Can Novelty Music Apps Serve a Meaningful Role in the Recruitment and Development of Future Musicians?

One of my favorite design verticals is anything to do with music. The topic of my MFA grad thesis in interdisciplinary design (at California College of the Arts) was on technology and music, and I have since worked for several music startups as a Creative Design Director. As a musician, I stay abreast of emerging technological innovations, in both the professional as well as hobbyst/novice realms, and on Mobile it’s interesting how it all blurs together. I consider the smart phone to be the most important and versatile musical instrument in the world today; however I believe that we are still in the very initial and exploratory stages in terms of realizing the depth of creative potential on these devices. I fully expect there to be a “Jimi Hendrix” type figure emerging in popular music culture in the next several years, who will have mastered this new creative environment enough to produce a breakout and innovative hit record using nothing but a smart phone and a handful of apps. I also predict that this person—perhaps someone in Gen Z? will have discovered their passion for creating music not from piano lessons—but from a novelty game on their iPhone.

No stranger to software instruments on the “pro” side, I first discovered the world of novelty music apps only about 5 years ago, when my daughter (then around 5) discovered “Songify”. Smule is the name of the company that created Songify, as well as several other unique apps that have also been huge hits for them, such as the Magic Piano app, as well as Ocarena, which is a digital “wind instrument” that uses the iphone’s microphone input to measure the amount of air being blown into it by the player, and then synthesizes digital note sounds based on your finger position, and can even add vibrato based on the position of the accelerometer. It’s surprisingly expressive and you can also “listen in” on others around the world as they play their Ocarenas. Due to the huge popularity of several of their apps, Smule has brought this niche of non-professional (yet highly entertaining and addictive) music apps into the mainstream, all of which enable non-musicians to participate in music creation in a meaningful way, as well as collaborate and share with others. Besides YouTube, I’m pretty sure they are now the world’s largest social network dedicated to this type of activity at 50 million active users, and continuing to grow.

Music is a sacred form of magic, capable of connecting and moving us in ways no other shared human experience can. At this moment in our culture, however, it seems to have become commodified to mere utility, it’s primary function reduced to the pulse of a lonely treadmill workout. The musical literacy and competence of individuals is also suffering. Pianos, once viewed as as integral to the American family’s educated upper middle class identity, are now being given over to landfills at a tragic rate. Returning to and re-elevating some of these important ideals about music are therefore admirable goals for our culture. The mission of Smule is to get people playing music together again, something co-founder Ge Wang feels has been lost in a world where it’s “so easy to just press play”; where despite the availability of more tools then ever to make music, it seems there is far less music being made. I particularly want to focus in on the idea that the social aspects of music have been lost, due to technology. The loss of social connection is something technology has been accused of with just about every new innovation since Marshall McLuhan came to terms with the television’s replacement of radio in the 1960s.

Humans crave connection. As Brené Brown points out, we are “hard wired” for it. It’s something we need just as much as we need air. Although we won’t immediately die without it, in just about every situation where there has been a loss of connection, you will see human beings working very hard at hacking back into, and re-establishing it. Music making was once not long ago primarily a group activity of live performers playing for an audience—a circuit of human connection involving composer, performer, and audience. While this tradition remains, it’s primacy has been replaced by individuals producing music with computers, and sharing these works over the internet. What is uniquely possible that wasn’t before, is something altogether different, (yet potentially even more powerful then attending a Bob Dylan concert in 1965)—a breaking down of the barriers between artist and audience, which makes it possible for more people to be active participants in the creative process then ever before. This is why I believe music as a meaningful and widespread social activity is right at the precipice of a revolutionary leap forward in it’s evolution.

The internet has evolved into an amazingly rich and bizarre landscape of human interaction and creative innovation. In order to deconstruct and understand how global scale connectivity has changed both the creative process as well as the relationship between artist and audience, I want to look more closely at the strange and delightful phenomenon of Internet Memes, as this form of creative innovation embodies how these ideas work.

