Sunday 19 November 2017

Science, Bjork and David Attenborough...

There's an app for that

Different strokes for different folks: Bjork
Different strokes for different folks: Bjork

Nick Kelly

Can you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet? Last week, Thom Yorke made headlines when he gave Spotify one in the eye by withdrawing the music he's made as part of a side project with Nigel Godrich under the name Atoms For Peace from the all-conquering streaming service, claiming its perceived low royalty rate (0.08 to the pound) was depriving new artists of much-needed revenue to kickstart their careers.

Cue a flurry of pro- and anti-Spotify articles among the rock criterati. But getting away from the well trodden academic arguments, we were reminded of the human cost of this unprecedented paradigm shift in how we access and purchase music (or not, as the case may be) when the Irish offices of EMI and the independent distribution network PIAS (Play It Again Sam) closed their doors for the last time, with the loss of numerous jobs.

Taking up the theme, our sister supplement Day & Night magazine last week mourned what it sees as the death of the indigenous Irish music industry.

Such jeremiads may sound melodramatic but these are strange times we are living in and it's hard not to wonder what's around the corner.

Thom Yorke's anti-Spotify rant can hardly be dismissed as the ravings of a Luddite technophobe – this, after all, is the singer who made a free daily live video stream of Radiohead recording their album In Rainbows available on their website, so their fans could keep track of their progress.

Not to mention making the finished product available in pay-what-you-like format on the internet in what amounted to a stroke of PR genius – but which also drew fire from critics who declared that not every artist had the luxury of being able to afford to give their work away for whatever their fans felt it was worth. The point was made that it was the old business model which had made Yorke a millionaire and a global star – not the new one.

Tim Ingham, editor of UK industry trade mag Music Week, writing in the Observer noted "the monstrous amount of money spent on marketing Yorke's band by the record industry". "If fans aren't listening to his music on services designed to (eventually) remunerate popular new artists," he wrote, "they'll be listening via YouTube and pirate sites, which genuinely pay artists the square root of naff all.

"What Yorke claims is a stand for new artists looks jarringly like self-preservation to me.

"The online world has indeed ushered in an era of DIY distribution; equally, it's reinforced the truism that only the best in their field will genuinely succeed."

One artist who is not afraid of the shock of the new is Bjork. The Icelandic pop genius – who headlines the Electric Picnic festival this autumn on its 10th anniversary – announced last week that she is to make her innovative Biophilia album app available on the Android network.

Until now the multimedia app was tooled exclusively for Apple's iPhone operating system. So anyone with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, for example, can now marvel at the app's groundbreaking marriage of music, technology, science and nature.

It's not every artist who can tempt David Attenborough out of the jungle and into a recording studio to provide voiceovers but this is what Bjork managed when she unveiled the Biophilia project at the Manchester International Festival in 2011.

Since then, Biophilia has taken on a life of its own – the multimedia interactive app is now used by schoolteachers around the world as an educational tool.

The Biophilia Educational Program began as a series of workshops for students in Iceland, before transferring to the US last year, as part of Björk's residency at the New York Hall of Science.

They have since been held in cities as diverse as Oslo, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco – the latter alongside Björk's American tour.

"In each city, the Biophilia Educational Program has worked with local school authorities to create lessons, complete with a core syllabus and curriculum topics. In dealing with these topics, it aims to bring together knowledge of nature and science, music and technology," said the message on the Kickstarter campaign page.

Now other pop stars are following Bjork's lead – Lady Gaga is releasing a special smartphone app to accompany her new album. Lady Gaga's ARTPOP – due in November – promises "a musical and visual engineering system that combines art, fashion, and technology with a new interactive worldwide community".

Ah, but will it feature the whispering dulcet tones of David Attenborough?

Bjork plays the Electric Picnic, which takes place in Stradbally from Friday, August 30, to Sunday, September1.

nkelly@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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