Once the MP3 made the leap from computer-geek obscurity to mainstream acceptance—thanks, Napster—in no time the Internet was clogged by anti-MP3 rants, all of which seemed to run down the same list of the format's weaknesses. Some of the complaints were about practical shortcomings of MP3s (they tend to sound like shit, they make music incredibly easy to pirate) but one common argument was largely aesthetic—that is, that the move to a digital rather than a physical format would finish the job that tapes and CDs had begun and finally drive the art of the album cover to extinction. And the absence of a package for their music would leave listeners with nothing to do with a record while listening to it—the equivalent of not knowing what to do with your hands during a conversation.
So far none of the attempted digital analogues to an album's artwork and liner notes—not even Apple's iTunes LP, which received considerable hype before its disappointing 2009 debut—has been even as engaging as, say, the crappy music visualizer that comes with most MP3 software. A new entrant in that field is Groovebug, an iPad app developed in Chicago and launched on September 8. Its developers are promoting it as an autocustomized, self-generating virtual music magazine, but it arose from a desire to re-create the experience of nerding out over an LP sleeve.
"I've always been really interested and involved in music," says Groovebug cofounder and CEO Jeremiah Seraphine, 36. He works as a DJ, runs the label Revolutionary Music, and makes music himself—most notably in the live dance-music group Volt Modz and as part of Lake Street Project, whose 2006 single "Forever" made the Billboard club charts. "One of the things that I really missed in the move to digital music was that kind of immersive album-cover experience," he says. "Growing up I'd always listen to music with headphones on and look at the big album covers. I could spend hours doing that. With the move to MP3s we're reduced to a small, singular square image and a format you couldn't even touch."
The problem with efforts like the iTunes LP, he says, is that they're tethered to computers—laptops are more unwieldy than album covers, and exploring a digital object with a point-and-click interface doesn't make it feel like you've got it in your hands. Multitouch smartphones, which allow more tactile interaction, are too small. Seraphine hit upon a third option early this year, during a Web entrepreneurship class he took as part of a graduate course in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. He was assigned to an interdisciplinary team charged with inventing a product for the iPad, and the project they turned in was the first iteration of Groovebug.
When you launch Groovebug, the app scans your iPad's music library and presents its contents on its home page along with several playlists—Chicago blues, fidget house, Woodstock—that are sorted by their relevance to what's in your library. Click on a name and the app opens up a mini magazine about the artist in question. On the first page is a bio, usually aggregated from a site like Last.fm or Wikipedia. From there you can flip to a page showing everything by that artist available in the iTunes Store, with sample clips included; users can buy albums or individual tracks directly through the app. Another page collects the artist's YouTube videos. Another compiles clips of relevant news items from music blogs, with clickable links to the full-text entries. The last offers a selection of related artists.
The app does a decent job of approximating the way you can casually accumulate information while digging into an album's artwork and liner notes. Much of the credit goes to the design. Flipping from page to page feels less like work than googling a band's bio, then its videos, then what Pitchfork has to say. Each page has a slideshow of photographs of the artist that plays automatically behind everything else. And the presentation of the "related artist" tags—they're on a virtual turntable you can rotate with your finger—is actually kind of fun all by itself.
The related-artists feature also lets you follow a chain of links down the proverbial rabbit hole—something it's a lot harder to do with, say, a gatefold LP sleeve. Like most of the rest of the app, that feature is built on top of a powerful music database called Echonest, and it can offer impressively obscure recommendations—it pointed me at lo-fi Ohio noise punks Puffy Areolas and local sibling garage duo White Mystery.
These mini magazines are generated on the fly using data from Echonest, the YouTube search engine, and a custom-built Web crawler that scans about a thousand music blogs selected by Groovebug's staff—that is, Seraphine, cofounder and tech guy Neil Ehardt, two full-time developers, and a writer. As impressive as this feat of automation is, it's also the source of the app's big weakness. The front-page playlists are curated by humans—Seraphine admits that his tastes are responsible for their tilt toward dance music—but most of the content is pulled together according to algorithms that don't always seem to know what they're doing.
When I was testing Groovebug's savvy, I decided to search for a bunch of my Chicago friends' projects. The app's page for my girlfriend's band turned out to be half full of information on a Philly hardcore band with the same name. Disturbingly, the slideshow alternated between photos of my girlfriend and photos of a large, hairy, sweaty man. The videos page was even more muddled, and offered selections from still other bands with similar (rather than identical) names.
Seraphine says that such confusion is "something we're working on." In the future he plans to open up Groovebug to fans and artists so they can edit pages. (Following what's called a "lean startup methodology," the company is developing the app as it goes, and intends to offer frequent updates.) Seraphine also hopes to beef up the app's own editorial content and hire more staff writers. When we talked for this article, he was preparing to send local rapper Hollywood Holt and a film crew to Texas to cover last weekend's Austin City Limits festival.
If Groovebug evolves like Seraphine hopes, it could become one of those rare apps—like the magical-seeming song-identifying app Shazam—that can make people envious enough to buy a gadget it will work on. But even in this early form, it addresses the question of life after album covers way better than anything that's come before. It even takes care of the most frivolous complaint about MP3s compared to LPs: if you're not too protective of your iPad's screen, you could even roll a joint on it.