The music app is relatively unexplored territory for many musicians (lest we count Justin Bieber’s official fragrance app). In 2011, Björk bundled her new album “Biophilia” with a mobile app of the same name, presenting a game for each song. Last week, Radiohead released “PolyFauna,” a visual companion to their 2011 release “The King of Limbs.” Does veering into smartphone territory become more of a distraction than a new creative outlet? Radiohead and Björk’s respective projects often feel more like glorified iTunes visualizers than new listening experiences.
In “PolyFauna,” the user navigates a visual dream world of forests, mountains and oceans. Whereas Björk’s app came with distinct rules (like a traditional video game), “PolyFauna” is vague in direction. “Follow the red dot,” the only instructions read. Swiping across the screen creates centipede-like creatures while audio files from “Bloom,” the first track of “The King of Limbs,” echo in the background. Finding and holding the phone steady when a red dot appears takes the user to a new world.
Radiohead has either released a unique visual companion to their music … or a distraction to appease hungry fans. When musicians dive too deep into non-musical projects, they can lose focus of what listeners truly want: new music. Did either “Biophilia” or “The King of Limbs” need video game versions? Not really. Both projects are fun to experience but do not change how you hear the music. Yet an interactive app can bridge the gap between musician and listener in ways that playing a record cannot.
Many artists have tried to create a more interactive experience with varying degrees of success. Pete Townshend’s 1970 “Lifehouse” project conceptualized a synthesizer that could create music based on any audience member’s profile (anything from their hobbies to astrological signs). David Byrne has undertaken a number of interactive projects, like building a sound installation and guitar pedals controllable by audience members. There was a Michael Jackson video game called “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.” Although the idea is not new, Radiohead and Björk allow fans a physical, personal experience with their music not possible before mobile technology.
The rise of the smartphone worked in conjunction with the rise of streaming and the declining value of buying music. Other major artists have realized the potential of integrating mobile app and listening experience — Jay-Z premiered “Magna Carta Holy Grail” via a Samsung app (albeit just as a music stream). Distraction or not, perhaps Björk and Radiohead are simply ahead of the curve.