with new instruments, tour visuals and more. Biophilia was the epitome of what an artist app should be: An extension of a musician’s craft. A piece of art all on its own. And — although it garnered tons of press — distinctly NOT just a repository for marketing materials. However, this is the ideal — not the rule, unfortunately.
In a sense, having an artist app has become another chore — another act of digital drudgery that bands must endure in order to “put themselves out there.” But, unlike a Facebook page or a website — which are, by nature, a place to throw up info and tour dates — an app can be a much richer canvas for expression. And when we say “expression” we don’t mean a puzzling and nearly useless QR code. In the same way the music videos have gone beyond marketing vehicles for albums and songs and become works of art, so can apps. However, on the whole, we have a ways to go in that department.
Granted, there are more bands out there doing interesting things on mobile than the four listed below, but these are offerings that really lit up the weirdest corners of our brains. Put down the QR codes, dudes, and step into the light.
Peter Gabriel’s MusicTiles
Like Bjork’s Biophilia, Gabriel’s music app, MusicTiles ($2.99), lets you listen to tunes off of his album So (in celebration of its 25th anniversary) as well as actively remix the jams. MusicTiles has a pretty simple UI, featuring colored tiles that denote different instruments that you can dag around the screen to change up a song. Users can even record their mixes for later listening.
Gabriel says of the app: “I have always loved the idea that music and art should be fully open media from which no-one is excluded. They are languages that anyone can learn to speak and definitely not the exclusive province of the high priests armed with ‘Talent.’”
When most artists trot out tech or content in honor of an anniversary, it’s usually a teary-eyed lookback replete with concert footage, scrawled linear notes and jams. Gabriel, on the other hand, is embracing new technology that allows fans to engage with his music on an even deeper level. Talk about a reissue.
Brian Eno’s Scape
When it comes to innovative music apps, Brian Eno has Bjork beat by about three years. Back in 2008, he and software designer Peter Chilvers created visual music tool Bloom, which, according to Evolver.fm “predated the iPhone, as it was previously a Flash demo running on a computer with a Wacom tablet, before Apple opened the iPhone to third-party developers.” It’s now available as an iPhone app.
Most recently, the pair unveiled an iOS app called Scape ($6), which allows you to create “sonic paintings” by changing the placement of an array of colors and shapes. You can also listen to/watch a series of preloaded sonic landscapes. The whole experience mirrors the shifting, ambient quality of Eno’s music perfectly, offering up a new, engaging dimension of his work.
Philip Glass’s REWORK_
According to the description on iTunes, the idea for REWORK_ ($9.99) came from a conversation between Philip Glass and Beck, so you know right off the bat that this app is going to blow borders. REWORK_ is an app version of Glass’ remix album by the same name and includes Snibbe Studio (creator of Björk’s Biophilia app) among its stable of creators. Like with Biophilia, the app pairs visuals with music and allows you to mess with tunes — in this case via the “Glass Machine” feature. It’s the totally digital version of the idea behind Beck’s totally analogue Song Reader album — in that it encourages users to put their own spin on tunes.
Dan Deacon’s Dan Deacon App
The electronic composer (and O Music Award nominee) recently dropped his newest record, America, and to herald the release of that record, released a free app for iOS and Android that incorporates audience members and their phones into his live show. Fire up the app, tap “I’m at a show” and your phone will flash with colors and sounds that sync up to the music currently invading your ear holes. And just like that, you’re the light show, kid.