App Happy

Chantelle Fiddy debunks the myths about mobile apps to find out how they can make a difference in the mix

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 19 Sep 2013
  • min read
Don’t know Akai Pro from GigaWise? Ever considered using an app to make music on the go? Wondering if creating an artist app is the missing link in your marketing plan? Chantelle Fiddy debunks the myths to find the apps making a difference in the mix…

Reaching for your phone in order to do just about anything is commonplace today. In fact, it’s hard to reconcile that the market leader, the Apple App Store, is still only five years young. But statistics released in May of this year show customers are downloading 800 apps per second - that’s over 50 billion downloads thus far. And, while apps offering streaming services remain top of the download agenda for the majority of fans, for artists, songwriters and producers, the tools available to deliver the music itself are gaining momentum too.

In the same way Dizzee Rascal brought PlayStation-produced grime beats to the fore nearly a decade ago, Gorillaz demonstrated the art of making an album solely via apps back in 2011. Relying on an iPad, and in turn the apps that allowed them to deliver the product, all bases were covered via new technology - from the music to the artwork and marketing campaign.

But primary market research suggests there’s still a long way to go with musicians familiarising themselves with the potential offered by the wealth of apps now on the market. No funds? Apps cancel out the cost of studio time for starters. In fact, Gorillaz LP-come-app, The Fall, was delivered for less than £1,000. Not got £1,000? You could try using the KickStarter or SonicAngel app to source the funds via the public for your project. Looking for lyrical inspiration? Yessir, there’s even an app for that too.

But where to start?
In 2012, according to Nielson, 64 percent of mobile time was spent on apps. Maybe it’s time to shut down Angry Birds and get productive then? Just a quick look at Apple’s top grossing music apps today, in a nod to developers the world over, you’ll be pushed to find a skill, instrument, program or to-do that can’t be delivered via your mobile.

Unsurprisingly, the current penchant for new technology rests with an electronic generation; guitar tabs aside, among the top grossing downloads are iMPC, an app that replicates the Akai Pro MPC production centre and boasts over 600 samples at the touch of a button; GarageBand, turning your phone into a fully-functioning studio; djay2, which according to the blurb is the world’s best selling DJ software; and Traktor DJ, an app that’s garnered critical acclaim from the national broadsheets and allows you to deliver seamless mixes in minutes.

Google Play’s chart reads a similar story; FL Studio for android, Hi-Q MP3 Voice Recorder, J4T Multitrack Recorder, DJ Studio 5 and the MP3 Cutter & Ringtone Maker are all among the apps riding high. However, according to MusicRadar, a leading website for musicians, ‘…despite having a huge installed user base, when it comes to music making apps, Android remains very much the poor relation to Apple’s iOS.’ iPhone it is then.

But who’s actually utilising these apps in the industry? Surprisingly, of the 15 or so acts M magazine asked at this years Lovebox Festival, London, not one used an app to create music, laptops remaining the preference, even while on tour. According to further research conducted via social networks, popular tools tend to include a simple note or record function. A recent addition to that camp is HEARD, brought to my attention by PopJustice’s Peter Robinson. A background listening tool that records what you (yes, you guessed it) ‘heard’ up to five minutes beforehand, essentially your iPhone becomes a time machine. Or a spy.

‘The key thing is remembering to turn the app on’, laughs unsigned singer-songwriter (and PRS for Music member) Jay Norton. ‘I’ve tested HEARD and it’s one of the better apps like this I’ve seen.’

We’ve all had those moments we wish we could recall and this is a step forward in capturing studio sessions and forgotten ideas or words without needing mics.

‘You forget you’re even recording - it’s just you and your phone. AudioBoo is another one I’d recommend; it lets you get audio messages out via Twitter and such. I’ve also used it to capture melodies and ideas.’

Jay also believes more people will begin using apps for creation when they ditch their technophobia and apps become even more advanced. ‘A lot of people look at apps like a computer program and think it’s going to be really complicated, or they don’t think the app will serve them well. But they forget apps have been designed to make life easier.

‘Some of the studio apps on offer are really similar to what you’d use on your computer but at the end of the day, what’s important is, there’s something for everyone at every level.’
Apps are a great way for novices to affordably have a go at something new.

