The New Role of Interactivity in Music

The Stimulant team is comprised of individuals with varied backgrounds, but the one thing we all have in common: we’re music geeks. We follow the music industry closely and naturally we’ve taken note of the massive shift in the way people consume music, especially over the past decade. The disruptions in the music industry resulting from this shift have created exciting new opportunities for interactivity in music; a topic perfectly aligned with our work and interests.A Fragmented LandscapeOver the last decade the music industry has seen a collapse of retail music sales. People are turning to alternative forms of music consumption rather than traditional media outlets. A perfect example is the 2013 hit Harlem Shake from artist Baauer. The song, originally released as a free promotional download, reached number one on the billboard pop charts for three weeks with no promotional work from the artist or label. A YouTube meme turned the song into a viral phenomenon and sparked a recent change in Billboard's chart methodology to include YouTube views.The last few years have also brought the rise of dance music in America. According to Spin magazine, it was a $4.5 billion industry in 2012 and an estimated 73.8 million Americans consider themselves fans of the music (up nine million from the previous year). Traditionally the dance music scene has embraced interactive technology, and now it has brought those aesthetics into the mainstream.A Unique IdentityFaced with reduced sales of recorded music and an increasingly distracted audience, artists and labels have had to face a challenging question: how do we create a unique visual identity in this landscape? Most artists are forced to focus more on live performances in order to make money. The new crop of dance musicians face the issue of creating a unique and memorable live experience at massive festival events. This has created an opportunity for live visual artists to construct giant immersive video and light shows pushing interactive graphics to center stage. Video artist Vello Virkhaus commented on this topic in a Spin magazine article:"How do you tell the difference between DJ X and DJ Y? Fifty meters away you can't tell the difference between Crookers and Dillon Francis, unless he's got set pieces and a visual identity that becomes him. A unique lighting show, a unique conceptual angle: It's important.”In 2012, relatively unknown dance music artist Skrillex won three Grammys with little airplay but constant touring. His compelling live video experience played a part in the rise of his popularity. He employs an entire interactive team that incorporates the latest 3D projection mapping and real-time motion capture technologies into his live performances.

Longtime British electronic music artist, Squarepusher, is another example of an artist using interactive experiences in live performance. He placed an LED panel directly in front of his face with the screen synchronized to the flashing displays behind him. The result is a memorable and cohesive audio/visual experience.

The Moment Factory produced the Nine Inch Nails “Lights in the Sky” tour, notable for its use of on-stage interactive graphics. The show contained a number of interactive elements, including a real-time interactive drum machine projection programmed on stage with hand sensors by the band.

A Personal Identity: There’s an App for ThatThere’s a new trend of artists releasing music as a digital interactive experience in the form of apps. These Interactive music releases allow the artist to create a very personal visual identity by involving the fan in the creative process. Bjork released her Biophilia album as an app. Each song was accompanied by an interactive experience that allowed the user to either alter the song in some way or see a visualization of the song.

Pushing the interactive album concept even further, legendary ambient music pioneer Brian Eno released the app ‘Scape’ allowing the user to graphically create their own generative musical compositions out of sound blocks and rules defined by the artist.

Both these apps were a collaborative effort between interactive and musical artists. Other musicians and labels are working to forge deeper collaborative connections with interactive artists. Indie electronic label, Ghostly International, has sponsored a creative coding workshop in partnership with the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology in NYC. Participants gathered for five days of coding, learning and sharing ideas about visualizing music.

Interactivity and Music for the MassesBlending music and interactivity isn’t just for the pros, it’s a trend that’s hit consumer level products as well. Sifteo approached us back in 2011 to contribute to their launch portfolio of games that focus on kinesthetic learning, spatial reasoning, and collaboration. We created LoopLoop, a multitrack music toy that encourages users to create improvised musical compositions using their Sifteo cubes. Samples, beats, and graphics come together in a game like experience that blurs the line between entertainment and creation.

The FutureWe can be certain that artists will try to outdo each other with bigger and brighter visual spectacles to accompany their live shows. The more interesting artists will take advantage of better technology to amplify a personal experience. That might be through flexible and lighter display technologies that allow the audience to be more immersed. Or it might be through better projection mapping and motion tracking technologies that would allow a deeper amplification of an artist’s performance. It could take the form of mapping a group of dancer’s movements or visualizing a singer’s voice on her body.We’ll also see more artists pushing the limits of the release concept with apps that have a deeper integration of interactivity and we’ll see more meaningful collaborations between musicians and interactive artists. At the consumer level, we’ll see more games that empower users to create music and experiences on their own.