The Potential Of Project Based Artist Apps
It’s only fair to say mobile music hasn’t started with apps. In the pre-smartphone era, in the mid-2000s, mobile generated revenue via ringtones,
ringback-tones, ringer profiles, and full track downloads, while marketing was confined to text messaging and custom ads on the newly popular mobile
optimized websites. However, things changed dramatically with the introduction of the first smartphone in 2007: Apple’s iPhone.
Since then, tech giants
Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion), Google (via the Android system) and Microsoft (via the Windows Phone) entered the market, the latter two also
lending their operating system to various handset manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola and more. The first tablets were launched in 2010: the iPad in
January and the Samsung Galaxy Tab in September. By 2011, researchers announced that smartphones outsold PCs by 7 million, thus reaching 100 million. There
were reportedly 20.6 million smartphones used in the UK in 2010 (BPI Report, 2010) — a penetration rate of 30% that was bound to increase in the past two
years — and 165 million such devices in the US — a spectacular 50% penetration
rate (nearly 80% if we’re only considering the adult population).
The apps were introduced by Apple in 2008, when the App Store opened — with gaming and social networking dominating usage in 2009-2010. By 2011, nearly 20
billion apps had been downloaded from the Apple Store, while Google’s rival Android marketplace had achieved half of that. For music, iTunes on the iPhone
made music purchase as easy and pain-free as it’s ever been. Now a variety of stores have built apps to encourage mobile shopping and all main streaming
platforms like Spotify and Deezer have apps that, for a premium price, will allow you to stream saved albums or playlists even while offline. Another major
game changer is Shazam — the music recognition software. After 30 seconds of scanning an audio sample, Shazam will identify the artist and track played,
while including a link to the iTunes store (or Amazon on non-Apple phones), also offering the option to email the discovery to yourself or a friend — or
share it on social media networks. The company boasts an incredible 8-10% purchase rate from all tagged tracks.
Why Generic Artist Apps Are Doomed
Artist apps started to catch roots as well, the majority of which are seen as just another fan communication medium. They include track streaming or
preview, along buy links, lyrics, photos, social media streams and other more or less innovative mini games or features — and are generally seen as “mobile
newsletters”. However, I don’t believe in their potential, due to the current state of the app market and customer behavior.
According to Richard Firminger of UK-based app tracking company Flurry, one of the issues with apps is discovery. Apple’s system is a closed one — the
submitted apps need to be approved before published and there are some strict guidelines. Android’s marketplace, however is free, thus creating a massive
clutter. The App Store also features apps in order to boost discovery, but for artist apps the key is efficient marketing and a big enough fan-base to
start with. Another big issue is retention, says Firminger. Apps lose 32% of their customers in a month and 96% of them in a year (which also backs the
argument made above, when talking about videos and gamification — this is a time of impatience, where people need constant stimulation and marketers are
dealing with reduced attention spans); one app that bucks the trend is Shazam — and that is because its functionality is unique (for now).
Therefore, most fans (aside the super-engaged ones) are likely to a) have difficulties in finding the app in the first place and b) get bored of
it fairly quickly — and that’s money down the drain. For this reason, I think artists should embrace the market and focus on project based apps. I will
look at two case studies below — highlighting the good and the bad and ending with some (humble) predictions.
Case Study: Bjork — Biophilia
The arguably most spectacular of all initiatives is Bjork’s Biophilia — her most recent album released as an app. This came from her desire “
to define humanity's relationship with sound and the universe, to pioneer a musical format that will smash industry conventions
”. The aim for each track was to associate a musical theme with a scientific theme, keeping an educational edge for children. Each track would have an
individual app for iPad and iPhone. In one mode, the music would play straight through accompanied by visuals. But in another, the user would interact with
the song in a way that would teach them about its musicological theme — by changing tempo, say, or rearranging the notes. Sometimes these functions would
run so deep as to turn an app into a thorough-going instrument.
The end result and monetization were as follows: people could download a mother app for free, where they could play with the elements from a constellation
and associated sounds, creating their own tunes; then, each individual track or sub-app needed to be downloaded separately, for the price of £1.45 ($2.19)
— as opposed to a regular track price, between £0.69 and £1.29 ($0.99 – $1.99). Singles were released in steps, as you would expect in the case of a
regular album — and tracks were made available to download outside of the app as well. Later on, a physical version was released, followed by a series of
remix albums. All physical copies have special features, such as “micro
textured blue mineral papers and embossed foil lettering designed by M/M Pari”. In Gerd Leonhard’s “ music like water” paradigm, this is Evian — premium,
collectible items, rare and expensive. This justifiable, especially as the costs of this project most probably reached unprecedented heights. Although the
total cost is unknown, two of the sub-apps (Hollow and Crystalline) cost £120.000 in research, development and programming.
