Thanks to the digital music revolution, we can now enjoy virtually unlimited music almost anywhere. But we also lost something when we gained the ability to push the play button and listen for hours on end: In many ways, we pay less attention to what we're listening to. Now there are apps for that, too.
Bjork was on to something when she released her Biophilia album and its accompanying app in 2011. Each of the ten songs on the album had its own experience within the app, allowing people to explore the themes. She created an immersive musical experience—and caught the front end of a new way of listening.
Other artists and record labels are experimenting with apps, too, and in different ways. From big names like Lady Gaga to golden oldies like Crosby, Stills and Nash, musical acts are reinventing mobile music yet again. The apps present fans with a much richer experience than a single digital music file could.
Start simple: Official apps
If you're a fan of a popular musician, they probably have an official app. Taylor Swift, Madonna, Carly Rae Jepsen, The Gaslight Anthem—these are just a few of the music acts who offer free official apps for iOS (and in many cases Android). The apps serve as hubs for videos and news about the artists, and let you listen to music samples and buy the full tracks. You can also chat with other fans.
These apps are less about listening and more about being a fan. But if you are a fan, there's no better way to keep up with all your favorite star's latest works and news.
Dig deeper: Subscriptions
Crosby, Stills and Nash's iOS app offers two levels of CSN mania: The free version includes song samples, the history of the band as revealed through tours and photos, and news about what they're up to now. Which is all well and good for casual fans—but for serious fans there's much more. You can subscribe for $4 a month and get exclusive content and online community features. That's a lot of CSN.
If you're a jazz fan, check out Groovebug's Blue Note app. As with the Crosby, Stills and Nash app, you can try a free version, or you can subscribe—in this case, for $2 a month. Your subscription gets you access to thousands of songs recorded for the Blue Note record label since its founding in 1939. The music streams at 320 kilobits per second (and adjusts if your connection can't handle that much bandwidth). With or without the subscription, you can dig deep into the Blue Note catalog, learning about each artist and who played on various albums. Featured playlists help newbies get started with subgenres like hard bop, while veterans may even find a deep track on an album they've forgotten about. Subscribers can also discuss tracks with other jazz aficionados.
Somewhere in between, The Rolling Stones just released an official, free app, with a $1 in-app purchase to unlock exclusive videos of interviews and performances.
Now for something different
Delaware takes a much different approach, which may be closer to Bjork's Biophilia than any other offering. The Japanese music label releases albums as apps for iOS. The label favors music heavy on sampling and electronics from artists that many of us have never heard. But more than the music, the app is about more than just the music—it's a truly interactive way to experience the music: You hear, see, and touch.
The music sounds better than it would in audio-file format: The apps provide CD-quality songs instead of highly compressed MP3 or AAC files. In addition, you can watch the record spin round and round: As the songs play, a virtual record spins, adding a mesmerizing quality. And you can touch the record and move your fingers back and forth to "scratch" it: Turning over your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch flips the record to the next side. The experience is so immersive, the music won't even play in background. You must focus on the app and the music if you want to listen.
The future of music listening?
These apps for music fans have the potential to change how you listen to your music. On the positive side, they get you more engaged in the sound. You don't just push play and let the music drift along in the background—you read the lyrics and check out the pictures.
But the apps also segregate the music from the rest of your collection. That will change habits you've gotten used to: No more custom playlists or shuffling of songs. In many ways, these apps harken back to the days of LPs—you are more engaged in the listening experience, but your selection is more limited.
Whether these kinds of apps prosper, we'll be seeing more like them. Lady Gaga announced that she’ll release an app to go with her next album, ARTPOP, in early 2013. If her legion of fans get behind the idea, the floodgates may open.