The 21st Century Album

With Apple’s announcement of iCloud last month, recorded music seems poised to enter a new phase of its Ovidian metamorphosis from physical object to digital file. iCloud, and similar services announced by Amazon and Google, will enable any purchased song to become available on all of a user’s devices through a call to a remote server. In effect, what these services will provide is a further dematerialization of music, another step away from the physicality of the album, with its attendant liner notes, lyric sheets, and cover art.

Curiously, however, at the exact moment when music appears ready to disappear into the ether, Björk is preparing a multimedia experience around her next album, Biophilia. Each song on the album will be accompanied by a smartphone app containing conventional and invented music notation, games, and explorations of natural phenomena. Björk has explained these apps as a new way to mediate between objects and sound: “It seems like every couple of decades this takes a somersault, and I enjoy the fresh point of view, like the honeymoon of the new format where you can really have an effect on the overall direction… I would like to feel the apps are equal to the song in the same way I have always aimed for the music video to be equal to the song: the 1+1 is 3 thing.” Björk is not alone in thinking that Biophilia is pushing toward a new form of artistic expression; some critics have even compared the process surrounding the album to the birth of opera.

Whether or not the “app album” takes off as a format, Biophilia does point toward a potential route for musicians interested in maintaining the album as a focused artistic statement rather than a collection of sound files. The ubiquity of new media, including apps, means that songs can be readily paired with other art forms and experienced as a kind of 21st century Gesamtkunstwerk, complete with YouTube videos, Flickr streams, and blog posts. All that is needed is a media format to encompass these disparate elements.

In the case of Biophilia, Björk has hinted at a “mother app” that will act as a central galaxy in which the other apps appear as constellations. While perfectly illustrative of Björk’s vision for the album, such a model is not scalable, not least because it relies on a small subset of devices for consumption (the iPad and the iPhone).

.ePub, on the other hand (at last the reason for the digression becomes clear!), is uniquely equipped to handle this mix of new media. The file type allows for HTML5 embeds of audio, video, links, editable text areas, and, yes, even games. Anything viewable in a web browser can theoretically be incorporated into an .ePub document. As such, .ePub is the perfect example of an agnostic file format: it is essentially mutable, able to be molded into the artist’s vision. Furthermore, because .ePub is the standard eBook format, an .ePub document has the potential to reach far more people than a device-specific app. Anyone with an eReader will be able to experience an .ePub album as a unified whole. And that is a beautiful thing in an age where recorded music threatens to evaporate into the cloud.

Bjork performing Biophilia at the Manchester International Festival in England.

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