Philip Glass, Music Apps, And The Future Of The Album

The new Philip Glass album is completely mesmerizing. I don't mean the CD, or the MP3 download or even the vinyl version - I mean the app. In addition to more traditional formats, the famed composer has released REWORK, a compilation of remixes, as an iPad app. An immersive, interactive and incredibly cool iPad app. 

Normally, releasing an album in the form of an app would seem like a dumb idea. All the open-source-minded, anti-walled-garden, Web-is-better-than-native-apps advocates out there would agree. Why trap your creative hard work behind the impenetrable wall of a proprietary mobile application? I couldn't agree more, in theory, but something about the REWORK_(Philip Glass Remixed) app for iPad has me wondering if this apps-as-albums concept might be a surprisingly large part of music's future. 

As I'm writing this on my laptop, my iPad is propped up next to me. Just beyond my direct field of vision, there's an array of cubes floating in 3D space, flowing like water to the rhythm of the drums backing this electronic soundscape I'm listening to in my headphones. If I touch the screen, some of the blocks fly upwards. If I move my finger across the screen, more blocks are disrupted in its path. 

Limited Functionality Never Felt So Good

That's about the extent to which I can interact with the music as it plays. I can't even fast-forward through each song. But that's okay. Like a vinyl record, I'm forced to listen to each song or skip it entirely (which takes a few taps, so it's slightly more cumbersome than we've become used to). I can't help but feel like this app was deliberately designed to encourage me to enjoy the album from start to finish. To quiet my brain's 21st Century instinct to jump around, to fast-toward, to hit Shuffle. If I want to dip my finger into the liquid digital visualization going on as the song plays, that's fine. But I can't skip around. I can't minimize this app and do other things without cutting off the audio. 

It's incredibly simple functionality, but it's mesmerizing, like some kind of futuristic boombox. 

The best part is Glass Machine, a stand-alone feature that lets users remix and build their own minimalist compositions using an interface that is both atypical and easy to use. The controls along the bottom let you adjust tempo and rhythm, filter the sound and choose between piano, organ and synthesizer. The rest of the screen is occupied by two giant circles, both of which contain a single, smaller circle that can be pinched and moved around to adjust the melody. It's a way of manipulating sound that will look unfamiliar to even experienced digital audio producers, but is completely intuitive to just about everyone. 

REWORK for iPad costs $10. That's pricey for an app, but pretty cheap for a full-length album you can interact with. 

With Some Tweaks, This Model Could Work For Artists

REWORK_(Philip Glass Remixed) could be even better. People should be able to record and save their Glass Machine compositions. Then they'd be free to share them online and bring them into other audio-editing software to build something completely new on top of them. Weaving in such an open-source spirit might help counter the "walled garden" issue of putting an album into a native apps. 

If the app came with a code to unlock a digital download - much like vinyl records do these days - purchasing it would be a no brainer for just about any fan. That way, you could experience the interactivity and fluid animations, but also be able to take the music itself with you anywhere and play it on any player. Musicians complain about how easy it is to download MP3s without paying for them. 

In age when artists are struggling to figure out how to thrive in a digital, mobile world, apps like REWORK offer a few hints about how the music-as-an-app model could work. An experience like this would be much harder for people to pirate, for example. Building stuff like this is expensive, of course, and limiting sales to a single platform is an issue. But there might be a real opportunity here for a smart startup to sell app-building tools to labels and artists.

If artists can design something fans would love interacting with and that offered enough value above and beyond the audio itself, the people who care most would shell out $10 or $15. I know I would.