The App as a new artistic medium, and the future of the music industry

More than any other artistic discipline, musicians have had the fundamental business models of their art form changed through the advent of new technology. From the creation of MP3’s, to piracy, to streaming music services, rapid destabilizing change has transformed the music industry over the past 20 years. For many artists, this technology threatens the sustainability of their livelihood.

At the same time, and out of necessity, the music industry has adapted more rapidly to new technology than any other art form, embracing technological innovation when possible. In their search for more sustainable ways to produce, deliver and experience music, some of the most famous and research driven musicians have partnered with developers, scientists, and engineers to experiment with one of the world’s most used technologic tools: the App.

Bjork and the Radiohead represent the two most important and interesting examples of artistic use of this medium: In 2014, Radiohead launched their Polyfauna app in collaboration with the design agency Universal Everything. The app lets fans explore an “evolving world” by moving around and following a red dot on-screen. It’s eerie, rather beautiful, and occasionally makes you feel a bit seasick –in other words very appropriate for the music it is based on.

 Radiohead's Polyfauna App. Screenshot

Radiohead's Polyfauna App. Screenshot

One major source of inspiration for Yorke and his collaborators’ venture into the world of apps was Björke’s Biophilia App, which debuted in 2011 and became the first app included in the permanent collection of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Björke’s App transformed the way people could experience music. Users could participate in performing, combining music and visuals, rather than just listening passively.

In the app, Biophilia's songs were turned into a series of discrete mini games, which allowed the listener to interact with the songs. Sometimes the games were purely playful, and in other cases they rework the music itself. Confirming the great success of the app is the creation of the “Biophilia Educational Programme” an interactive learning program integrating music and science, which was recently incorporated into Nordic curricula.

As some artists and developers have sought to transform the actual artistic exchange through Apps, another series of young start-ups and developers want to use Apps to deliver music in new more affordable and accessible ways.

Tom Yorke’s other band, Atoms for Peace, recently teamed up with a British startup Soundhalo. This website and App lets users watch and download artist-endorsed live music as it happens. Band-member and producer Nigel Godrich claimed that selling official audio and video of gigs provides an alternative to user- generated "bootleg" footage elsewhere on the web.

 Soundhalo App. Screenshot

Soundhalo App. Screenshot

Tom Yorke’ engagement with new technology is a reminder that there are more opportunities than ever for bands to work directly with technology startups, rather than simply leaving these kinds of deals to their labels. While sales (and streams) of recorded music remain the biggest source of income for most musicians, there are a growing number of other ways to make money from their music which may very well prove significant in the future.

 Biophilia App. Screenshot

Biophilia App. Screenshot

The sustainability problems faced by the music industry are pushing more and more artists to creative and innovative ways of approaching the marketplace. Although these early result have not yet yielded the desired long-term sustainable business models, collaborations between artists and tech companies are empowering artists and leading to more hybrid and multi-sensorial products. As these collaborations push the limits of both art and technology, perhaps the next transformative change is just around the corner.