Click me, swipe me, love me

Musicians and record labels are slowly waking up to the huge potential of interactive websites and apps to help promote music

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The impact of digital technology on the music industry is rarely spoken of in positive terms. The ability to share music files easily online has led to a sharp downturn in profits for record labels and this in turn has affected their creative output beyond just music: in particular, budgets for music videos have fallen dramatically, despite the fact that channels such as YouTube and Vimeo allow a broader worldwide reach for promos than ever before. But with all new technologies come new opportunities, and the last few years have seen a number of artists and designers find exciting ways to mix music and visuals online.

The first interactive music video is widely credited to Canadian director Vincent Morisset [CR Jan 10], who designed a website for Arcade Fire track Neon Bible back in 2007. With its simple but effective interaction, the promo whispered of a brave new world of online video-making but this has proven slow to materialise, no doubt in part due to the financial crash.

There has been a steady trickle of projects though, with each one showing off the varied possibilities of the new medium.

This year’s Innovation Award at the UK Music Video Awards saw more interactive projects in contention than ever before. The top award went to Paris-based directing team We Are From LA, who created an interactive website for The Shoes that uses webcam technology to allow viewers to turn the video on and off by covering their eyes. Nominated alongside The Shoes were two new projects for Arcade Fire, including the band’s acclaimed website for the track Wilderness Downtown, which combines filmed footage and content from Google Earth to create a pop-up window extravaganza, individual to each viewer. Also incorporating pop-ups is OK Go’s joyful interactive site for All Is Not Lost, which finds the band dressed in tight green lycra and performing dance moves that are shot from below through glass. Viewers were invited to submit a message to the site, which is then spelt out by the band at the end of the video, via various bodily contortions displayed on separate pop-up windows.

The idea of shooting through glass, and also to work with choreographers Pilobolus, had been on the table for a while, but the full concept for the website only came about when Google Japan got in touch with OK Go to see if any of their video ideas would work for a HTML5 multi-screen site. At that point, “the lightbulb went on over our heads”, says OK Go’s lead singer Damian Kulash. “The video we were working on could be interactive, and the arc of development could unfold over multiple screens and many single-take films, rather than just one…. Basically it all gelled at that moment.”

OK Go are unusual in that the band members are deeply involved in the making of their videos, which come about via an experimental approach. “We find that our best ideas happen once we’re neck-deep in making something,” continues Kulash, “so we try to make our shoot days as cheap as possible, but have tons of them so we can follow the crazy ideas that pop up as we go along. This shoot was no different in that respect – it was a big experimental dance and tech laboratory. But it was very different than normal because we were dealing with the insane math of combining so many single-take films, and then working out a system by which the nearly 200 letters we’d shot could be combined seamlessly. We relied heavily on our tech team to help us figure out, visually, how bodies could make shapes across multiple screens.”

Not without challenges

As well as the technical challenges presented by interactive videos, there are also financial ones to overcome.Significantly, both the recent Arcade Fire and OK Go sites were backed by Google, which saw the promos as a way of showing off the capabilities of the Google Chrome browser. The sites needed to be viewed on Google Chrome to work properly, which limited the audience to some extent. “As with so many things it often boils down to money, who is going to pay for it,” says Ben Tricklebank, creative director/designer on the Arcade Fire Wilderness Downtown website. “Record label budgets aren’t what they used to be. This often means the need to look elsewhere for funding. The problem with this is it sometimes comes with strings attached that may not align with the kind of free expression that’s associated with music promos. Also, the internet is a crowded place and I guess some of it comes down to people – musicians and labels – getting nervous about investing time and money without a solid guarantee of views.”

For director and creative Masashi Kawamura, who has created interactive sites for Japanese bands Sour and Androp (the latter through new creative agency Party), it is important to ensure that the projects are right for the music, and are not embarked on just for the sake of it. “I try to come up with an experience that best visualises the world of their music and what it is about,” he says. “I take a step back and ask myself, is a music video the best method, or should it be something more. The important part is whether or not your content will fit the song…. In the case of these two songs [Mirror by Sour and Bell by Androp], I felt it would be better with added interactivity. I felt that the lyrics of the songs were strongly tied with communication, and so by creating an interactive experience, I can generate a deeper engagement between the music and the user.”

The arrival of the music app

A deeper engagement with the music is the holy grail for these websites, and even more of an objective for music apps, another expanding market. This year has seen a wave of apps for musicians appear; these have ranged from the simple but charming – We Are From LA’s amusing app for I Love You So by Cassius featured a selection of mouths singing the song, which when played on an iPhone could be held in front of the user’s face so it seemed they were singing – to more complex offerings, such as 2manydjs’ epic Radio Soulwax iPad app, which offers 24 hour-long mixes set to visuals, all for free.

In late July, Björk released an app for her new album Biophilia, which is perhaps the most ambitious music app released so far. She came to the idea of an app after two other creative ideas failed to materialise: a touring exhibition, and the creation of a 3D Imax movie with Michel Gondry. Created in collaboration with interactive artist and developer Scott Snibbe and designers M/M Paris, the app is an expansive journey into a new universe, featuring ten interactive chapters, one for each song on the album. Each one aims to entertain and possibly even educate. “Each song relates to science, music and technology,” explains Snibbe. “For example, the scientific aspect of an app might relate to the structure of the universe, the phases of the moon, or viruses; the musical aspects include song structure, arpeggios, and generative music; and the interactive aspect ties these two together into an interactive and even educational experience showing that we can use technology to get closer to nature, rather than further away.”

The app also allows users to play around with the music by themselves at home. “These apps are an attempt to share that creative process with ordinary people, without them having to master the piano, violin, ProTools, turntable, or other complex devices,” continues Snibbe. “To let them create and manipulate music and images themselves and become immersed in the creative process within the framework of a particular artist’s vision.”

Snibbe also cites the commercial possibilities of apps: Biophilia can be downloaded free with one song, but then requires users to pay for additional songs, a neat way of getting audiences to pay for music again. “I find it hard to believe that a musician of any ambition would not want to dive into this new medium,” he concludes. “Most musicians want to express their work across multiple senses: video, images, costumes, light and now apps…. Apps are an opportunity to make incredible works of art with music. There is also a big market for apps: this year, apps will outsell music online.”

It is early days, but perhaps digital technology, once seen as the nemesis of the music industry, could allow musicians to experiment in previously unimagined realms, with audiences coming along for the ride, and sometimes even paying for it.