Friday, June 01, 2012

The Future of Digital Albums: Art, and Beyond

Digital music doesn't have to have static album art. With advances in technology, there are some who will take it even further, beyond the art.

These days, one of the main selling points of physical media is the possibility of highly-detailed packaging. Graf Orlock's Doombox, which can be transformed into a cardboard boombox, is only the pinnacle of examples. Most of them have album art that unfolds in unusual ways, plus detailed liner notes. But there's no reason similar attention to detail can't go into a digital package.

Many people seem to think that the digital age is destroying album art, because it's been reduced to thumbnail size. As I've noted before, that's not really the case. There are plenty of reasons it's not true, such as the resurgence of vinyl as a collector's item, the fact merch sales aren't going anywhere, and the abundance of attention given to art in the blogging community. I mean, you can't really have a blog post about an album without any pictures, right?

I've somewhat considered the possibilities of album art in digital media, but South Africa's The Ocean Doesn't Want Me is the first band I've known to begin to take advantage of the possibilities. (Despite their douchy name that screams metalcore, they're clearly not a metalcore band--more Intronaut meets Russian Circles, which ends up being too hopeful-sounding for my tastes.) As the Dust Settles has a true album cover, but after the first song, each track has its own art, a photograph of some natural scene. I hope that this is only one of many.

This brings to mind many possibilities. If you'll recall Cormorant's much-talked-about art from last year's Dwellings, the image is enormously tall. There's no reason that each song could not bring up a separate section of the art, in descending order. Similarly, Triptykon could release a three-song EP with a really cool triptych. The Nativity in Black Black Sabbath tribute compilations had tarot cards in the booklets, which would have been perfectly adaptable to this concept. Or, successive pictures could tell a story. Some disturbing blackened noise band like Sutekh Hexen will undoubtedly take photographs over the course of a dead animal's bloat and decay.

It's my understanding that some albums sold in iTunes come with an interactive booklet. I haven't seen these myself, but it sounds like a really cool idea. This could just be the first step, and it doesn't have to stop at the art. Either through upgrades to media players or through the release of an app, some noise weirdos like Merzbow or Locrian could program interactive music. Perhaps by touching the screen, you could change the image, or even the music. Through the use of the accelerometer, the music could change if you're moving around, or the location services could change your music and art based on where you are in the world. An app could store some elements of the music, but stream others, so that an album could change over time at the will of its creator, or it could open it up to new collaborations. Maybe it could detect when you're near someone else who has the app, and bring extreme music fans together even when they're not wearing a black T-shirt.

If you couple this with the new Google Goggles, or the already-in-the-works contact lenses expanding on that technology, or perhaps through the technology that can detect when you are entering REM sleep, you could be in for some very trippy experiences in the next five to ten years.

I can't honestly say that I would necessarily be in favor of some of these larger ideas, but someone will be doing it. At its most base form, it's little removed from Guitar Hero. Someone will deconstruct AC/DC tunes to make a video game that pairs hard rock with armed combat in new and disgusting ways, selling millions of copies. But someone could do this very artfully. Iannis Xenakis lent credibility to electronic music and explored the possibilities of architectural music, while someone else made house music and elevator music.

In the end, though, you can't package a usable deck of tarot cards, a King Diamond action figure, or Lemmy's wart shavings into a digital album. But there is still a lot that could be done.


  1. This is a really cool post. It is nice to hear someone talk about future possibilities without bemoaning change while still not coming off as overly certain about one medium taking over another.

    When I start successfully releasing music it will be probably be the year 2032 or something, so I would have digital releases come with schematics to print something out with one of those fancy 3-D printers like NASA has, which by then all metal fans could also have:

  2. Thanks very much.

    I actually like the idea of having a related image for each song, as with the tarot card idea or the time-lapse idea.

    I'm personally a bit anti-tech these days. It's weird to me that someone who uses e-mail daily and runs a blog is now a backwards person, but I suppose people who adopted CD's early on and refuse to go to MP3 feel the same way. I do not use my phone for anything other than phone calls. People who text drive me insane. Twitter is idiotic. Since everyone texts and tweets these days, I guess it's no wonder I'm increasingly isolated and misanthropic. But that doesn't mean it's not fun to think about what could be done. Because with any new medium, someone will do it well, even while most will abuse it.

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  4. Hi! This article is really good and I share your opinion 100%! I, being an old-schooler and lover of comics and animation, consider the artwork an essential part of the album experience. It is the visual part of the musical onslaught and therefore it should be given a lot of attention. Some of the ideas you'd expressed may sound crazy but I think would be great additions to the music and not to mention a good marketing gimmick. In the past there used to be (don't know if they are still being done) interactive CDs that had many different and cool features, so I don't see why that same idea couldn't be implemented on digital music. It would be simple great!