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Does The Digital Album Have A Future?

Ituneslp-logoGuest post by Aaron Tap (@aarontap), a guitarist, singer, and producer who performs and records with the likes of Matt Nathanson, Paula Kelley, and more.

Despite the shift to single-serve music culture, there remains a significant group of fans who want something more from their digital music. Listeners who yearn for a more tactile and immersive experience that helps them delve deeper into their music as if it were being served via an LP. To date, there have been some notable steps into the digital LP arena but an ideal has yet to be reached.

The first major entry to the field was the iTunes LP. Apple quietly unveiled their LP format in 2009 and its had just about as much cultural impact as their Ping service, which is a shame because on a basic level, they brought something pretty cool to the marketplace.

For the same cost as buying a full album on iTunes you get a mini-website within the iTunes framework by which you can view custom visualizations, artwork, and lyrics while the record plays. Many iTunes LPs also include bonus video content, which in the context of the LP seems to be more special than when they just offer a video as a bonus download.

The entire thing can also be viewed in full-screen mode, allowing for 100% attention to the experience. iTunes gets props for coming up with a decent, if a bit old-fashioned, LP solution but by a) limiting it to a relatively static DVD/self-enclosed website format and, worse, b) not creating a version for mobile devices, they have seriously hobbled its potential.

More recently, Spotify unveiled the Complete Collection plug-in. While less technically refined than the iTunes LP, this concept resonates a little more, as it relied less on flashy graphics than on simply displaying album art in an easy-to-use format that doesn’t require total immersion.

The Complete Collection is currently limited to just a handful of artists but they are adding new ones regularly. However, all they are really doing is digitizing existing booklets – some of them decades old – and the experience is weighed down by unnecessary, clunky skeuomorphs like page-turning graphics and faux page-creases to emulate an actual booklet. This is digital; don’t pretend. Innovate.

Also, navigation is a little sloppy. You should be able to click the large cover art to start playback, content doesn’t always load, and if you navigate away from the app while playing the LP, upon return you have lost the artwork and are sent back to the main app page. Still, as a basic version of a possibly addictive feature, it’s a good step.

Another approach is the individual LP application. Kristin Hersh released her last album, Crooked, as an iPhone and iPad app . There was a lot to love about this app, notably song-by-song audio commentary, essays, and a simple but effective swipe interface for checking out all the usual album info. As a value-added experience, this one is the most compelling among the LPs that I’ve checked out.

But, again, there are limitations: it’s not reasonable to expect that people will want to install an app for every record they buy, or even only for releases by their favorite artists. And if the digital LP is to be effective, expanded content will need to be wrapped up with a portable music format that is readily playable on all of a fan’s digital and mobile devices.

The potential for deep engagement is far greater on mobile devices, as people are more likely to be listening to music at an otherwise idle time and willing to dig into engaging details. If a music experience on a mobile device offered some of the visual interactivity of the iTunes LP or Complete Collection with the addition of a built-in browser and credits text linked to all and sundry external sites with the potential for limitless exploration, a majority of fans couldn’t help themselves from clicking and digging in, learning things they didn’t know they wanted to know.

The information is out there, whether it be from discogs.com, Wikipedia, or fan sites. And none of this need be limited to a full album purchase, either. It should be tied in with streaming services and with single-song downloads. And it’s a fact of the web that people can be inspired simply by clicking down a rabbit-hole of links.

Someone is listening to Def Leppard’s Hysteria and clicks on Mutt Lange’s name, finds out he wrote “Do You Believe In Love” for Huey Lewis, hates Huey Lewis but then learns that Huey played harmonica on an obscure solo LP by Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott and says “fuck, yeah, I love ‘The Boys Are Back in Town!’” And suddenly this person is downloading the Jailbreak album.

It’s this kind of immediate response and serendipitous discovery process that will drive the development of a successful digital LP.

The fact that the digital music landscape is so volatile – with the old school bumping up against new technology on a seemingly daily basis and with music services rapidly coming and going – underscores the fact that an ideal has yet to be reached. Columbia records introduced the long-player in the late 40s, just in time for rock and roll to turn music on its head. With rock and roll in its dotage, it’s time for a new format that will enjoy that same kind of longevity and will engage and delight fans, from the casual to the obsessive, for decades to come.

Aaron Tap is a guitarist, vocalist, music producer, and overall sound-obsessed human. He spent years in the Boston music scene before relocating to Los Angeles with frequent collaborator Paula Kelley. He now records and produces in his own studio, QuailTop. When not making records, he tours the world with Matt Nathanson, The Paula Kelley Orchestra, Jesse Macht, and others.

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