Transmedia + Music

September 5, 2012
by Laura Sterritt

The Lack of Narrative as Narrative

The basic concept of transmedia storytelling implies an ever presence across a multitude of spaces. This can appear daunting, especially to musicians who solely want to compose music or wish to maintain a low profile. Using social media or asserting oneself on other platforms is the antithesis of the private, elusive musician’s existence.

Yet at the very core of transmedia storytelling—or storytelling of any kind—is the need for narrative, content, and characters. Does this mean musicians who lack story are at a loss? No. The lack of narrative is a narrative. Crafting mythology through the controlled lack of information (or infusion of misinformation) is absolutely a storytelling method, and musicians are an excellent fit for it.

There are a number of artists who have leveraged this style to excite fans, drum up anticipation around their releases, and carry them through lulls in their careers. I believe the following musicians did this with varying degrees of conscious action, but I will operate under the assumption that each put some level of thought into this.

One method of fostering myth is by using evasion. Musicians agree to interviews or publicity, but end up turning questions around on the reporter, giving non sequitur answers, and going off on tangents or long-winded stories. Tom Waits is perhaps the most classic and long-running master of elusion. His early interviews are full of dodging, either avoiding the questions outright or giving outrageous, nonsensical replies.

Later in his career, interviews became more intermittent, yet still mystifying and intriguing. His public performances have also become sparse, and mere rumors of concerts spark heavy anticipation. An e-mail sent in July from Epitaph Records titled “Tom Waits: Permission to Come Aboard?” consisted solely of a photo of Waits wearing an eye patch and wielding a cutlass, with “Coming August 7” written across it. It whipped press and his fanbase into a frenzy: is it a new album? A tour announcement? (It was a music video.) Few artists command that kind of power that is born of sparsity. Continue Reading →

August 8, 2012
by Laura Sterritt

Passion Pit’s “Gossamer” App

Music apps continue to be at the forefront of innovation for musicians. Björk’s Biophilia app album and The Polyphonic Spree’s Bullseye app were both beautiful and immersive, allowing for expression on the musician’s end and engagement for the fan. Biophilia truly set the bar for future endeavors, so I was excited to see its architect, Scott Snibbe, had directed Passion Pit’s new app, Gossamer.

The app was released on July 18th, in support of the band’s second album debuting the same week. It features two songs, each of which have two interactive modes. The first option is the interactive music video for “Take a Walk.” Users listen to the song while creating a unique visualizer, mixing and revealing different images through window-like panes.

Snibbe explained to, “The imagery for the app is all based on a bubble-like diagram that’s technically called a ‘Voronoi’ Diagram…We chose it for this app because the first song, ‘Take a Walk’ is about the financial bubble, and the hangover healing process coming out of it, so I thought this fragmented bubble imagery fit both metaphorically and psychologically.” Visually manifesting the message of the song is key for this type of transmedia extension. Continue Reading →

April 11, 2012
by Laura Sterritt

Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet Headphone Experience”

Perhaps the strongest extension of transmedia storytelling for music is live events. It allows for fan interaction, engagement with the artist, physical manifestation of narrative, and community building. It can also be the most difficult extension, as it requires a commitment of time on the artist’s part, and money from them, the record label, or an outside source.

This is why it is so rare to experience a live event, but when one does, it is incredibly exciting. I bought a ticket to turntablist Kid Koala’s “Space Cadet Headphone Experience” the moment it was announced, as I really enjoy seeing him perform. What I soon realized was that the event was the live extension of his album-and-graphic novel Space Cadet, featuring carnival games, wireless headphones, inflatable space pod seats, in-world artifacts, and a variety hour-style performance!

Kid Koala (real name Eric San) is no stranger to innovative production. Besides his signature turntablism with unique samples, he has collaborated with the Gorillaz, performed for kids with Yo Gabba Gabba!, illustrated a previous graphic novel Nufonia Must Fall, and curated a cabaret-style tour with other DJs called The Short Attention Span Theatre. It is these experiences that Eric drew from to produce the Space Cadet Headphone Experience.

