Q&A: Jorge Drexler On Going Interactive with Song Apps

Jorge Drexler

With an innovative app that “transforms songs into experiences,” the award-winning singer/songwriter brings his music of chance to the Billboard Latin Music Conference.

In his Oscar-winning and Grammy-nominated winning songs, Jorge Drexler has revealed himself to be an incurable romantic and also a pretty big geek, lustily exploring the mathematic variables of desire, and the incalculable role that chance plays in love. The trained medical doctor and author of lyrics like “long live science, long live poetry,” Drexler was the perfect partner for app designers Wake App, who teamed with the Uruguayan singer/songwriter, Warner Music and Samsung to create “n by Jorge Drexler.”

The suite of three interactive songs, downloadable as separate apps, allows users to create, save and share infinite combinations of melodies and lyrics performed, variously, by Drexler, a symphony orchestra, and guest vocalists including Rene Perez of Calle 13. The result of the labor-intensive experiment could serve as a model for other artists andlabels in search of new forms of distributing music. “n by Jorge Drexler” rose to #1 in the iTunes app store in Spain, where Drexler lives, and was nominated for a 2013 SXSW Interactive award, a first for a Spanish-language app.  

On Tuesday April 23 at the Billboard Latin Music Conference, Drexler will talk about making song into software with Wake App president Jacobo Bergareche and Anton Reixa, the newly elected president of Spanish authors rights society SGAE. Drexler will also perform for conference attendees. Billboard caught up with the artist by phone from his home in Madrid:  

Billboard: A lot of artists have experimented with apps of their music, but the idea of an app with which users can create and change songs themselves using seemingly infinite combinations of your lyrics and melodies really relates to the subject you’ve often explored in some of your best-known songs, like “Todos Se Transforma” (“Everything Transforms”).

Jorge Drexler: That’s true. My songs need chaos. The interactivity of the apps is totally in line with the vision I have of songs that incorporate chance.  

How did you develop the concept for the apps, which go beyond other apps that allow you to mix songs or synch them with images?

At the beginning, the idea was to use previously composed songs. But I wanted to create new songs just for the app that would only be available in the application. These songs don’t have one solid form, their principal meaning comes from the interaction. The version that I can make of these songs isn’t better than the versions that you can make.  

How laborious was the project?

It was enormously difficult. It took almost two years, and it died and was revived again two or three times in the process. There was a point where I thought that I couldn’t write songs this way, they were going to be cold, they weren’t going to have emotion. Than we ran against a wall for technical reasons, it was very difficult to do the programming. We finally got in touch with a team of programmers in Barcelona who had worked with Bjork. The third pause was because of the business model: how do you register the rights to a song that has tens of thousands of combinations? In the end we registered it basically as a machine that makes songs, the rights are not for the songs themselves. The whole experience was beautiful and exhausting.

Your label, Warner Music, was involved in producing the app. As far as that relationship, how was this different than making an album?

We had to invent everything. This had not been done before. It was a joint venture between Samsung, Warner Music, Wake App, Telefonica and myself. Between all of those entities we had to figure out the financial side of a song in the world of apps.  

What is one thing that you learned about the audience for apps as opposed to songs you record?

In the next version, I would let people save before they get to the end of the song.  We learned that the normal three or four minute length that works for radio doesn’t work in the world of apps. Eighty percent of people ask the same question – how can they save – since the option to save comes at the end. The timing of listening to a song is different than the timing of listening to an app.  

Do you see what you’ve created with “n by Jorge Drexler” as being a model for a new format for artists and labels?

I can’t speak for what other artists, only for myself, [but] at a moment when the world of music is evolving we have created a product that is not an MP3. We have transformed songs into experiences. It’s something new and very complex. It’s like inventing a whole new genre.