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How Artists Are Using Pioneering Mobile Apps to Change the Music Game

the xx

In the last few years, many artists have taken their fans on a digital journey towards more immersive experiences by releasing content viewable, listenable, and navigable only in app form. Marketers will say that since 52% of all digital music listening now happens on mobile and tablet, artists should stick to digital forms of disbursement. But for the artists, the shift is reflective of their desires to create a more experiential, experimental, and explorative listening space for their work. And this comes in a variety of forms. As we will see, apps have been developed as interactive play, a way to remix an artist’s work or create new organic works, a platform to provide exclusive content, and even as a way to simulate an artist’s voice.

Massive Attack — Fantom

massive attack

British trip-hop legends Massive Attack made headlines in late January with the announcement of a new app that features all four tracks (the first new material since 2010) off of their brand new Ritual Spirit EP. Fantom is a “sensory music player” that allows users to remix these tracks while they listen, based on the user’s heartbeat, location, local time, and movement. While these tracks are not available to listen in their full, original forms just yet (supposedly that’s coming soon), it is quite fun to organically and intuitively mess around with the fragmented versions of these songs and then share them as video clips online.

Download Fantom on iOS.

Radiohead — PolyFauna

PolyFauna is a collaborative project by Radiohead, Nigel Goodrich, Stanley Donwood, and Universal Everything, a digital graphics studio based in London. The app takes inspiration from Radiohead’s The King of Limbs sessions and includes artwork by Stanley Donwood and audio by the band and Nigel Goodrich as it leads the user into a constantly evolving and immersive world that reacts to your every move.

A pioneering new collision between digital art and the world of apps, the collaboration sees the creation of abstracted, expanded, and exploded versions of audio and visual work. Inviting the user into an immersive, expansive world of primitive life, weather, sunsets, mountains, and forests, PolyFauna comes from an interest in early computer life-experiments and the imagined creatures of our subconscious.

Download Polyfauna on iOS or Android.

+ Read more: “4 Music Sites That Aren’t a Waste of Time”

Brian Eno & Peter Chilvers — Bloom and Trope

“Bloom is an endless music machine, a music box for the 21st century. You can play it, or you can watch it play itself.” –Brian Eno

This app was developed by ambient pioneer Brian Eno in partnership with musician and software designer Peter Chilvers. Bloom is part instrument, part composition, and part artwork. It’s innovative controls allow anyone to create elaborate patterns and unique melodies by simply tapping the screen. A generative music player takes over when Bloom is left idle, creating an infinite selection of compositions and their accompanying visualizations.

Download Bloom on iOS.

Trope is similar to Bloom and expands further on the same ideas. Darker in tone however, Trope immerses users in endlessly evolving soundscapes created by tracing abstract shapes onto the screen, varying the tone with each movement.

Download Trope on iOS.

Brian Eno & Peter Chilvers — Scape

Eno and Chilvers’ third project, Scape is different from the above apps. The music that the user creates is made from sonic building blocks, which each alter and react to the other elements around it every time a new block is added. Elements can be endlessly recombined to behave intelligently: reacting to each other, changing mood together, making new sonic spaces. The end result is a new organic work created not using the computer device, but in collaboration with it.

Download Scape on iOS.

Loscil — Adrift

Scott Morgan, aka Loscil, recently launched his app Adrift which features artwork by Gregory Euclid and four songs which do not have starting points or ends. The app was developed as a conceptual homage to four historical ships that have been left and abandoned out to sea to drift endlessly. For example, one song, “BAYCHIMO” is named after the SS Baychimo which worked the Canadian arctic until it became trapped in pack ice in 1931 and was left adrift for over 30 years in the north.

Download Adrift on iOS or Android.

+ Read more: “Get Seen: Maximizing Your Album’s Online Visibility Using Metadata”

Björk — Biophilia and Stonemilker VR

Honestly, Björk’s Biophilia album has produced some of the most deeply thought-provoking and innovative technological applications across many fields bridging art, spirituality, nature, and science ever. It’s pretty hard to comprehend everything that she did to work in the themes of this album across a range of projects, working with literally hundreds of people (many of them top scientists, naturalists, and musicologists), but one thing stands out as a milestone: The Biophilia app became the first ever app included in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. So, what is it?

Biophilia actually consists of 10 different apps, one for each song on the album, linked via the mother app and navigated using a custom-built constellation menu that changes in direction, zoom, and orbit based on the user’s touch. David Attenborough introduces the app and how it works the first time it is opened. Users can listen to each song, view its musical score, read an essay about that song, read its lyrics and scroll credits, use it as karaoke track, view customized animation videos, and some apps even include gameplay!

+ Read more: We consider Björk’s Biophilia as a work of fine art in “How Wu-Tang Clan, Björk and Jay Z Turn Albums into Fine Art.”

The application “Moon” works as a music sequencer, using a string of little pearls linked to a central spine topped by a moon. The user can decide whether to play the original version of the song or to modify it by rotating the pearls to adjust the notes. Rotating the moon would instead modify the number of notes that are played in the sequence.

Download Biophilia on iOS and Android.

Stonemilker VR is a virtual reality application version of Björk’s recently released video for her song “Stonemilker” off of Vulcinara. It’s a tricky app because it is specially formatted for existing VR headsets that can be hooked up to one’s cell phone to create a truly interactive and reactionary 3d experience of the world inside this music video. But if you don’t own one of these headsets you can still watch the video — it just won’t be fully reactionary and correctly formatted. It’s maybe best to stick to the above video, shot in Reykjavik by Andrew Thomas Huang.

Download Stonemilker on iOS.

Beyoncé — Live at Roseland

This one is kinda lame, since it’s really just a paid, app version of Beyoncé’s Live at Roseland concert DVD, released in 2012. It features live video recordings of her four sold out, “intimate” nights at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. I mean, she kicks ass live, that goes without saying, but if you want to watch these HD videos and are willing to pay for it, maybe you should think about upgrading to a bigger screen than your phone.

Download Live at Roseland on iOS.

+ Learn more: Learn how to build your own synth patches with our FREE series of mini-courses, “Demystifying Synths.”

The xx — The xx

the xx

Essentially, The xx’s app just offers a way to more deeply engage with and listen to their most recent album, Coexist. And while this is definitely geared towards hardcore fans, it does provide some fun and creative features to satisfy the uninitiated, as well. There are HD visualizer videos for every song, every music video off the album, and even a reactionary interactive version of the cover artwork that changes based on your movement.

Download The xx on iOS or Android.

T-Pain — I Am T-Pain

This ridiculous app basically just takes T-Pain’s custom auto-tune vocal settings and allows users to sing into their phone to recreate his voice. Kinda pointless, but not gonna lie, it’s pretty hilarious.

Download “I am T-Pain” on iOS.

Lady Gaga — ARTPOP

Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP album is given new life as a cross-platform app, navigated and assisted by her virtual assistant avatar named “Petga.” Petga insists you create your own aura at the start of the app, and then over time, as you engage in various ways with the community and the app itself, your aura changes. It’s all quite bizarre, but one of the best features is simply the ability to listen to ARTPOP’s tracks on a virtual turntable and scratch them like a record during playback.

ARTPOP is longer available on iOS or Android due to Gaga leaving her entire management team and cutting off all business ties in 2013.

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.