The project’s viability was widely discussed in music and technology circles, but when questioned in a personal interview, Bjork’s manager Derek Birkett
stated Biophilia was a great success on all levels, including financially.
The setup of Bjork’s app is truly revolutionary and begs the question: is this a new art form? Inter-disciplinary art forms are not new concept – but this
is also interactive — in a way that only new technology can enable. Something similar has previously happened in gaming — where the soundtrack was
influenceable by the skill of the player, the paths that it took and the outcome. That was the first ‘liquid’ music. However, in such games, there were a
few options, whereas with this app, the possibilities are endless. Moreover, the mixture of science in the picture also suggests this is a radically new
concept. Is this the future though? Not too sure.
Case Study: Jay-Z — Decoded
Jay-Z’s app, Decoded, is also project-based, but in a different manner —
and, importantly, recognizes the interactive/ gaming element as a vital one. This one is priced at £3.99 ($6.03) — a relatively high price. This, as well,
targets core fans, revealed by the premium charge, but also exclusive content and further permitted upgrades. For the initial price, fans can own lyrics
and their “decoded” explanation for 10 songs, along with biography excerpts from the book Decoded. Users can stream the tracks or pay separately to own
them (unless they’re in their iTunes library already). For an even pricier £14.99 ($22.65), fans can access the decoded lyrics for all 36 songs presented
in the book, along some extra content.
This, alongside Bjork’s app, is an Evian in Gerd Leonhard’s terms, though creatively, it cannot be compared to Bjork’s effort. However, the monetization
scheme is very smartly devised. Core fans will have probably owned all the tracks to be Decoded, so the app offered bonus content and engaged them at a
deeper level. For hip hop in particular, lyrics are extremely important, as well as the personal story of the artist — and this app offers just that. On
the other hand, the comprehensiveness of the app, along with the in-built interactivity can serve as a great introduction to the fascinating world of
Jay-Z. Consider the extreme case where a casual listener is vaguely familiar with the artist’s music, but doesn’t own any of the tracks. If he is keen to
exploit the app to the full, he will download the deluxe version, plus each of the 36 songs, priced at an average £0.99 ($1.50) — which would take the
final bill up to approximately £50.00 ($75.00). Beyond in-app purchases like the tracks or full app, the fans are also advised to buy the Decoded book or
ebook in full, to access Jay-Z full biography and extra content. Currently, the book retails at an average retail price of £20.00 ($30.00), taking a
potential full tally to £70.00 ($105.00).
Conclusions and Predictions
I’ve looked at the rise of smartphone and apps and the impact this has had on artist marketing (Amanda Palmer), campaign and project marketing (Jay-Z) and
introducing new album formats and even art forms (Bjork). Statistics show the market is set to grow even further, with analysts predicting that by 2014 90% of mobile phone users will have a smartphone
and that business-wise, “mobile is where the growth is”. Apps are very visual and interactive, and these traits are symptomatic for the new way music is consumed. This is one of the reasons premium videos
have risen (see VEVO), along user-influenced live streaming ( Florence + The Machine and HP) and interactive, 360°
Apps are on the rise, but I believe project-based apps will be more profitable than general artist apps. I’ve shown how Jay-Z’s Decoded app could bring one
user to pay up to £70.00 ($105.00) to get all the features. Statistics confirm this theory. It would appear as, at least currently, the app market is
booming as a whole, but individual apps are still risky to produce, especially with products that don’t have a built-in unique and permanently-needed
functionality — which is what most artist apps are. The solution would appear to be confining them to artists with bigger fan-bases or, perhaps, looking at
brand-endorsed models — but most safely, focusing on project/ album-based apps.
However, apps will not replace albums. I don’t believe the Bjork model will be repeated. Such a project is too expensive to create and too risky to
monetize — and the demand doesn’t seem to be there, which explains her failed attempt to raise money on Kickstarter to create the app for Android platforms
(great extensive comment on that from Techdirt’s
Mike Masnick). Moreover, if too many apps were created similarly, the novelty would eventually wear off, and the premium price would need to be downgraded.
That would make such a project profitable if the costs of producing it would decrease as well. However, apps focusing only on a couple of tracks (like Passon Pit's recent
experiment) have a greater chance to succeed, as the game/ interactive element would be there, but the app wouldn’t take that much space and would be
easier to produce.
(Photo Credit: Flickr)
Casandra Govor is a Marketing Associate at INgrooves, a digital media distribution and technology company.
Disclaimer: This is piece is largely adapted from my dissertation New Artist Marketing and Revenue Streams in the Commercial Music Industry (Aug. 2012) for my MA degree at Goldsmiths, University of London.