Paul McCartney has released five of his classic post-Beatles albums as tablet apps. Band on the Run, RAM, McCartney, McCartney 2, and Wings Over America contain interviews, video footage, artwork and photos in addition to the music itself, and you still get change from A$10.
Of course the integration of music and smartphone tech is nothing new. Brian Eno’s fascinating 2008 Bloom app is an infinite music generator that responds to screen taps from the listener to mould the musical experience.
And since you’re on the internet reading an article about music then you probably know that Bjork’s hugely successful Biophilia app links each musical piece to an interactive art work so that you watch as much as listen; and that there is a worldwide trend for adding YouTube views to Top 10 sales charts.
I would be interested in whatever tune Paul whistles to himself even as he makes his tea, and if he is into apps then we have to look seriously at the commercial potential it indicates. But the limitations inherent to the walled garden of smartphone apps have launched a thousand op-ed pieces, suggesting that apps per se might not be the future of music.
McCartney’s move is interesting though in signalling the coming of age of a broader trend: the digital age is seeing a blossoming of multimedia content, so that the radio is turning into TV (via in-studio cameras), the TV is turning into the internet (via smart TVs and on demand programming), and music is becoming visual.
Last year English electronic duo Goldfrapp released probably the greatest album in the history of all known music, Tales Of Us, which illustrates where multimedia music might be heading. Rather than release just a conventional album and videos for two or three stand-out tracks, there was an iPhone app which allows the user to produce images redolent of the style of the album’s artwork; there was a series of five thematically-linked videos that play a key role in adding real meaning to the songs - there is nothing in the lyrics to indicate that Stranger is really about a mass murderer of married women - that was filmed on a shoestring budget; and there was a live cinema event across dozens of locations in which a broadcast of the videos was followed by an exclusive live performance.
There is nothing in itself revolutionary about any of these in isolation, but it does a good job of illustrating the more general shift away from music as the product to music as one element of a multimedia art form, and away from the release of the audio album as the event to instead representing just one event in a series of linked media releases.
Paul McCartney of course has considerable form as a spotter of trends that are ready for market. His move signals that music may be on the verge of evolving into a new cross-platform multimedia art form.