By Hazel Cills
Anybody who was eagerly awaiting ANTI is no doubt familiar with Rihanna’s Samsung app ANTIdiaRy. The app, accessible on one’s phone via a website, was a series of panoramic, virtual reality videos that guided users through eight different bedrooms. Arty and mysterious, the app was interesting to watch and overanalyze but ultimately didn’t offer a window into Rihanna’s soul (who wouldn’t pay $2.99 for that app?). In the end, ANTIdiaRy was a winding promotional hedge maze where the most distinct message was “buy Samsung devices!”
Musician-specific apps, made in conjunction with a brand or just self-released, have popped up over the past few years in different forms, whether they’re games, virtual-reality music videos, or just the digital equivalent of a CD booklet. The most celebrated example of this is Björk’s 2011 Biophilia app, now part of the MoMA collection. A visual constellation of the album’s song titles will lead you to a different game depending on what song you choose. Some are more traditional games, like “Crystalline,” in which you travel through a maze of tunnels collecting crystals as the song plays. Others allow you to make music; on the “Thunderbolt” setting, you compose a track using lightning bolts. On one level, the app functions as a way to listen to the album in full alongside stunning, responsive graphics. The app is a curious collection of cool musical games, and is not just successful in how it manages to be an aesthetic extension of Björk — it’s something you’d play regardless of her involvement.
Other artists have used apps to complicate or elevate a musical release. In 2013, Lady Gaga tried a similar venture for her album ARTPOP, a features-heavy app that included aura readings, a GIF-maker, and a little digital record player to hear the album yourself. The app, unlike Björk’s, seemed geared toward Gaga’s dedicated fan community of Little Monsters, who could also chat with each other through the app. Last month, the band Animal Collective released its new single “Lying in the Grass”; in order to hear the song, you had to download their app Painting With, named after their forthcoming record. The app is a collaborative finger-painting app that lets you make a teeny-tiny work of art (with someone else or alone) on your iPhone while you listen to the single. In 2014, Radiohead released their own experimental, landscape-driven Polyfauna app attached to their song “Bloom.” And Björk dipped her feet back into the app pool with a similar virtual reality music video app for her 2015 song “Stonemilker.”
In the digital age, the cacophony of hype and impossible machinations around major album releases has grown to the point that the only way to cut through it all is the surprise drop — which is quickly becoming status quo. Artists making music videos as well have to consider how that work is perceived and immortalized on the Internet. Taylor Swift went the overloaded-cameo route with “Bad Blood” with questionable results, but Drake proved the best way to keep your video a longer part of the conversation is perhaps by making it as GIF-able as possible. So handing out a virtual reality music video or a painting app isn’t the same as delivering a boxed set or a Beyoncé visual album, but it’s a step in that direction. It’s a way to package a release as being innovative and interactive in an era when fandom is predicated on ideas of our participation; apps are a simulacrum of access to those that we worship.
But being release-specific isn’t the only way an artist app can exist. Sometimes musicians develop apps that help expand their personal brand. Katy Perry hopped onto the Kim Kardashian Hollywood craze game by launching her own Katy Perry Pop, a game made with the same company. In the free-to-download, pay-to-make-any-progress game, you play an aspiring musician in California trying to become a pop star with Katy’s help. The app is basically Kim Kardashian Hollywood with some blue hair dye thrown into the mix, and Nicki Minaj is also reportedly trying to make an app in the same vein. Similarly, Snoop Dogg’s Snoopify app is just a wacky photo-editing app that happens to have his image attached to it.
Back in 2012, M. Ward released his own radio app, created by Mobile Roadie, that catalogued local radio stations in a way that, somewhat condescendingly, was supposed to make listeners “think more” and stop watching cat videos on Facebook. The app has seemingly disappeared with time, but M. Ward’s intentions were understandable. The app had nothing to do with his own music but rather his taste and his convictions as a musician. Tyler, the Creator’s Golf Media app, which costs $5 per month, launched last year promising a glimpse into his “brain in one place.” The app gives his fans direct access to videos, music, the ability to shop Golf Wang clothes, and more.
Golf Media isn’t far off from the apps of the Kardashian clan, little lifestyle channels filled with videos and pictures that act as a personal social media network for artists. It’s a strategy that several young Vine and YouTube stars are using upon realizing that their digital presence is strong enough to carry its own platform, from social media stars like PewDieDie to Lele Pons. It’s also a strategy that could trickle up to bigger-name stars. If fans go directly to Taylor Swift’s social media accounts, like Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr, for her posts, someone with her cultural capital forgoing a presence on those sites and creating a personal digital platform hardly seems far-fetched.
Musician-branded apps work best, perhaps, when they merely supplement or help contextualize a release or an artist’s identity. They’ll fail if they become more like a barrier than an add-on (for instance, if an artist releases music solely through his or her app). Rihanna’s ANTIdiaRy, post-release of the album, only seemed to have confused fans about what to expect from the record. ARTPOP’s app had a limited shelf life as a game and as an art piece. Musician-branded apps have potential as long as artists and developers are willing to put in the work and create something innovative. And as an artist’s social media presence continues to become a bigger cog in the creation of their image, along with all of their feuds, shaky Instagram song previews, and selfies, so might their inclination to control it all in one stand-alone app.