By Knar Bedian, Editor in Chief and co-founder of Sound of Boston and journalist previously published in Billboard, Wired, AUX Magazine and Gizmodo.
Imagine if every recipe in a cooking magazine was paired with a completed culinary dish for readers to taste. That’s what the Internet did for music publications. With the web, music magazines could finally present a serving of audio side-by-side with the text discussing it. Though hearing Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes” while reading a review of In Between Dreams isn’t quite the same as sampling a steaming stack of syrupy hotcakes while reading a recipe in Bon Appetit, the concept is shared. Yet publications were slow to adopt the online medium, and those who did struggled to understand it.
Mobile introduced the picnic; banana pancakes could now be enjoyed hot off the griddle anywhere – the combination of visual and audio was no longer chained to the seat in front of the computer. But rather than rushing to purchase picnic baskets, magazines have been hesitant to move their content to the small screen. They’re putting out apps at a sluggish pace, one that mirrors the slow adoption and production of their now polished online presence. As music technology publication Evolver.fm noted, in 2011 Rolling Stone and Billboard were still app-less. But if the online past is an indication of what’s to come, a truly immersive mobile experience will soon be as commonplace as the functional, attractive websites.
Perhaps they left the blinding hot pink 90’s design behind, but the way publications are handling apps is reminiscent of their web approach. Today, traditional music publications like Rolling Stone, NME, Billboard, and Filter simply rewrap the content of an older medium. As New York Times’ Business of Technology columnist Nick Bilton explained, they’re just recycling old material - “content that is freely available elsewhere.”
However, the publication industry has begun to recognize the importance of a mobile presence. Galmour Magazine recently released numbers stating that “half of Glamour.com's 7.5 million readers are reading from their phones,” prompting their move to mobile. As for the music publication industry, Bilton finds apps hold much promise: “Publications have the ability to make their magazines interactive for the first time ever. People tried this with CD-ROMs and failed, they tried again with the Web, and have seen slow adoption but... app[s] could draw more readers to sit back and experience a magazine in a fully immersive way.” So why isn’t every music magazine a digital playground?
From adjusting for smaller screen real estate to digging up resources for their mobile counterpart, there’s many a hurdle for music publication apps. Some believe that digital’s interactive, flashy features are contingent on access, economic resources and manpower. Even digital native Pitchfork looked beyond their own team to build their app, turning to production agency Stinkdigital for help. Mark Pytlik of Stinkdigital also commented on how most music publications lack the resources needed for in-house app development – for Pitchfork, a partnership with Lexus gave the publication the boost it needed to jump over its economic capital hurdle. The extra effort did not go unnoticed: Lauryn Siegel, a director and producer who’s worked in the music industry, noted that Pitchfork’s app “felt totally one-of-a-kind.”
While no other magazine has churned out a similar weekly digest of web content, the Pitchfork Weekly app has not strayed far from the apps of likes of Rolling Stone and NME, which continue to repackage old content. But the “immersive” aspect Bilton speaks of can be found elsewhere. AUX and SOUNDS are two music publications that are mobile natives – they produce original content specifically for mobile, constructing a world that was built for immersion and encourages an active user. If mobile is a portable pancake picnic, these magazine apps put breakfast into its proper carrying container: the picnic basket.
Publications don’t have to be born as apps to put out an immersive experience: Spin’s Spin Play app puts the reader in control of the content on screen as users swipe through slideshows, tap to reveal information and create in-app playlists by saving songs for later listening. The app even incorporates the iPad’s tilt movement controls, so you can, for example, turn your virtual head to scan sprawling festival grounds. Unlike its fellow print and online music publications, Spin’s app flaunts an engaging experience.
Spin’s successful adoption of the app format suggests its competitors may soon follow. And, although Spin Play, AUX and SOUNDS are few in having fully adapted to the mobile medium, the patterns of the past and recent efforts indicate music publications will soon be picking up their picnic baskets, finally putting out content fit for the app medium. But, NME, leave the scorching hot pink eyesores behind.