Adding a third dimension to music: will interaction save the day?

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In the past four years there has been a growing focus on music interaction as a way to offer a third dimension to the consumption of music. Through my podcast I have come across many companies who have all approached the concept of music interactivity from different angles by creating new formats, games, enhanced auditory experiences and personalized remixes.

        Though the vast majority of the companies listed below have fundamentally different approaches the goal is the same: enriching the music consumption process and turning a passive experience into an active and engaging one. 

         This attempt is not dissimilar to the way in which the movie studios have decided to push out 3D as a mean to get the public to attach a new value the cinema experience – they needed to find something the public could not get by sitting in front of their 40″ TVs. Unfortunately whilst 3D is an easy form of passive interactivity and has grown to become a somewhat unified experience that is easily understood by the public, creating an interactive experience with music is a lot trickier. Music is not something that can be simply “3-Defied”.  

In-browser applications, standalone software, mobile apps, proprietary formats are only some of the ways in which the following companies have chosen to carry their products but they are by no means mutually exclusive. Categorization by means of implementation is therefore nearly impossible. 

    In the following paragraphs is an attempt to bring together some of the companies working in this space in a way that makes most sense to me. It does not want to be a definitive list but an overview of a field that is extremely dynamic. I would not be surprised to find that some of the companies listed below will have transformed their product and business model entirely in six months or a year’s time. 

The contenders to the MP3 crown

    I’d like to start with the formats that primarily aim at taking the place of the MP3 as the favorite mean of consumption of digital music files. They concentrate on creating an experience through additional content that revolves around the music rather than creating an interaction with the music itself. These are the CMX, iTunes LP and Music DNA formats. Least I should be accused of playing favorites i’m going to talk about them chronologically as they were announced.

    First up, announced in August 2009, is the CMX format. This format is developed and supported by all four majors and is basically a file which includes full artwork, extra content, lyrics and videos on top of the music itself to create an all-rounded and engaging product. The format is open, meaning that any label can create CMX files and sell them, which is a great advantage. But the projected release of the first albums in this format (a “trial run”) has slipped from November 2009 to Q2 of 2010 and the project risks loosing momentum. Also there is precious little information as to how the general public is going to enjoy the format. From the articles I read covering CMX it sounds like it will be a desktop only experience to start with (yawn…). I believe that only the integration with a major software platform such as Windows Media Player or tie-ins with hardware manufacturers could propel CMX to the stage where it can actively compete with Apple. 

    Second is the iTunes LP, launched in November 2009. This is Apple’s proprietary response to CMX. Major labels in fact at the CMX launch did their best to stress that they had approached Apple with the format way back in early 2008 but the Cupertino company had not wanted to have anything to do with it, preferring to develop its own standard instead. The iTunes LP is a closed system, it requires you to stay within the pretty walled garden imposed by iTunes and the iPod/iPhone and in my opinion is a step backwards from the total openness of DRM-free mp3s. 

To be honest if you had asked me only a month ago about the future of the iTunes LP I would have told you: “It’s already dead in the water”. Then I saw the iPad. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people thinking that the iPad will change everything, but it surely looks like the only device that can truly let you take advantage of the extra features offered by an enriched album experience in a non-intrusive way. The iPhone is clearly too small to enjoy the high resolution extra content and very few people are prepared to play around with an LP format on their actual computers (the concept scarily reminds me of those CDs that used to auto-launch random extra features as soon as they were inserted in a computer and that were shipped in their millions in the 90s).

A touch screen seems paramount to the complete enjoyment of an interactive album format.

    CMX and Apple LP offer three main advantages to the labels. First they are a way to increase in the price of digital albums. Labels have long complained that the difference in pricing between physical and digital album releases is a big factor in the decline in revenue. Second they bring back the idea of copy protection. Whilst I could not find any definite information as to whether CMX will carry DRM , it most certainly will have this option. As for the Apple LP – well – it’s an Apple format so it’s going to be a closed ecosystem anyhow. Third they re-introduce the idea of the album as a bundle – the fragmentation of the purchase of albums into individual tracks is the main factor in the disparity between digital single and digital album sales. Creating an experience that will lure the consumer to buy the whole package is the holy grail for the industry. 

    Music DNA was launched at the end of January 2010 during Midem. It has been developed by Bach Technology with part of the team that brought us the original MP3 and it’s quite different from the CMX and the iTunes LP.

