In an unsurprising move, Apple is said to be working with major record labels to provide an “interactive album” to consumers. The company is rumored to be working with EMI, Sony, Warner and Universal to bundle photos, lyric sheets, liner notes and videos with album purchases in the iTunes store. According to the FInancial Times, the move is meant to increase album sales. Nevertheless, a number of critics have already argued that the attempt will be ill-fated. While it’s true that “interactive” music material has already been executed in various iterations, Apple’s move may have a extremely positive affect on the music industry as a whole.

A number of bands already offer “interactive material” to their fans and while not many offer it through downloads, materials like band backgrounders and liner notes are readily available through a number of services including the following 3:

1. Bandcamp: RWW reviewed Bandcamp earlier and dubbed this service the “MySpace Music Killer”. The company offers bands the chance to upload liner notes, album arts and links to their materials through an online DIY store. In this case, interactivity is not bundled with the album downloads, but rather found in a link on the site.

2. Songbird: Songbird is the open-source Mozilla-based music player that offers users a chance to listen to albums while also viewing information about artists through various in-browser plugins. Songbird offers the basic functionality of an “interactive album” with lyrics and album art; however, fans can also add extensions to trade mix tapes, publish their playback histories to Last.FM and publish their listening history to Twitter.

3. Songkick: Songkick is a concert recommendation engine with a music history component. The site allows users to upload concert-related photos, liner notes, poster art, videos and even ticket stubs. The community is a live music wiki updated by those die hard fans who’ve not only attended the concerts, but also documented the experience. For Bob Dylan alone, the community has uploaded information on 2788 past concerts in 767 cities.

Apart from their interactivity and great social components, one thing that BandCamp, Songbird and Songkick have in common is the fact that they are not Apple. While each of the services are wonderful in their own right, Apple’s potential commitment to interactive albums can set an industry-wide precedent on how albums are released. By providing listeners with liner notes, videos and background information, fans may find themselves connecting with their music on a whole new level.

Band history, politics and cultural context can affect whether or not we part with our money. I’m going to take a wild guess that Hasidic Jewish reggae artist Matisyahu’s highest download numbers don’t come from Muslim music fans. And do you think Radiohead’s name-your-own-price In Rainbows album would have made as much money if the group wasn’t known for its activism?

The interactive album tells us where artists have come from and how they’re using their voices outside of the music. A number of services provide the delivery framework for the information, but only Apple provides direct access to mainstream audiences. Regardless of whether or not the independent labels follow suit, these new band dossiers give us the social narrative we need to make informed choices as consumers.

dana oshiro