The world's first album targeted at iPad users is here. Three months after the retail debut of Apple's tabular gadget, Francis and the Lights, a New York–based band creating poppy, synth-laden songs that would fit seamlessly on daytime '80s pop radio, released its album, It'll Be Better, in an iPad-friendly, HTML5-embeddable format. Which, techspeak aside, means that if you visit www.itllbebetter.com on an iPad, you'll be able to stream songs for free while watching full-screen videos and taking in cover art — all of which is presented in a touch-enabled interface. So is this a game-changer for innovative, tech-savvy bands, or just another attempt to make the music business work in the digital age?
The band's leader, Francis Farewell Starlite, sounds smitten with the result. He pads his speech with studious pauses during an interview, but when talking about the first time he played his album on the iPad, he speaks fluidly. "It was the only time I've experienced music in the digital world with as much enjoyment as when I put a record on my record player," he says. "It's physical and visceral, like a record, 'cause you're holding it. It's in your hands. You have full-screen album art. The songs play when you touch them. You click on the video and it pops up, high-definition."
He's right. The iPad can't compete in many ways with the idyllic square cardboard of a vinyl album cover, but it's way more impressive than an iPod. Beyond the fascinatingly gaudy rap mixtape scene, CD-sized cover art is also a nonstarter — and covers of MP3-only releases are disposable. An album on the iPad can offer a visual peek into an artist's world, easily displaying full-screen "covers" for each song; photos; tour memorabilia; and lyrics with an optional bouncing karaoke ball. It could herald a renewed appreciation for album art.
The potential to greater complement music with visuals is appealing. "We're enjoying a whole new golden age of the music video — M.I.A.'s 'Born Free,' for instance, generated an enormous amount of attention," Wired senior editor Nancy Miller says. "Releasing an album on the iPad would allow artists to merge the visual with the audio." She suggests the Flaming Lips' interpretation of Dark Side of the Moon as being prime for a "visual companion." Here, the iPad becomes an MTV-in-a-box — a one-hour video special on the artist of your choosing — instead of the current situation where, as Miller puts it, "most of us download an album off iTunes and the bonus material sits there."
By shoving the bonus material to the front, there's a risk of forgetting the music itself. Testing It'll Be Better on an iPad is immersive — but the impetus is to click around the slick, simple interface to see what everything does. You hop from song to video and back again, but rarely settle on one or the other. It's far from the romanticized cliché of settling into a well-worn chair, putting on a pair of headphones, and listening to a new album in full, song after song, one side at a time. Starlite says that along with enjoying a "unique, wonderful world," he also wants people to "listen to the record." The project may not hit both targets.
The future might see It'll Be Better — which was officially released this week — go down as an opportunistic move from an adroit band, rather than a beacon for a new standard of music format. But Miller predicts that because major labels have been reluctant to embrace change, indie acts are more likely to experiment with the idea. And while Starlite enjoys the iPad incarnation of his album, he's candid about it prompting a change in a musician's mentality. Asked whether he'll be making his next album with the iPad in mind, he takes a characteristic pause, then says simply, "I wouldn't ever think about my record from a technological standpoint first."