    For starters the extension .DNA applies to each track and not to albums as a bundle, so that the consumer would still have a choice of buying a single track. In addition Music DNA files can actually be played by the majority of MP3-playing hardware out there – albeit without the added extras – as they are built as an extension of Mpeg7. Music DNA, like CMX and iTunes LP offers the possibility to add rich multimedia content to the file (videos, artwork) but its real strength in my opinion lies in the enhanced metadata it plans to offer. Information like tempo, key, instrumentation, mood will become ingrained in the file and therefore make music discovery and automatic play-list creation much more accurate and engaging. The format will also offer access to information that will be constantly upgraded via the Internet such as the artist’s tour schedule, blog, twitter account and so forth. 

    So a great format in theory but:

a) we have not seen any real life implementation yet and no word as to how its DRM will work

b) it will only take off if there is real need for it in the market place

c) it will struggle (and that’s an understatement) to take off if both Apple and the Majors have already placed their bets on the iTunes LP and CMX formats respectively. 

    The MP3 took off not because the creators of the format marketed it well or because the majors imposed it on the masses but because some clever kids realized that this was a great way to bypass bandwidth restrictions and exchange music online. The infrastructure that allowed for the fast acquisition and sharing of such files and ultimately granted its unmitigated success was mostly carried out in somebody’s bedroom or garage (from Napster to the first P2P networks). Neither the majors nor hardware manufacturers – perhaps not even Apple – have the clout to push a format in the digital space in the same way they pushed new hardware solutions such as the Cassette or the CD. 

Re-mixing music, a new frontier?

    First I want to talk about the Paris-based MXP4, one of the companies with most experience in this field.  It was started in 2006 so it certainly has a head-start in terms of working on an interactive format. The idea is to promote a remix culture where people don’t just play the music but they play with it and share their creation with others. They developed the .mxp4 file format which contains various versions of the track, individual parts, images and text. But although the core of MXP4 is a file format the company does not want to push it as a brand or as a new standard – their aim is more B2B. They are developing both their own mobile apps and widgets that can subsequently be licensed to content owners directly and possibly looking to license the technology for third party implementation. MXP4 can and is being integrated in web apps, widgets, mobile apps in a non-obtrusive way and as long as the customer is engaged and immersed in the experience the mission of the company is complete. This “anonymity” and focus on technology could allow them to partner with a wider range of companies. On mxp4.com you can find a number of working examples of their technology which are incredibly slick and user-friendly.

     GoMix is a London based start-up launched in 2009 but it has a great deal of experience in the field since it’s essentially a re-branding of U-Myx which was started in 2004. GoMix allows you to re-mix tracks by major artists and spread the results on social media sites through a widget. It focuses on creating partnerships between major artists and brands so that the re-mix is often associated with an advertising campaign. The implementation of the social media-friendly widget really allowed the company to take off in the second half of 2009 and for 2010 the goal is to allow users to buy the mixes they created, the revenues for which would be split between GoMix and the labels. The company created a winning combination between major label artists involvement and social media integration and sharing facilities. This in the short term is a perfect formula for a successful run, but to be successful in the long term the company needs to show the labels that people are willing to buy the remixes in large quantities and that those can constitute a significant amount of revenue. In addition it needs to keep adding new features in order to feed the appetite of the ever-migrating internet crowd and keep it from moving onto the next interesting idea.

    The third company that i want to mention in terms of re-mixing music applications is MusicMyne, this fantastic application (for now a browser-only experience) is not dissimilar on the surface to MXP4 or TronMe as a concept but its web-based implementation and the integration of purpose-created content is destined to turn a few heads in their direction. The application allows you to completely remix the song providing access not only to the original multi-track parts, which enables you to take away the voice for example or the drums, but also to alternative versions of each part and additional instruments recorded ad hoc for the program by real musicians. These allow the user to alter the original material far more creatively and allow the user to get something truly unique and original.  Have a look on on www.musicmyne.com or google the name to find some links to the apps they created. 

    Another company creating re-mixing applications is TronMe. This company is pushing its own format called IVS. There are three types of .ivs files that allow different levels of interactivity. IVS1 is fully interactive and has the song’s individual parts embedded so you can actively remix it. IVS2 and IVS3 find seamless loops within the song that allow the users to re-arrange sections, repeat a specific part without breaks and so forth, though the former is licensed by the label and the second is created through an analysis of the MP3s in your music library. TronMe integrates video in a big way in its products. Users can record their own music video via a web-cam whilst the music is playing – on top of that the way they move in front of the camera influences the way in which the music is re-mixed by the software. The company has an iPhone app almost finalized which works well and at long last it seems like a basic Mac version of the software is in the works. All in all it’s an interesting concept but the fact that they are pushing their own software and their own format requires a very high level of commitment from the user. That could slow down adoption considerably and in my opinion hinder a fundamentally good idea. 

