App to provide liner notes along with the song

ATLANTA • Can music alone tell the whole story?

Two decades into the era of online music, streaming has been hailed as the industry's saviour, but a complaint from the earliest days of digital services persists: What happened to the liner notes?

Much of the material that once accompanied an album has long since been stripped away - not just the lyrics, but also essays, artwork and even basic details such as songwriting credits.

Listeners now have little more on their screens to look at but a song title and a cover image about the size of a postage stamp.

One company, TunesMap, wants to return much of that lost information, and more, through an interactive display. When it is cued by a song playing on a streaming service, it will present a feed of videos, photos and links to related material.

After a decade of development, TunesMap is scheduled to make its debut next month as an Apple TV app that will work with Sonos, the connected speaker system.

The app is the brainchild of Mr G. Marq Roswell, a Hollywood music supervisor who has worked with film-maker David Lynch and actor Denzel Washington.

He bemoans the way early digital players and online music stores such as iTunes removed all sense of music coming from a particular place and time.

Working with Mr Nigel Grainge, an influential record executive who died in June; Mr Erik Loyer, an app developer; and Mr Jon Blaufarb, an industry lawyer, he began to design what he called an interactive "context engine" in 2007.

Stream a song on a Sonos speaker and, if TunesMap's app is also fired up on Apple TV, images and historical information related to the artist or a song's origins begin to float by.

For a Bob Dylan song, the app shows vintage photographs of Greenwich Village, news clippings and links to related artists (such as film-maker Martin Scorsese who directed the Dylan documentary No Direction Home, 2005).

The goal is to present fans with a web of educational "rabbit holes" to explore.

"We're going through the prism of music," Mr Roswell said, "but it's film, it's fashion, it's art, it's news, it's comedy - it's everything that created that scene."

The company has deals with publishers such as Genesis Publications and Rock's Backpages, a decades-deep archive of music journalism, as well as rock photographers such as Jay Blakesberg.

TunesMap receives a cut of any sales made through the app.

During its long gestation, the company secured two patents for its navigation system and raised US$4.75 million (S$6.46 million) from entertainment-industry veterans such as Andy Summers, guitarist for the Police; and Mr Jerry Moss, one of the founders of A&M Records, as well as the Visionary Private Equity Group.

"I produced a Hank Williams film with Tom Hiddleston that took 10 years to put together," Mr Roswell said, referring to the 2015 biopic, I Saw The Light. "I wouldn't know any other way to do it. I just never let the vision die."

The app is free and it works when a user plays songs on Sonos from Spotify, Apple Music and other major streaming services.

But in many ways, TunesMap runs counter to the trends of digital music consumption, which are moving towards simple mobile displays and programmed playlists.

Equipment costs are another potential barrier. The cheapest Sonos and Apple TV systems cost a total of US$350.

TunesMap said a minimal mobile version would also be available.

Reimagining liner notes for the digital age is a guiding concept, but Mr Loyer, TunesMap's director of user experience, said the firm has tried to avoid the nostalgia of "Oh, remember when we had liner notes".

"The real question," he noted, "is how do we design the systems in such a way that values the real output of all the culture that surrounds a piece of music."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'App to provide liner notes along with the song'. Print Edition | Subscribe