Creative Music Distribution through Digital Channels

Mia E Lee
Mia Ellis-Lee
Design & Frontend Development
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With the advent of the internet in the early 21st century, record executives, industry experts, artists, and even fans were quick to sound the death knell of the music industry as we had come to know it. As immensely popular applications like Napster and Limewire gave way to Torrenting and sites like RapidShare and MegaUpload, the emergence of widespread piracy seemed like the beginning of the end for the music industry to many.

As we know now though, the music industry is still kickin’ – and the last few years seem to have (at least partially) dispelled the myth that the popularity of the internet would cause piracy to skyrocket and the industry to crumble. The popularity of digital distribution platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music indicates a shift in attitude between both the industry itself and consumers towards how we distribute and consume music.  Meanwhile, platforms such as Tidal, SoundCloud, Deezer, and YouTube fill even more niches of music distribution. While the long-term sustainability of these platforms is unknown, user growth and increasing revenue (particularly in regards to Spotify and Apple Music) point to the early success of these platforms.

Artists, record labels, and streaming platforms are getting more creative with how they distribute music too. The internet is an incredibly powerful mode of distribution – a trait responsible for the advent of both music piracy and legal streaming services. Not only is reaching millions of individuals possible, but the way in which artists do so is becoming increasingly creative and unbounded to traditional ways of distribution.

From Radiohead’s 2007 pay-what-you-want digital release of In Rainbows to Beyoncé’s unannounced release of her 2013 self-titled album exclusive to iTunes – the internet allows for a myriad of inventive and innovative ways for artists to share music. Without further ado, here are five of my favourite creative instances of music distribution that I’ve come across.

Gorillaz Augmented Reality App - Gorillaz

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Sure, Apple and Google might be pushing augmented reality hard in advance of their newest smartphone releases, but Gorillaz are already ahead of the curve. Prior to the release of their 2017 album Humanz, the masterminds behind the band (musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett) worked to release the app which superimposes imagery from Gorillaz music videos onto the user’s surroundings.

Albarn and Hewlett didn’t just use the app to bring Gorillaz to life though – they also used the app to host geo-specific listening parties for Humanz at over 500 locations worldwide. Essentially, fans would travel to one of the specified locations on select days (April 21/22/23), and using the app would be able to listen to the new album a week prior to its official release. Of course, the listening parties were only a limited time event, but you can still check out the application to discover playlists made by the band members and other goodies.

Tracks on Tracks – Apple Music, Toronto Transit Commission, Universal Music Canada, Various Artists

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It’s common for streaming platforms to showcase new music through playlists (for instance, Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlists or Tidal’s “Staff Picks” playlists), but Apple Music’s “Tracks on Tracks” program caught my attention for its focus on a specific locale and setting. Through a partnership with the Toronto Transit Commission and Universal Music Canada, Apple Music released two playlists: “Rush Hour” and “Hush Hour” aimed at TTC commuters (although commuters in other cities can check out these playlists too). The two playlists contrast each other in terms of mood and tempo - the former being more upbeat (for morning commutes), the latter being more subdued (for evening commutes).

The relationship of music and context is the facet of “Tracks on Tracks” that I find most intriguing; certain songs have always been tied in my mind to places and times in my life. Wilco’s Jesus, etc. will always remind me of warm, teenage summer nights sitting on rooftops. Robyn’s Dancing On My Own will always remind me of that time I knocked a glass of water clear across my bedroom while flailing my limbs. A simple playlist might not seem particularly earth-shattering but connecting times, places, and emotions to music distribution can lead to some incredibly intriguing possibilities. Of course, the idea of playlists for events like parties or holidays (Christmas comes to mind) have existed for a long time – but what about playlists for a specific time of day? Or a specific weather event? Taking this idea further, how about playlists curated through data collection designed to trigger nostalgia in each listener? “Tracks on Tracks” might just be scratching the surface of what is possible in tailoring music distribution to listeners.

Multi-track Releases - Various Artists 

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While some artists eschew the reinterpretation of their works, others embrace it. In 2005 Nine Inch Nails released a multi-track file (or “stem”) of their song “The Hand that Feeds”, allowing listeners to explore their own creativity through remixing or sampling the song. Since then, bands and artists like Phoenix, Bon Iver, Death Grips, Lamb of God, and Ben Folds have all released legal stems for various releases.