The magic of creation

    Aviary is a Long Island start-up whose mission is in their own words to make the world’s creation accessible. They created a picture creation and image editing tool called Phoenix and an audio editing tool called Myna which allow users to create directly via the browser based applications. Whilst up to very recently access to the website was free to a point and required a subscription in order to access the most advanced features, all users can now access the full functionality of Aviary for free thanks to a new round of funding that allowed the company to change the revenue models. Myna is a really impressive audio editing tool. It’s a sequencer that is created to be accessible even by people who never used one before. It allows you to import tracks from your Soundcloud account as well as use pre -loaded samples or upload new ones from your computer. It is certainly the most advanced audio editing suite within a browser that I have seen and the company has worked hard to create a community around it, launching re-mix contests and encouraging users to share and communicate with one another. Sure, the interaction that is offered on a the site is geared towards people that want to create music as opposed to just consuming it. This means that there is probably a large selection of the general public who would not be interested in the concept. But the ease with which it can be accessed and the amazing response time of the applications could allow people who are interested in doing something creative but are not doing anything about it to take the plunge. Aviary brings the ability to create music and interact with it to the masses!

Gaming platforms – success stories and the risk of market saturation

    Guitar Hero launched in 2005 and showed the world that music could be more than just passive enjoyment by creating one of the most popular gaming franchises in history. Rock Band soon followed in its footsteps and for four years it looked like both games – and similar projects like Singstar – were going to grow indefinitely. Unfortunately due to the sheer amount of releases for the platform Guitar Hero sales slowed down considerably in 2009. Both critics and consumers accused the company of “milking” the franchise excessively, favoring content over technical development and ultimately saturating the market. In fact while many different versions of the game were released the technical innovations and new features were few, not enough to keep the public interested.Rockband Sales also suffered, but the company created an online distribution service that allows people to download extra songs without having to purchase a whole new version of the game which developed a huge online following. Guitar Hero instead continued operating in a traditional way issuing physical new versions or physical add-ons to the game. Although the market seems saturated now, there is no reason why an altered UI or the addition of some awesome new features shouldn’t re-ignite sales – but that is completely down to the developers. Activision slashed its revenue expectations for Guitar Hero in 2010 and that does not make me overly confident of their having an ace up their sleeves after all.

    TapTap revenge is one of the most successful games created  for the iPhone, distributed by start-up Tapulous it features artists from both major and independent labels. Tap Tap creates a similar experience to Guitar Hero with the player interacting with the beats of the track by tapping on the screen or shaking the iPhone itself. Tapulous created a number of artist-specific apps (Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Nine Inch Nails, Wheezer ) as well as releasing a sequel to their main product, Tap Tap Revenge 2. The game allows for interaction with other Tap Tap users and features a split mode screen, which has the potential to become an incredible feature on a device such as the iPad. While Tapulous is constantly releasing new products and developing artist-specific applications it is also pushing the envelope of interactivity by adding new features all the time. This is the best way for the company to fend off stagnation and saturation and keep the game fresh. 

When life seeps into the music through technology

    You think it’s impossible to create beautiful soundscapes out of the rattling noise and screeches made by your commuter train? You should try RJDJ.

Rjdj is a complete puzzle for me to define and that’s why I placed in in a separate category. Part auditory experience, part game, part engine to create new music this iPhone application allows programmers to create “scenes” and make it so that the music contained within can be generated and manipulated and triggered by external noises and by the sensors on the iPhone. In their introductory video they define the experience like augmented music as it takes on all aspects of everyday life: your movement, sound, location, time – each of which generate different pre-programmed responses within the scene which result in a unique playback experience every time. The scenes created are mostly soundscapes , capturing data and translating it into very interesting sounds that vary according to the scene’s internal programming. The company ships several versions of the software, has artist-specific apps (see the Little Boots app for example) and also allows for in-app purchase of extra scenes. It has attracted a healthy number of programmers who are developing scenes for it and I have no doubt that the company is destined to grow not explosively but in a gradual and sustainable way. The only way in which I can see there being a quick explosion of the RJDJ phenomenon is for them to release a kick-ass app for a N.1 artist that would bring the concept to the masses.  

