Plaid Provides the Latest Example of Web-Based, Tech-Art Releases

For many musicians these days, simply releasing a song is not enough. Cut Copy shared the first single off "Free Your Mind" via a geo-positioning app accessible only at remote billboards around the world; fans could only hear Little Dragon's "Klapp Klapp" by visiting a website that "called" users over the phone; and Arcade Fire debuted "Reflektor" with an interactive app.

For British electronic duo Plaid, which released the first single off their forthcoming album "Reachy Prints" (out May 20 via Warp) through an immersive website late last month, this trend is the wave of the future.

"We were quite keen to get something along those lines," Plaid member Andy Turner tells Billboard, "and develop something that was simple but fun, and wouldn't require a super-fast connection or loads of computer resources, so it could be functional on multiple devices."

Warp Records' Sam Keating saw this as an opportunity to revisit innovative unveilings the label had done in the past, like the album stream for Autechre's "Exai" EP, which links the user to a broken version of the website previously visited, or the mysterious, encrypted website that revealed Boards of Canada's fourth LP, "Tomorrow's Harvest." "We're trying to hark back to those kinds of things," he says. "And now web technology has allowed us to create something new."

For the release of "Tether," Keating reached out to Jono Brandel, a programmer who worked with the team behind Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" and whom he found via his video for "Panoramic," a track by electronic producer Lusine. "He showed it to Plaid and they were like, 'This is really cool stuff, we have this new album coming out, we want to do something different,'" says Brandel, a designer/developer on Google's Data Arts team. "That's how the conversation got started."

Shortly after Keating ran across Brandel's work, the programmer unveiled Patatap, a website on which each press of "any key, A to Z or spacebar" initiates a flash of color or a geometric shape -- rectangle, circle, square, etc. -- that shoots across the screen, and simultaneously generates a sound. Users can, essentially, create a song and accompanying video, however elemental. "You trigger it from a keyboard, so there's no timeline," explains Turner. "The animation is basically JavaScript code. As opposed to pre-planned animation, it's basically in real time."

One of Brandel's biggest challenges was that he had only six weeks to make the app before the "Tether" release date -- it had taken him two years to come up with Patatap, and that was while working a full-time job. Understandably, "I was a little bit anxious," he admits. To prepare, he racked up nearly 2,000 listens to "Tether" on his iTunes, after which he brainstormed with Plaid a "deep and compelling" way to synthesize the band's clean, ambient lines with Patatap's aesthetic and the album's cover art, which features a skull CAT scan with the image of a city behind it.

As often happens with people interested in this "slightly geeky world of electronic music," as Turner calls it, things got, well, a little geeky. "We were talking about how interesting is it to when you click and drag to slow down the song, it zooms in, and we called it this atomic-level field," says Brandel. "You can kind of see how each note is interacting with each other, whereas when you play it at the normal 123 BPMs, everything's moving too quickly to keep an eye on."

The "Tether" app initially functions the same as Patatap: Go to the website, click anywhere or hit any key, and a riot of colors, shapes, and sounds erupts. After a couple seconds of doing that, however, the site starts playing "Tether" and a music video kind of like Brandel's for "Panoramic." It also differs from Patatap in that the source code for the site is available on github, and Plaid are encouraging users to download the code, along with the stems for the song, for their own app and remixing purposes. Though they don't know how many people have downloaded the code, both Brandel and Plaid have noticed that the comment thread is quite active.

This accessibility to fans also manifests in Plaid's social media presence, which they've been putting more effort into developing in advance of the new record. "This album is the first where we've been a little more active on [Facebook and Twitter]," says Turner. "Some of the posts are getting 70,000 views. The highest post I remember was the teaser, which was only four seconds of the very tiny bit of the introduction of the track, and loads of people went to that. Obviously these days record sales are not great, and that's often the way you can gauge how people like what you're doing."

"People have comented online seem to enjoy it," adds Keating, "which is what we're aiming for at the end of the day -- to make something cool and fun for the band's fans to enjoy."