The Meme is a form of “hit single”, if you will—it’s popularity and effectiveness has been something marketers have been struggling to understand for years. It’s power is mysterious and impossible to fully understand, reproduce, or control. It’s particular media can take many forms. It can be a video shared on YouTube, an animated GIF, a still image with text. What all memes have in common is the distinct lack of attributable authorship, as their existence emerges from a conversation between many creative forces across many online “channels”, over nonlinear distance and time. Memes are often funny, but they can also be touching, or even politically motivating. They often employ theft, or “iterative creativity”, in order to further evolve and push an idea forward. In their ways, popular music, design, and art are all more “elevated” forms of this human behavior, an individual creative act based on a specific formula or construct, re-invented over and over again by multiple participants, and pushed forward with each iteration on a theme. A meme is the most “base” form of collective creativity—it’s perhaps the digital equivalent of a timeless truth written on a bathroom wall. It touches us in an immediate way, similar to a popular song, or a really effective advertisement. And even on the internet, it’s a form of connective tissue that bonds us. It’s my belief that the evolution of popular music is ultimately heading in this direction—towards the unification of creator and audience—the form of which will be the musical meme. The funny thing is that this has always been the case—mimicry is in our DNA, just as equally as connectivity. Rock And Roll was invented by Elvis who was just imitating Chuck Berry. Etc. Only now we are all Elvis, operating on the same canvas of space and time.

Companies like Smule have created an important niche: making fun and delightful musical toys; these apps can ultimately serve as either pure entertainment, or hopefully as a “gateway” into more creative and unique forms of music-making. I believe Smule is uniquely poised to achieve this more lofty goal, and in the process retain more users who might otherwise eventually move on to more robust and adaptive toolsets. A key strength of Smule’s design philosophy that should be tenaciously defended and maintained, is simplicity—the reason why their apps have thousands of users is because they are all dirt simple to use, so I am not advocating for more features. The beauty in this type of innovation is that nothing much need change, except for one thing: interoperability.

Each of Smule’s app offerings connects users to “instant gratification” music-making in completely different and unique ways—through karaoke, pitch shifting your voice over rap beats, playing and learning popular songs on piano and guitar, and performing and recording rhythms with your own live recorded sounds. Each of these apps combine just the right amount of user input with intelligent automation and behind the scenes magic in order to ensure the result always delights and invokes the pleasure of having made something cool with relatively minor effort. But I’d venture to say that it’s not really possible to make anything with these apps that doesn’t bear the unmistakable stamp of having been made with one of these apps. The same lack of complexity that make them so immediately accessible and fun, are the constraints that ultimately prevent them from producing anything unique.

The next evolutionary step that could bridge “Smulesicians” into more expressive and adaptive modes of creative expression could be the ability to combine some of these singularly unique, yet limited apps into one “master” environment—a DAW for novices, if you will. This type of inter-operability already exists in mobile environments through the use of apps like Audiobus (for iOS), which allow musicians to “daisy-chain” a multitude of discreet audio apps (instruments, effects, and other types of processors), and link up “the bus” with multi-track environments like Garage Band, thus allowing these complex signal paths to be recorded, layered, chopped up, and mixed down into final productions. The creative potential in the ability to do something like this on a smart phone is simply astounding, yet for the most part this is something only brave, technically adept and advanced creative musicians will ever bother with.

Smule could change this without doing much more other then allowing the outputs of it’s existing apps to be wired together, opening up an entirely new frontier of untapped creative potential, based on tools already familiar to it’s user base. Imagine being able to layer your own sample based drum kit from MadPad across the chord progression of John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland” while rapping the indiscernible lyrics of “Panda” by Desiigner, and you’ve merely scratched the surface of the hilarious musical atrocities that await. Audiences and performers alike could use this technology to create ever evolving musical memes that are always fresh, and never “canonized”—(think bootieSF, my personal favorite source of innovative pop music mashups, but combined with a little “Can’t Hug Every Cat“). Time will tell if this type of thing will come to pass for Smule’s product offerings, but I think the opportunity is there to push these musical “toys” into a new phase of innovation, if only to hear the strange things millions of people will do when left to participate in a musical conversation where more “cross-pollination” can occur without as many limits.