Can apps bridge streaming and album sales? Paul McCartney is the latest to test the space

Paul McCartney app albums

Record sales are a troubling metric for many artists in this increasingly digital world. Moving albums is still an important qualifier of success, but streaming services have changed how people listen to and buy their tunes. Some artists have thrown up their hands and despaired of a great cultural decline, but others are treating the technological shift as a creative challenge to find new ways of thinking about how to package and present their work.

One approach that’s gaining some traction among musicians is to release albums not just in physical formats or on music-purchasing sites, but as apps for mobile devices.

Sir Paul McCartney is the latest to try his hand at the app approach. He has released five of his post-Beatles albums as multimedia apps for iPad. Each one includes interviews, rare photos, live videos, and documentary footage along with the remastered album tracks.

This could be a perfect middle ground for established artists who already have a strong fan base. It would take a brilliant marketing scheme for an unknown artist to reach enough people to turn an app into a lucrative endeavor, but the Cute Beatle certainly has the buying power at his back to make app sales a reasonable comparison to album sales. Billboard has observed that catalog sales are bigger movers than new releases, which might be extra impetus for popular artists to experiment with what the new technology can do. In fact, apps could be a way to get repeat customers, people who already own a CD but want to check out what their favorite artist is doing with an app.

McCartney isn’t the first to dip a toe into apps as the new albums. Björk, Radiohead, and DeadMau5 have each released apps in support of their music. Just these four artists represent a wide spread of genres and artistic styles. Radiohead’s app is a strange experience that’s as much about visual art as music, sort of an interactive music video. McCartney is going for a approach that’s part album and part documentary.

When so much music listening takes place on mobile devices, creating a unique experience specifically for those platforms could be a way to embrace the digital nature and give fans something extra special. App albums could give artists a chance to take change of their creative destiny in a way that CDs and vinyl no longer can. Their financial viability and longevity isn’t clear. However, it would seem to be a good sign that Björk’s Biophilia, which came out in 2011, was still hovering in the 100 top-grossing music apps for the U.S. earlier this month, according to App Annie.

What’s the bottom line with apps? Most likely, an app will be cheaper than an album. For instance, Sir Paul’s apps are $7.99 each, compared with roughly $12.99 for an album on iTunes. That’s on the steep side for apps, but a good deal for a music collection.

The trend is new enough that gathering hard data is a tricky business, but it seems likely that we’ll see more veterans trying their hand at creative ways to fill the crossover between streaming and album ownership.

Anna Washenko