Outside the box – Music and Lyrics

    But music interactivity is not only in the sound itself. A company that has created a new way of interacting with words in music is TuneWiki. The Israeli start-up tapped into the yet unexploited lyrics market to create a gigantic database to which users can add and synch lyrics in a collaborative manner. At start-up the app scans for the music files you have on your phone it then works out which of the lyrics for those songs are already present on Tunewiki’s database. Chances are that the track will already be indexed and synched in which case you case you can play it right off the bat and the application will display the lyrics in a karaoke-like fashion.

    The beauty of the project is that the synchronization is done by the users. For example if you find a song for which there are lyrics but they are not synchronized you can do the job yourself by simply listening to it and tapping on the screen every time a new line is uttered to make the text progress. Believe me, once you try this once you will get totally addicted to it. I actually managed to synch a whole episode of my podcast and plan on getting more transcriptions done in order to synch my future episodes, although it really does take a while to do this for a half-hour show. 

Tunewiki has another two features that make it a winning formula. First is the mapping functionality that allows you to see on a map the location of other Tunewiki users who are playing the same track as you. Second is the instant translating engine. This allows you to translate any lyric that is being displayed in a myriad of languages at the touch of a button. This is a huge advantage not only for music but also for Podcasting, it would mean that for example any non-English speaker would be able to listen to Digital Music Trends in Greek by reading the “subtitles”.

Conclusions: interaction, the social space, commercial viability and constant innovation.

    The mantra that you hear repeated over and over again at industry gatherings is that the record business is in trouble but the music business is just fine. There is a huge appetite for new music and new ways to interact with it. Applications that have developed a mainstream appeal, such as Tap Tap Revenge for example, show how interactive music it not just a niche market with limited potential.       
 Unfortunately though with the explosion of the App stores which brought hundreds of thousands of applications onto the marketplace at the same time, the possibility of a new Tap Tap success story in that market has been vastly reduced: how do you get discovered? It seems to me that most of the companies mentioned above will need the support of either Major Labels or that of hardware and software developers in order to integrate their ideas in the everyday life of the mainstream consumer. No matter how influential an independent act may be it’s never going to beat the potential diffusion of a MusicMyne or MXP4 application based on Lady Gaga’s music for example. I don’t believe that Music DNA will be able to take off if it’s not adopted by major label artists and if manufacturers don’t integrate it on their devices to exploit its potential.
 
    Sure, there is the argument that social media could help a company develop a large enough following if the product is truly compelling. The Internet is democratic after all and will go with what works best. But content is still required for the social media space to pay attention, that’s why Gomix managed to achieve such great results after only a few months.
Another big problem for companies operating under their own brand name on the net is that it’s relatively easy to reach a vast audience quickly but very hard to maintain it. Internet crowds are fickle and it takes them a matter of seconds to stop using your service and start using a new one that looks cooler, sounds cooler or is simply different. You just need to look at the painful process Myspace is going through only three years after being valued billions. It would seem safer in this market to create backbone technologies that can be used to power a variety of services. In this way if one of them goes out of fashion the same engine could be used by the next cool thing. The only way for public-facing sites to preserve their edge is to innovate constantly, engage with and listen to their users in order to make the experience more absorbing and engaging with every step.

    New Formats, Re-Mixing applications, gaming platforms, creativity suites, life-influenced soundscapes and interactive lyrics are all in their individual way fantastic ideas that will in time change the way we listen to music. In the meantime they are bound to evolve and integrate – their success depends on their appetite for innovation as well their drive to collaborate with one another. Open standards, shared APIs and the will to experiment with new business models are about to drive the music industry in a whole new direction. Much more exciting than 3-D.

Digital Music Trends Interviews with some of the companies named above: 


MXP4 : This interview is from back last August and much has changed at MXP4 in the meantime but the concept is still the same!  http://digitalmusictrends.podbean.com/2009/08/04/digital-music-trends-episode-17/ 

TronMe : This interview is also quite old dating to back last June http://www.digitalmusictrends.com/weekly-podcast/2009/6/22/digital-music-trends-episode-11.html

Aviary : http://soundcloud.com/digitalmusictrends/interview-with-alan-queen-from-aviary

Gomix : http://soundcloud.com/digitalmusictrends/interview-with-olly-barnes-from-gomix

MusicMyne : http://soundcloud.com/digitalmusictrends/interview-with-david-ratcliff-rom-musicmyne


Andrea Leonelli 21/02/2010
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