I spoke with Eric and he was kind enough to fill me in on the process. He began drawing the book Space Cadet in 2003, using a special type of etching board. The story of a robot and his space-exploring daughter has no dialogue, so Eric recorded an entirely new album for the reader to play as they sat with the book.

As the novel and the album were completed, Eric and his wife Corinne started planning a live show. “After so much time spent in isolation in the studio working on music or at my drawing desk working on the book, I was looking forward to touring and presenting this story to actual humans.” The development took about three years, and continues to evolve to this day, with Eric modifying “everything from setlists, to better ways of preventing needle skips on turntables, to cookie recipes.” Continue Reading →

March 27, 2012
by Laura Sterritt

The Aquabats: How a Ska Band Became a Children’s TV Show

Once a more common practice, musicians are rarely moving into television programming. A number of bands mixed music and TV in the 60’s and 70’s, but beyond Flight of the Conchords, there have not been any notable extensions recently. Luckily, a quirky new series debuted on The Hub a few weeks ago, called The Aquabats! Super Show! The California ska/rock band The Aquabats, with its long history of mythos and world building, has made the jump to television, with remarkable reviews. How did an eccentric ska band transition into children’s programming?

The Aquabats were founded in 1994 by a small group of friends who met at their Mormon Church. This aspect of their personal lives would go on to influence the family friendliness of their music and presentation. Not long after forming, they began establishing superhero names and origins for themselves, going so far as to hand make costumes and choreograph on-stage battles with villains.

These Aquabats, such as The MC Bat Commander and Crash McLarson, were supposedly from Aquabania, an island known for its human-bat creatures, but had fled from Space Monster “M” and landed in California. Professor Monty Corndog took them in and amplified their super powers, enabling The Aquabats to gain notoriety and support through music. Empowered by their fans, they will one day return to fight Space Monster “M” and reclaim their island.

While the lyrics didn’t always explicitly tell stories (the liner notes and live performances delved into the mythos), the content was still in keeping with the cartoonish and fantastic nature of the band, with songs called “Captain Hampton & The Midget Pirates,” “Powdered Milk Man,” and “Food Fight on the Moon!” The aesthetic was also present in their music videos:

Continue Reading →

March 8, 2012
by Laura Sterritt
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Chairlift’s “Met Before” and Other “Choose Your Own Adventure” Music Videos

As most storytellers wish to have their primary narrative kept “pure,” transmedia extensions can allow for fan interactivity. Some media is inherently built for interactive storytelling, such as video games or online content. Others, such as music, can be difficult to structure in such a manner. However, musicians have found a new way to involve their listeners: interactive music videos.

These videos, often dubbed “Choose Your Own Adventure” videos (after the successful children’s book series) are a very recent innovation. Last week, the band Chairlift debuted their newest video, “Met Before,” which follows the two protagonists (real-life band members) as they make various decisions throughout one evening. As the viewer watches, they must repeatedly decide between two choices for the heroes and click the corresponding right or left button.

This is by far the most successful interactive music video to date. In order to better understand the pros and cons of the video, though, it is helpful to first look at what has been accomplished in the past.

While interactive fiction is something that has exploded since the advent of the Internet, it has existed to some degree since the 1970s initially with text-based computer games. Visual media came next. Frank Rose described in his book The Art of Immersion the first attempts at an interactive cinema experience. The company Interfilm premiered a 20-minute picture I’m Your Man in 1992 in a Manhattan theater, where viewers pressed color buttons on built-in pistol grips to dictate the direction of the film. Sony decided to fund a larger-scale feature Mr. Payback and released it in 44 theatres, but it failed miserably. The technology was not there yet, and feeling competitive with your fellow audience members over story choices is uncomfortable and stressful. Continue Reading →