After working for years on records by the Waterboys, Depeche Mode, and the Cure, among others, and realizing that albums were being made with less care and attention these days, producer Phillip Tennant started thinking about the music industry backwards. "No one’s got the funds anymore to finance records the way they used to be made," he tells Billboard. "Streaming has its place in the world and MP3s and albums for six dollars have their place in the world, but it’s hard to sustain a career like that. You have to start offering the consumer something that’s beautiful and full of content that has artistic integrity again."
So he decided to use the tools at his disposal; namely, an iPad. Enter HD360, the U.K.-based tech company behind an innovative app-based mechanism for releasing music. Its head of development, Dean Johnson, created the Doors app and the iBook Led Zeppelin: The Sound and Fury. Tennant was working in the Isle of Wight's Chale Abbey Studio, owned by one of HD360's founding partners, Simon Rodley. He suggested Norwegian chart-topping artist Bernhoft -- often stylized as Bern/hoft -- as the first candidate to release his debut LP as an immersive app.
"Paul Butler, who produced Michael Kiwanuka [his album Home Again], is all about quality and using incredible, old equipment," says Tennant, who felt Bernhoft's slightly jazzy, funky aesthetic (not unlike a more flamboyant Mayer Hawthorne) would be a good fit for more of a comprehensive listening experience. "He liked what we were trying to do. He wanted people to see the artwork, what was behind the scenes, the handwritten lyrics. A very cool partner by chance, really."
The Islander HD360 app is also cool. There are no less than nine sections, including a gallery of Bernhoft wearing variations on linen scarves and fisherman's sweaters, a social platform that allows you to interact with fans on Facbeook, Instagram, and Twitter, a merch store, music videos, a high-quality music player of Islander, and liner notes.
But, as Tennant points out, "one of the best jobs in the world is being on a console listening to amazing music being made, so how can we allow the end user, the fan, to experience this?" He seems to have found a solution in several of the features you likely won't find anywhere else: a "Loop Station" that allows the listener to fiddle with percussion (beat box, claps) and guitars (stab guitar, guitar phase chords) to create your own song, or the Studio, which lets you adjust effects, reverb, and more on "Come Away With Me."
Though Tennant can't share exact numbers, he admits some interesting trends in how the app has been selling internationally. In the U.K., for example, the app has been downloaded more often than the album, while the opposite is true in Norway. "In the U.K., streaming isn't quite so prevalent, so given the choice between CD, download, or an app, it's an easy choice to go for the app," says Tennant, suggesting that Scandinavians are more likely to go with straight streaming due to the success of Sweden-based streaming service Spotify. "In the U.K., as in certain other countries like Germany, we embraced the iPad much earlier."
For Tennant, this is just the beginning. Like some other audio-focused tech startups, he hopes to someday incorporate geopositioning into the app. "The next thing we're looking into is bringing in the live experience more," he says. "Maybe as you approach his shows in the future, the iPad and iPhone will be able to sense it -- they can welcome you, tell you what the songs are going to be. As you're leaving, they can give you the set list or exclusive photos."
Obviously those capabilities are still far in the future, but let all iTunes app store enthusiasts strive for Tennant's ideal behind them, especially in such a transient world: "The app experience doesn't end the day you bought it."