Changing Tune: Warner Music

Warner Josh“Mobile first is a cliché now,” says Josh Saunders, “but we really are.”

Saunders is head of tech & creative at Warner Music – “a bit of an unusual role in a record label”, he adds – leading an in-house digital creation and consultancy team which handles social media, email marketing, apps and more.

The music industrys relationship with mobile has shifted significantly over the past few years. The early days of the App Store saw something of a gold rush, as labels tried to push out an app for every artist they could, mostly using app builder platforms like Mobile Roadie. According to Saunders, this was more of an exercise in “box ticking” than a thought-out mobile strategy.

“If youre going to do an app, thats a big commitment, and it can just be a waste of time,” he says. “Even the argument of doing it just for search optimisation – if we wrapped up all our sites in app format, just for that presence when fans type in the artists name – its not worth it.

“So we dont really do templated apps any more. We treat each artist, each campaign, each audience differently – its never a knee-jerk reaction.”

Warners focus is now more on the mobile web, and rolling out responsively-designed sites for artists. The label still does produce native apps, but theyre chosen on a case-by-case basis.

“The target market will come first,” says Saunders. “That doesnt necessarily mean a youth market – in the older demographic, we know tablet is very important.”

Tinie TempahAs an example of this approach, Saunders points to the Tinie Tempah Rap Demonstration app: “The analytics of Tinie Tempahs site were highly mobile, and the idea seemed to suit him.”

Developed with We Make Awesome to promote the release of the Demonstration album last year, the app used audio-syncing technology to display a video of Tempahs mouth, filmed specifically for the app, rapping along with the tracks as they played.

The idea was that people could watch Tempahs lyricism up close, or just hold up the phone to their own mouth to make it look as though they were rapping.

“We found that its hard to achieve real cut-through with artists apps, since what most people want are games or utility apps,” says Saunders. “Youre looking for something new and noteworthy. If its an app that Apple likes, it will get featured, which turbocharges your downloads.

“We got a lot of traction because it was directly about the artist, and because it was unique. Rap Demonstration appealed to fans because it had Tinie Tempah in it, but also to a more casual audience because its a bit of fun – its the kind of app you can show to friends in the pub.”

Saunders says the app was successful in terms of engagement, with a high dwell time, but also direct sales, as users could pay to download additional songs. According to We Make Awesome Sh.its figures, 48 per cent of the 25,000 users who downloaded the app went on to buy a track.

The New Album?
This kind of sales opportunity could blossom further, according to Saunders: “The future may be an entirely new digital product. You could create a new type of album format, an immersive digital product that fills that niche, and then sell it on app stores at the price of an album.”

Probably the most notable example of this so far is Björks 2011 multimedia project Biophilia. “But something like that costs an awful lot of money to create,” Saunders points us. “Weve seen lots of attempts at making it, but no ones got it right yet, no ones made the numbers work.”

As for whether Warner itself will making any forays into this format in the near future, he says: “The apps were working on are still primarily fan communication or marketing tools for selling the main product – the album, whether physically or digitally. So mostly they are going to be free, or freemium.”

But if the opportunity exists for a digital answer of the album, why isnt it being pursued more readily?

“Various reasons,” answers Saunders, “Some of it is to do with commercial deals and some with retailers, but first and foremost in my opinion, there isnt really the consumer hunger for it yet,” he answers. “A fan might type the artists name into the app store and if theres a free app theyll most likely download it. But if its on there for £6, thats a much riskier proposition.”

Josh Saunders will be speaking on a panel at the Apps World event on Wednesday 12 November.