Of course many illegal stems for songs can easily be found on the internet, which is perhaps part of the reason that I find legal stem releases from artists directly to be such a refreshing practice. Supplying listeners with the stems directly shows that some artists view remixing and sampling of their work as a practice which showcases their work in new and unique ways. In this mindset (one which I personally admire), success is not a zero-sum game - reinterpretations of an artistic work do not diminish or take away from the merit or success of the original.

Simply put, remixes and sampling helps music reach a greater audience by introducing the same music in new ways. Big ups to the artists that believe in creativity begetting creativity.

THE NETWORK - Nicolas Jaar

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In 2016, Chilean-American electronic artist and producer Nicolas Jaar launched a mysterious new online radio network titled and stylized as THE NETWORK (you can check it out here). Users accessing the site are prompted to enter a number between 0-333, which “tunes” the radio station to that specific channel (or will round to the nearest channel within a certain range). There’s a bit of guesswork involved (if you choose not to use or can’t find the channel listing) since there aren’t channels for each number, but exploring through the various channels and stumbling across something that grabs your interest after a period of radio silence is immensely rewarding. Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the site is that navigating through a pattern of specific channels unlocks an easter egg of sorts (the sequence itself can be found through Google). Since discovering and exploring the site is half the joy of it I won’t spoil too much more about how the site works or the content of the channels themselves (but I will suggest that interacting with visual elements on the page can reveal interesting functionality).

Jaar used THE NETWORK to stream his second LP Sirens prior to its official release and following its official release, he also used it to stream an alternate version of the album (these channels are still available - I highly recommend checking them out, as well as practically everything else he’s ever done). Streaming the album this way forced listeners to absorb it differently than they might have through other venues. Since users were unable to skip from track to track, they were forced to experience the album as a singular cohesive piece.

With THE NETWORK, Jaar combines past and present forms of music distribution into something both unconventional and strangely familiar. The unique and unexplained user interface lends the site an air of mystery and encourages visitors to experiment, explore and discover. Not only is this an innovative instance of music distribution, it encourages people to interact with and think about music in new and interesting ways.

Biophilia App - Björk

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It would be pretty hard for me to write a list like this without including Björk’s Biophilia – an iOS (and eventually Android) app whose release coincided with the release of her 2011 album of the same name. The master Biophilia app houses ten applications, one for each track on the album. Users can explore the apps through a standard menu or through a menu represented as a three-dimensional constellation that users can explore by zooming, panning, and orbiting. Each application contains several different options – “Play” (which starts each primary third-level application), “Animation” (which plays a unique visualizer animation for each song), “Score” (which plays a wordless version of the song along with its composition in musical notation), “Lyrics” (which are simply the lyrics to each song) and “Credits” (which lists the individuals that worked on each sub-application) in its menu. Each menu also features an excerpt from and link to an essay written by music professor Nikki Debben about each song. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of content jammed into this app and a ridiculous number of ways to interact with the music on the album. Moreover, each track is an earlier version than that which exists on the album proper –not only do fans get the studio album release through more traditional means but also an alternate version through the application.

Some of the primary third-level applications function as games, but my personal favourites are musical instruments that allow you to either create your own compositions (“Moon”, “Solstice”, and “Thunderbolt” are all particularly great) or play along with the corresponding track. No matter their differences though, they all center around a central theme of giving people new ways of interacting with and interpreting Björk’s work. Biophilia proves that digital avenues can show us not only exciting new ways of distributing music – but original and novel ways to experience music too. Plus, the album is totally killer.

Bonus Round: Gummy Song Skull - The Flaming Lips

While technically this doesn’t count as digital distribution since these were sold in stores, I love this example (and this band, and candy) too much to exclude from this post. In the spring of 2011, the Flaming Lips released their aptly titled four-song EP Gummy Song Skull on a USB flash drive inside a life-sized gummy brain which is further encased in a life-sized gummy skull (“gummy” as in the stuff that sugary bears and worms are made from). They were distributed in a select few American record stores and cost $150 USD. Expensive? Yes. Absurd? Definitely. Delicious? Without a doubt.

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Author: Mia Ellis-Lee
Web Developer 

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