Perhaps the key for identifying the likely new adopter is in the price; with the average music tool app ranging in price from ‘free’ to £3 (although some do creep up in the £20 region), it’s a great way for novices to affordably have a go at something new and goes someway in accounting for the popularity of such apps outside of immediate artistic circles. Even those who aren’t converted can see the benefits.
‘Sound on Sound magazine do a monthly write up on apps that’s worth checking out,’ reckons chart-topping producer Duke Dumont. ‘I can see where they come in useful.’

Of equal value to the consumer, aspiring musician and major label artist, there are countless analytics and business tools available in 2013. BandCentral, which is essentially artist management on the move, GigaTools, letting you organise your live dates and sync to Facebook et al, or SplitGigs, that allows you to create posters and flyers for your show, are just a few of those currently doing the rounds.

Looking to get your online marketing seriously in check? Apps can cover that too. ReverbNation is the one stop shop for online tools, allowing you to post status updates across multiple social networks and build a mailing list. BandPage currently powers over 500,000 musicians on Facebook everyday (for free).

For songwriters, who traditionally might pick up a pad and pen, or rappers who are looking for that missing rhyming slang, there are choices to be had; RhymeZone offers a helping word or two while AutoRap will go as far as correcting your errors and timing. SongWriters Pad, one of the most popular apps on the market, offers idea generation based on emotions, those trusty words that rhyme and definitions. You can also sync or back up your work with Dropbox.

But what about artist apps? There are a slew of both official and unofficial offerings to be had. Looking at the charts, T Pain is getting the general nod of approval where top grossing apps are concerned. Priced at £1.99 the big sell is ‘everyone sounds better with the T Pain effect’. Yes, for a small fee you too can get frequented with auto-tune and post your offerings directly to the world wide web.

‘There’s no point in making an app that offers nothing extra to what’s already out there. Fans might use it once or twice, but there’s no point competing with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,’ says Ben Anderson, a former social media manager with MTV who now runs his own consultancy company, Mabley Green Social.
‘A really successful app needs to offer something far more experiential, something they can’t get anywhere else, and be something relevant to why they are fans in the first place.... T Pain is a fine example of an artist utilising something pretty simple but effective - the soundboard - to his brand. It points to the developers intelligently combining successful offline marketing with a format that works online.’

App store data from July 2012 offers further insight; of the top 100 iPhone apps, two thirds are free to download and make most of their money through in-app commerce. Taylor Swift is one such artist who’s noted to have generated significant revenue through in-app music sales. So for the new artist, the need for an app is perhaps less essential.

Of a similar school of thought, an article published earlier this year on Sidewinder.FM likens the average artist app to a ‘mobile newsletter’. And they’re not wrong. Echoing Ben’s thoughts, the need for unique functionality is recognised.

‘Artists should embrace the market and focus on project based apps,’ writes Casandra Govor, marketing associate at INgrooves. She goes on to highlight Björk’s Biophilia, an album released as an app in 2011, as ‘arguably the most spectacular of all initiatives…’ The costs are high though (estimated at around £125,000 for creation, consequently Björk failed to secure funds via KickStarter to create an android version).

But, with app-album plans afoot from the likes of Lady Gaga, what exactly can these new-age album-cross-apps offer fans? In Björk’s case it was complex, with each track being associated to a music theme, encouraging interaction such as changing tempo or re-ordering notes. As Casandra highlights, in many senses, the album became an instrument in itself. And, while you could access the app for free, to own the tracks as MP3s still required a fee - £1.45 per track at that (nearly double the average 79p track download fee).

Interestingly, Will.I.Am, an artist seen to be at the fore of online advancements, alluded to the potential of art coupling with technology long before the birth of the App Store. When I interviewed him for RWD Magazine more than six years ago, his theory was that since Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, people have been looking for the ultimate experience, one that encompasses various mediums of visual and sonic creation via modern technology. Yet nobody has found it, or worked out what it might look like. But we should be getting closer.

If analysts are to be believed, the future does indeed lie in apps - and art.
Apps have gone from being tools to enhance the use of your phone to a new medium of expression and art.

‘By the slope of the trend lines, it would appear that app income will exceed music income within three years,’ Horace Dediu, former Nokia business development manager who now runs, predicted back in 2011. ‘In a mere three years these digital objects have redefined themselves. They went from being tools to enhance the use of your phone to a new medium of expression and art.’

And with new apps available week-on-week, the opportunity to be your own boss, run a label, create and release music has never being easier. The biggest question that remains? Where to start?

Check out Chantelle's 'best app' selections