Jay Z and the Mainstreaming of the ‘Album App’

Jay Z instantly became the biggest artist to launch an album with an app last week with "Magna Carta Holy Grail." But album apps have actually been around for a few years and could become a common way to acquire music in the future

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Though Jay Z’s latest album officially went on sale this week at retailers and on iTunes, certain fans were able to get their hands on the product early — and for once, it wasn’t through piracy. Supported by a huge marketing push, Magna Carta … Holy Grail launched on July 4 exclusively on the Samsung Galaxy via a mobile app.

“We need to write the new rules,” the rap superstar said in a recent commercial announcing the unusual distribution method. As an artist who’s sold tens of millions of records in his 17-year career, Jay Z instantly became the biggest artist to launch an album with an app. However, he wasn’t the first. Album apps have actually been around for a few years and could become a common way to acquire music in the future.

While Jay Z’s album app was offered to fans for free — Samsung paid the artist a reported $5 million in advance for 1 million digital copies of the album — other artists have attempted to generate revenue directly from fans via mobile apps. Icelandic singer Bjork released her 2011 album Biophilia as a suite of iPad apps that included videos and interactive games tied to the album’s music for $12.99. Shinobi Ninja, a New York-based rock group, released an iPhone game in 2010 in which players unlock more of the band’s music as they advance through levels. Just last fall indie rockers The xx released an interactive app for iPhone and Android phones to accompany their new album Coexist, featuring exclusive music videos and interactive album artwork.

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In all cases, the goal was to engage audiences in a novel way. Self-contained apps for individual albums, complete with interactive features and exclusive content, might convince more people to continue purchasing music at a time when many users have stopped buying physical CDs and are even forgoing digital music libraries in favor of streaming services like Spotify. “There’s still a feeling within the industry that they’d like to have something that will ‘replace the CD,’” says Catherine Moore, an associate professor of music business at New York University. “Some people have compared them to the new vinyl. It encourages the user to think about the album as the album, not as a collection of songs.”

Apps come with their own thorny set of problems that CDs don’t have, though. For one, they’re expensive to make. Earlier this year, when Bjork launched a Kickstarter to bring Biophilia to Android and Windows 8, she pegged the production cost at a whopping 375,000 British pounds (about half a million dollars), then cancelled the campaign after it was clear she’d come nowhere close to that goal. Apps are also a lot more likely to malfunction than a CD or an iTunes download. Samsung was widely criticized on the 4th of July when fans struggled to download Jay Z’s album at midnight due to server overload. The company and the rapper faced even more criticism over the extensive phone permissions that the app requested, including users’ GPS location and access to their social media accounts. And like anything else in our digital world, they’re not totally protected from piracy. The Jay Z app has already been cloned by hackers.

 “My feeling is that unless the app is visually really engaging, really fits with the music, that there’s better ways to spend your creative resources,” Moore says.

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A simpler approach that many artists are adopting is a more general app that serves as a way to promote an artist’s overall brand. Mobile Roadie, an app creator program that allows artists to cheaply create templated apps, is used by artists such as Taylor Swift, Adele and Linkin Park. Users are able to look up tour dates, watch videos, communicate with fellow fans and make in-app purchases of an artist’s music. Sometimes artists use the apps to talk directly to fans or offer them exclusive discounts. Swift, whose app has been downloaded more than a million times, has generated more than half a million track sales through the program.

“It really brings the artist and the fan closer together,” says Michael Schnedier, CEO of Mobile Roadie. “That, of course, long term, could be a driver of all sorts of things, including buying music or buying tickets to shows or buying merch.”

The next big test for album and artist-specific music apps will come later this year when Lady Gaga launches her next album, ARTPOP, with a mobile app. With such big names now going mobile, it seems likely that more artists will test the waters. The app likely isn’t the music industry’s saving grace, but it could be a promising new way to engage with fans on the platform where they spend much of their day. “We’re still in an age of try everything, throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” says E. Michael Harrington, a music business professor and member of the Future of Music Coalition Advisory Board. “We’ll spend money for convenience or cool packaging or cool delivery.”

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