The “iTunes LP” is just one of the many new iTunes features revealed yesterday during Apple’s announcement at their “It’s Only Rock and Roll”-themed event. But the iTunes LP, unlike the other new features which get to exist as simple and fun enhancements in iTunes 9, has a heavy burden on its shoulders. It’s supposed to revitalize the music industry by encouraging consumers to once again purchase entire albums as opposed to single tracks. With this new digital album format, the idea is to replicate the experience of buying an album, complete with lyrics, liner notes, album art, photos, and more, giving music buyers extra content to peruse while enjoying their new music. The only problem is that this so-called “interactive” format isn’t all that interactive. And what’s more, innovative artists are already discovering how to monetize their music while engaging fans in new ways that have nothing to do with a re-imagined LP. Instead, the “interactive format” of the future isn’t the album, it’s the app.
The Uninspired iTunes LP
Not so many years ago, consumers had little choice when it came to buying new music. If you fell in love with a favorite song from an artist or band, you bought the CD. Singles had already been phased out for the most part, so the choice was either to buy the CD or nothing at all. For this reason, artists were able to make oodles of cash even when they were only a one or two-hit wonder. Yet somehow, the music industry is convinced that people actually bought CDs for all the nifty content contained in the included booklets. With the iTunes LP, they’re reinventing that booklet for the digital age and packing it full of media like lyrics, liner notes, album art, photos, and even videos – that last one being something that you certainly couldn’t cram into the CD case in days past. With this digitally enhanced LP, labels hope consumers will once again buy complete albums, not just individual songs.
Unfortunately, this “interactive” album of the future, meant to rev up album sales, is a sad, uninspired effort which tries to cram the old business model of the past down the throat of today’s new digital platform. While the extras are nice to have, the iTunes LP doesn’t offer anything more than what fan sites do, as we noted yesterday in our critical analysis of Apple’s new offerings. And unlike fan sites, which evolve and change over time, the LP is a static offering that doesn’t take advantage of the platform it lives on – an internet-connected digital music player.
Forget the Album, Buy an App
Meanwhile, as record labels scramble to save themselves with this new format (and possibly even one of their own dubbed “CMX”), some artists are starting to figure out the formula for success in this new era of single-track purchases and app-laden phones…and it’s not an album. A handful of forward-thinkers have come up with a way to offer true interactive content to fans, which in turn, encourages fans to purchase more of the artist’s music. The answer? The iPhone app.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, these music-themed apps are innovative new ways for fans to interact with content produced by their favorite artists. For example, Nine Inch Nails released a multimedia application earlier this year where fans can access a mobile version of the fan site nin.com, interact with other fans through location-based chat and photo sharing, stream tracks and exclusive playlists, download wallpapers, and much more. Although the app is free in the iTunes app store, the side effect of having more engaged fans means having more people interested in buying the band’s music. NIN, headed by front man Trent Reznor, is no stranger to this sort of out-of-the-box thinking. He has experimented with a number of ways to make rockstar-worthy income in this digital age, including last year’s introduction of a creative multi-level pricing scheme for albums where consumers could download tracks that ranged anywhere from completely free all the way up to a $300 premium package. Within three days, that experiment grossed $750,000 in sales. Not a bad way to sell an album.
But Reznor isn’t the only artist with an app these days. American DJ and singer-songwriter Moby has also just released an official app created by social music service iLike which offers similar functionality. Besides providing access to exclusive content, fans can interact with each other through Facebook and iLike and they can post photos directly from the app to the Moby fan community. However, unlike NIN’s offering, this app isn’t free. It currently sells for $1.99. Whether or not this particular money-making gambit will work, though, is still to be determined. The app is only a couple of days old at this point so it’s unknown whether fans will pay.
While apps like those described above essentially provide mobilized fan communities, hip hop artist Soulja Boy went a different route earlier this summer. Using a new app platform called Romplr, his $2.99 application, “Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em,” lets fans remix the artist’s tracks and share them with friends via email, Facebook, or via www.romplr.com. In many ways, this app represents the best use of today’s digital platform by allowing for true interactivity with the music. In fact, the press release about the launch even claimed “the next wave of fan and band interaction is going to be through the iPhone.” Perhaps it will be the future of music sales, too.
The trend of artists with apps shows no signs of slowing down. Just today, popular R&B artist Usher launched his own app, too, “Usher’s Top 100.” This app, basically a streaming radio station of Usher’s favorite tunes, will appeal to fans who want to know what music has inspired the five-time Grammy award winning star. It, like Soulja Boy’s app, is not free either. The price is $2.99. Again, it’s too soon to tell how well it will sell.
Only the Beginning
Although this is only a handful of examples of the new ways artists are using the mobile platform to interact with fans, all of these methods are arguably more inspired than the iTunes LP digital album. Instead of thinking that the old way of doing things can simply be tweaked for the new economy, these artists are developing compelling interactions which will either be direct sources of income as paid applications or will indirectly encourage sales through a more engaged fan base. While it’s too soon to tell how much extra income these apps will add to the bottom line, if we had to bet on anything that could potentially “save” the music industry, we wouldn’t put our money on the LP. It looks like the future is apps, not albums.