It’s Record Store Day on 4/20: Experiencing Music in 2013

The relationship between music and marijuana has been a constant facet of popular culture, from the jazz age of the 1930s to the latest from Snoop Lion (née Snoop Dogg). Each era and every genre has its own way of relating the two to one another in lyrics, artwork, merchandise and live performances. As anyone who has attended a concert or festival can attest, marijuana plays a key role in the music experience for millions of people every year.

One popular link between pot and music is the act of putting on an album, getting stoned and listening to it from start to finish, uninterrupted and free of distractions (aside from inspecting the record sleeve). This scene is largely associated with the 1960s and 1970s, of youth lying on shag carpet in suburban basements with an LP on the turntable. It illustrates one popular way people totally immerse themselves in music.

This act of total immersion in music is something that is increasingly difficult to achieve when surrounded by today’s technology. Push notifications stream in as we listen on our smartphones. Ads flicker around a small video player as we watch on YouTube. Glowing screens have replaced lighters in the air during the most epic moments of live shows. Distractions abound in modern life and we must now purposefully create environments where an album, a movie, a book can be consumed with minimal interruptions.

Thanks to the digital revolution, music is more prevalent and accessible than it has been at any other point in my lifetime. People are able to easily connect with the most obscure sounds no matter how eclectic their tastes are. The artists furthest on the fringes releasing the most challenging material build audiences large enough to sustain careers making music. We’ve achieved amazing scale thanks to the network effects of the internet but we’ve sacrificed something in the process: the immersive music experience.

To tap in to the massive audiences on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud, artists and labels must relinquish most of the control over how their music is presented to listeners. Our works of art are packaged in easily-embeddable widgets, snippets of code to copy & paste that are identical to the packaging of millions of other works of art. Often the only visually unique aspect is the embedded cover art, usually little more than thumbnail-sized, heavily compressed images. In a true show of embracing constraints, a popular trend on SoundCloud has artists making heavy use of extended ASCII characters, expanding customization to the only other part of the interface controlled by the user.

Technologies like smartphones, HTML5, and the APIs of the aforementioned platforms have given us new tools for storytelling but most indepenent artists and labels are not using them to create immersive interactive experiences for their listeners. There are great examples from time to time, like The Wilderness Downtown and Lee Martin’s work on Battle Born, but these are more the exception than the rule. It’s hard work, and if you don’t have the required skills at your disposal it can be an expensive proposition on par with the recording budgets for most of today’s “big” indie albums.

For all its faults, MySpace gave artists a way to create immersive experiences that stood out (by the standards of the day). A-Trak penned an editorial mourning MySpace because none of the current social networks fully filled the void left when people migrated from the service in droves. In 2013, the options available for artists are largely focused on enabling the presentation of content in a standard format with few frills. Common examples are BandPage tabs on Facebook fan pages and YouTube channels with custom banner images and slightly customizable color schemes.

A large number of artists now have no standalone website at all, historically the platform used to build unique interactive experiences. There are many other acts whose websites mostly function as a splash page: List of tour dates, links to social media, and sometimes an online merch store. We’ve all come across the website of an artist we’re in the process of learning more about only to find it out of date and missing most of the current information available through the artist’s social media presence. The current standard for mobile apps isn’t much different — there are some good ones no doubt, but most are somewhat customized boilerplate fare that rarely exhibit thoughtful design and development decisions.

So where do we go from here? How can artists and labels start giving listeners that immersive experience using the tools and technologies found in the pockets and on the desks of so many millions of music lovers? Will we aspire to enable more intimate music experiences, or are we content to continue presenting our music to the world wrapped in widgets?

If you’re not already familiar, here’s more information on Record Store Day and 4/20.