When considering a transmedia extension for musicians, it is important to understand the difference between extension and repurposing. Of all the artistic expressions, music is the easiest to toss onto another platform without much thought or intent, often as the background score to unrelated content. While this may garner hefty profits, it does nothing to expand on the music itself.
Transmedia allows for musicians to take their music and bring it to life in new forms. They can do this by capitalizing on the benefits of individual platforms, such as the long-form storytelling of television or the immersive quality of video games, that are not available on traditional audio formats. The music itself does not even need to be featured; clothing lines by artists such as Gwen Stefani and M.I.A. reflect the aesthetic and tone of their work without directly referencing specific songs.
Repurposing music for other media certainly makes a fan’s ears perk up and momentarily pay attention to a property, but it does nothing for the song creatively nor does it engage the audience in a new way. Creating quality extensions can actually benefit musicians better financially than haphazard licensing, as high-quality products stand a great chance of becoming long-term revenue streams.
So how do these two approaches look different? It can sometimes be confusing, but simply ask yourself, “Is this giving me something more than what I knew/felt about the music before?” If it doesn’t, it’s repurposing.
Here are some comparisons:
Repurposing: Queen’s We Will Rock You
While both of these productions are arguably “jukebox musicals,” We Will Rock You is a classic case of a theatre piece loosely built around an unrelated group of previously released songs. The songs were selected from across Queen’s back catalogue, and a futuristic story about a man who will bring back the power of rock was written to string them together in some cohesive manner.
The musical was almost universally panned, with many critics frustrated with the confusing plot so unrelated to the music it is set to. While diehard Queen fans may be satisfied with merely seeing songs performed live, the musical did nothing to expand upon the messages and themes of the band, rendering it a missed opportunity to strengthen and expand the group’s aging fanbase.
Extension: Green Day’s An American Idiot
Based on the concept album of the same name, the musical was jointly created by the band and the director Michael Mayer. Vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong has stated that the album was written with a plot arc in mind, and recorded it with adaptation in mind: “The thought was always sort of that it would be staged or we’d create a film or something.”
The musical allowed the narrative—lost young men trying to find themselves in a post-9/11 world—to come to the forefront, in a way that may have felt too literal on the original record. Attendees were able to experience the characters coming alive before their eyes and follow the journeys only alluded to on the original album. By creating a stage play, fans came to appreciate the story behind the music more.
Repurposing: Rock Band
The Rock Band series allows the user to create a band and, using controllers shaped like various instruments, play popular songs at varying difficulty levels. As the player progresses, the band moves to larger and larger venues and unlocks new songs. Users can play alone or with friends to create a full band, simulating the sense of being part of an actual rock group.
The series is certainly great exposure for bands, as they can reach new audiences who may never have thought to listen to them otherwise. But the game merely imports the song into its own format and setting, with no other nod to the song’s meaning, historical context, or the musician(s) at large.
Extension: The Beatles: Rock Band
This was the first band-centric game in the Rock Band series. Under the guidance and input of both living Beatles members and George Harrison’s son, the game was developed with high-fidelity version of 45 Beatles songs. Users are able to play as the four-piece band in famous settings such as the Abbey Road Studios and Shea Stadium. Never before heard recordings of band chatter and studio takes were even used for loading screens.
The game successfully presents and heightens the mythos surrounding The Beatles. Fans get to become the band, and play at legendary venues from their well-documented career. It is this ability to interact with and become close to the history of the band that takes the game to a new level, distinguishing it from previous installments in Rock Band’s series.
Repurposing: Tap Tap Revenge: Nine Inch Nails
While Nine Inch Nails has released their own innovative app nin: access, which gave fans mobile access to the online community, this installment of the Tap Tap mobile game series was a missed opportunity. Tap Tap games function similarly to Dance Dance Revolution, in which the player is tapping orbs heading towards them to the beat of a song. Tap Tap Revenge: Nine Inch Nails featured 13 tracks from the band’s last two recorded albums.
While there is some aesthetic reminiscent of the albums’ artwork, there is nothing else related to the music infused in the app. Nothing new is revealed about the songs, and the immersive quality is minimal. Although it would have made the app more expensive, it would have been interesting to expand the setting, perhaps having the user travel through the artwork while they play or use the drummer’s first-person view of the band on stage. The sense of immersion may have driven users to play again and again even after they’d beaten the game.
Extension: Björk’s Biophilia
As I’ve previously written about, Björk is slowly revealing her Biophilia app album, which hosts a corresponding app for every song on her upcoming music album. Each app takes the theme or message of the song and expands on it. Users are encouraged to interact and play to gain a better understanding of the track.
This is the most well thought out mobile extension to date. The apps are of significantly high quality and are distinct enough to warrant purchasing all of them. They successfully take the songs and add new levels of interaction and interpretation, rendering them entirely new expressions of the songs.
It should be noted that many of the repurposed properties accomplish their intended purposes. We Will Rock You is the longest running London musical ever, and the Rock Band series has netted over $1 billion in total sales. But have they helped articulate the bands’ artistic messages to new or potential fans? Have they immersed their audiences in high quality content that harkens back to the original content? These are questions musicians need to consider before deciding between repurposing and transmedia extension.