From Bjork releasing songs as iPad apps to indie bands selling concert tickets directly to fans via cellphone, music world trailblazers are exploiting new technologies to connect with audiences.
With music downloading – authorized or not – an inescapable reality today, a growing number of artists, managers and industry figures are looking for new ways to take advantage of technology – seeing it not as a hindrance, but as an invaluable tool.
For an in-depth look at how technological changes are affecting the music industry, consumption and artists' relationship with fans, check out CBC/Radio-Canada's Music 2.0: Unlimited choice, a mouse click away.
Icelandic singer Bjork has always been a unique and groundbreaking artist, but she struck ambitious new ground in 2011 with Biophilia, released as a series of custom iPad apps as well as a traditional album. The whole project is also supported by an immersive, playful website.
"Bjork is an artist who takes risks…A dream client in our industry is one who is willing to test the waters and to join us in our new discoveries," says Mark McQuillan, technical director of Toronto-based Jam3, which created the singer’s Biophilia site.
Set to the singer’s soliloquy about the album’s inspiration, the Biophilia site’s revolving, dynamic interface is reminiscent both of a star chart and a far-out baby’s mobile, able to be manipulated at the user’s delight. Similarly, Biophilia’s tablet apps (one per track on the album) allow the audience to explore and play with Bjork’s songs – for instance, you can create simulated bolts of electricity of varying intensity and size through your finger swipes, as her song Thunderbolt plays in the background.
"Interactivity is a very important element because it engages users. One thing that television can’t offer you is a participatory experience. One where the user can engage and spend time," McQuillan said.
"An artist can release an album, people can listen to it and talk about it just as they did 15, 20 years ago, but today’s users are looking as well as listening. They’re downloading and browsing their information and they can stop and start at any point."
The music-listening experience has indeed evolved, according to Jean-Robert Bisaillon, co-founder of Iconoclaste, a Montreal artist management and new firm.
"It’s increasingly rare to listen to music without doing something else at the same time. For an immersive experience, more and more people are turning to formats that combine images and music," he said.
Social media interaction, now such a dominant force in pop culture, has also permeated the music industry. Microblogging service Twitter, for instance, has facilitated new ties between artists and their audiences. Why write Lady Gaga a fan letter, when it can take just seconds to send a tweet to the pop star (and potentially receive one back)?
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People "are spending more time on the internet. That’s an increasing statistic. So if musicians want to have time with potential audience members, they should engage them where they’re spending their time," said Bisaillon.
Beyond well-used networks like Facebook and Twitter, specialized DIY tools now available allow artists to deal directly with fans and cut out the middleman. One example is marketing and retail platform Topspin Media, which has been used by musicians ranging from Arcade Fire to Paul McCartney to cultivate their fan base. The wide-ranging service includes tools for e-commerce (e.g. selling tickets and merchandise), fan-info management, online promotion and music streaming.
"The ultimate interaction occurs at concerts, but the web provides lots of ways to interact, too," said Guillaume Déziel, manager of electro-jazz group Misteur Valaire and co-creator of the French-language music discovery site Postedecoute.ca.
"We’ll make short videos, talk to fans and have them post on our Facebook wall. We’ll send an email to a list of 31,000 people. Maybe 150 will reply, saying they saw us in Toulouse or Berlin and loved the show. We’ll write back and get a conversation going because without these fans we’re nothing."
Breaking down barriers
A variety of attempts at public engagement have also been tested in recent years as a way to attract new audiences. One interesting model is French-based record label My Major Company’s appeal to wannabe music moguls: the firm seeks direct investment from music fans in order to produce albums for new artists (in the vein of online fundraising platform Kickstarter). Another technique is the now-ubiquitous free music download.
In the case of the latter, "we might not get their money up front, but we keep in touch, forge a relationship and eventually make money other ways," said Déziel.
"They might buy concert tickets, T-shirts and merchandise. They might finally go to the record shop and buy the CD because they think ‘I know this group, I like them and I’ll get their album.’"
Ultimately, musicians must be willing to adjust their methods to accommodate technology and the changing times, he says.
"We can’t tell fans how to consume music," according to Déziel. "Fans consume music the way they want. We must adapt to them, not vice versa."