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Five artists who are pushing the digital frontier

The face of the music industry was irrevocably altered when the digital age dawned, changing the way people obtained, listened to and interacted with music. In this precarious new world some artists chose not to simply accept the move to a more interactive digital presence — but have truly immersed themselves in all the facets that digital technology offers them as creative beings. Whether that means hosting fun and thought-provoking online campaigns or even releasing an entire album as an App — these artists “get” tech and what it can do for their music.

Arcade Fire
When it comes to artists who aren’t afraid of pushing the digital frontier, Arcade Fire stands out. In August 2010 the band released an online interactive music video for the track “We used to wait” from the album “The Suburbs”. What could only really be described as an interactive musical experience, the project dubbed “The Wilderness Downtown” was a mixture of Google Maps and some experimental HTML5 trickery that resulted in a beautiful, heart wrenching, nostalgia inducing and quite literal trip down memory lane. Upon entering the address of your childhood neighbourhood the video renders an amalgamation of Google street view footage, satellite images and pre-designed animations to create the entire experience through an elaborate array of pop-up windows that come together in a harmonious masterpiece.

On top of this, the band teamed up with Vevo and YouTube to perform a live streamed show from New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The performance was viewed by over 3.7-million users on the world’s most popular video sharing site. YouTube even included a bunch of interactive features including “choose your cam”, giving users the ability to choose the angle from which they want to see the stage as well as a massive projection of images of childhood suburbs that were submitted directly and in real-time by the viewers. Oh and did I mention that the main stream was directed by the illusive Terry Gilliam — whose has maintained legendary status from his time on Monty Python’s Flying Circus through to contemporary works like Brazil and Tree of Life.

Strange, ethereal being and all-round kook Björk has taken her already innovative ideas to the next level with her latest project, Biophilia. Biophilia is a sprawling, ambitious venture which sees this unique artist exploring the convergence of music, nature and technology. The “album”, if you can call it that, takes the form of a beautiful and mesmerizing iPhone app that simulates a galaxy of interactive content which includes songs amongst other things. Every “song”, so to speak, also takes the form of an individual app which when downloaded unlocks another star in the intricate galaxy of Biophilia. Within each of these song apps one can expect to find an original song, but also interactive games and visualizations that bring the ideas and concepts behind each song to life — complete with narration by David Attenborough.

Each track, and Biophilia as a whole, ponders the mysteries and marvels of our universe while imparting little pockets of knowledge about it all. While immersed in Biophilia, one notes how Björk could not have undertaken such an immense musical project were it not for the recent advances of touch technology. Without the crystal clear, responsive surfaces of iPads and iphones, Biophilia would be unthinkable. Even if Björk is not exactly your cup of tea, you have to admit that a project on so grand a scale is commendable if not downright impressive.

The music industry was briefly ablaze when Radiohead’s In Rainbows was released exclusively online and completely independent from any music label in 2007. Thom Yorke’s revolutionary (quite literally) approach to music distribution flew directly in the face of an already declining traditional music industry. What’s more, In Rainbows was completely FREE. Giving Radiohead fans the ability to pay whatever they believed the album was worth. No more, no less. At the time one might have wagered to think that this was going to blow up terribly in their faces but amazingly the album turned out to be a pretty decent commercial success regardless. Though they had to bring out a physical copy of the album in the end simply to satisfy their less digitally inclined fans, Radiohead proved that the current distribution methods were.. well in Yorke’s own words: “It probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.”

More recently the band debuted the music video of their latest single “Lotus Flower” from their seventh studio album King of Limbs on their official YouTube channel a few days before the entire album became available for download online. The video for Lotus Flower, featuring some pretty stylin’ dance moves preformed by Thome York even became a widely shared Internet meme soon after its release.

If, like me, you thought OK GO only came onto the scene in 2006 with the release of their now ridiculously famous treadmill hopping music video for “Here it Goes again”, then, like me, you’d be totally wrong. OK GO first formed in 1998 but arguably only attained mainstream fame through the release of their elaborately choreographed viral video sensation which at the time of writing has received over 9-million views, becoming one of the most watched YouTube videos of all time.

The band has since set out to keep pushing digital frontiers by teaming up with Google for their very own HTML5 spectacular, in much the same style as Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Down Town, for the video of “All is not Lost“. The interactive, multi browser experience allows the user to enter a message to be spelled out by the band members and the Pilobolus dance troupe in skin-tight body suits.

More recently, OK GO pioneered an entirely new form of digital art by creating a massive “OK GO” sign written in GPS across the Los Angeles map. The project has since inspired others to attempt etching out their own masterpieces in their city streets.

Imogen Heap
Alternative singer-songwriter Imogen Heap has not simply embraced the digital age but has truly incorporated her passion for all things tech into every conceivable part of her art — from her creative process right through to her stunning performances. Work on her fourth album, Ellipse, is already underway and as you may have guessed it’s not going to adhere to any traditional production process.

Instead of working on an album and releasing it all in one go, Heap has decided to make use of her strong digital presence to connect with her fans in an entirely new and intimate way by encouraging them to take part in and inspire her creative process. According to her website, her new “album” will be released over the next three years, with new songs being released every three months or so. Each new song is a collaborative effort between Heap and her imaginative fans — who are asked to submit pictures, sound clips and lyrics with the goal to use bits of these submissions to generate original songs that emulate a hauntingly singular collective consciousness.

Crowdsourcing has always been close to Heaps’s heart as an artist — she asks fans to submit suggested set lists before live performances and thrives on interaction made possible through her various online platforms. She has about 1.5-million Twitter followers with whom she now shares various updates about her work-in-progress album. In 2010 she blurred the boundaries between fashion, music and tech when she stepped out in a “Twitter dress”. The creation featured a collar made of LED lights that live streamed tweets containing the hashtag #twitdress along with a ferragami handbag with an ipod touch screen that flashed the pictures that were being tweeted in real time.

The Twitter dress was not, however, the only trick that landed her in the tech section of news websites — Heap’s innovative gadgets that help her record and creating fascinating sounds are equally inspiring. Most notable of these has to be a pair of gloves equipped with wireless mics, an accelerometer, a magnetometer, a gyroscope and a variety of other sensors that her to create and record songs in real-time with the use of body and hand gestures. It is truly something to behold.

Witnessing a live Imogen Heap performance or listening to her crowdsourced and truly beautiful material truly feels like peering into the future of music.

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