Can Spotify's App Platform Make Rock'n'Roll Profitable Again? Ask Blur

Since Spotify launched in the U.S. last year, many musicians haven't been sure what to make of it. Is the all-you-can-stream music model a promotional tool or a bona-fide revenue source? The answer may be somewhere in the middle.

The debate over whether Spotify deals fairly with artists will likely rage on as the company's business matures. While the music industry waits for things to shake out on that front, some artists are experimenting with Spotify not just as a giant library of music, but as an app platform. Blur, the recently reunited 90s Britpop band, has a Spotify app that others would be wise to emulate. 

Artist-branded apps are nothing new, but they're usually built for mobile platforms like iOS and Android, and seldom with much success. Late last year, Spotify launched its own third-party apps platform, enabling developers to build HTML5 applications into its desktop player, right on top of its enormous library of music. Early examples mostly came from press outlets like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, as well from music-distribution startups like Last.fm, MoodAgent and Soundrop. Each one ties a chunk of Spotify's library to a customized interface containing human-curated playlists or mashes music up with data from other sources. It's one of the most promising things about Spotify. 

As part of the promotional campaign for Blur's newly reissued catalog, the band became one of the first to launch its own app on Spotify this summer. After playing around with it, I can see the potential this approach has for artists. And its big. 

I owned a couple of Blur CDs in high school. I wasn't the group's biggest fan, but I liked them well enough, even if "Song 2" showed up in entirely too many action movies and TV commercials. For a listener like me who's familiar with much of Blur's music, but who hasn't actively listened to them for years, the Spotify app acts as a convenient gateway back into their world.

At its core, the app is essentially a nice-looking wrapper for the band's back catalog, which was already available on Spotify. What this unique form of digital packaging does, however, is keep listeners focused on a single artist rather than letting them get lost in the sea of millions of songs on Spotify. For the artist, that's a good thing, because the more people stream their music, the more money they'll make (a number that looks likely to increase as the service grows). 

The app experience goes beyond the music library, and that's where much of the potential lies. The app functions as a sort of mini-site for the band, with historical tour dates, a discography (all of which is playable), a band biography from Wikipedia (not the label's own PR department) and a sign-up form for the band's mailing list. So while the main focus is on streaming tracks, the app also pushes fans towards other ways to support the artist. The only thing missing is a merchandise page and, if the band were planning an extensive tour, a tab for selling concert tickets. 

Like any good digital media initiative, it's more than a one-way channel from the artist to fans. It could be more interactive, but the opportunities for fan participation it offers are a good start. The most participatory part is the Playlists section, which shows fan-created Spotify playlists of Blur songs and encourages users to create news one directly within the same interface. (The Spotify app for the punk rock band Rancid takes the curated playlist concept one step further by letting fans stream songs hand-picked by each member of the band.)

The Blur app's social media integration could be better. The main landing page displays recent tweets mentioning the band's official Twitter handle, but the usernames, hashtags and links remain unclickable. There's also no Facebook tie-in beyond the basic sharing functionality built into the Spotify desktop client. 

Another drawback of this - and any other - Spotify app is that it's not available on mobile, where many subscribers do most of their listening. While there's some evidence to suggest that Spotify is working on mobile support for its third party apps, the company has offered no official timeline.  

Still, the potential for artists is palpable. Using Spotify's API, one could build out an HTML5 app showcasing a major new release alongside merchandise for sale, concert tickets and real-time streams of social chatter and other relevant information. That's a big step up from the kind of context and engagement listeners get now when they discover an artist on Spotify, an experience that's limited to track names, related artists, album art and the music itself. If things evolve the way Spotify and its industry partners hope, the result may be a multi-pronged revenue source and potent music marketing tool tapped into a massive user base. 

Blur, along with Rancid, has done the industry the favor of acting as a guinea pig in this experiment. Like Spotify itself, its app platform is still quite young, but as it expands, it's a good bet that more artists will hop on board.