November 24, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Why Drop 50K? Artists, Labels Build Their Own Apps For Less

Just because Madonna can afford to spend $50,000 to develop an iPhone app doesn't mean she wants to. Instead, the singer or her people "did it themselves" with Mobile Roadie.

Spend any amount of time with a recording artist or their manager these days, and the conversation will inevitably land on the topic of music apps. Applications that run on smartphones, tablets, computers, televisions, and soon cars offer relatively endless possibilities compared to a plastic disc when it comes to listening to and otherwise “consuming” music.

In that sense, the music app can be considered a new music format unto itself.

The thing is, building an app for a particular artist is orders-of-magnitude more difficult than releasing music to iTunes and other retailers, or even printing a run of CDs, because it involves making new software. Developers typically charge tens of thousands of dollars for creating a custom-made app for a particular artist, but not even wealthy artists want to pay that much if they don’t have to.

To fill the hole in the market between expensive, bespoke artist apps and automatic artist app creation engines such as iLike, L.A.-based Mobile Roadie charges artists, managers, labels, and anyone else with permission to make an artist app between $30/month (with a $500 set-up fee) and $416/month (with a $2,000 set-up fee) for a suite of tools that let them join the music app revolution on their own terms.

So far, over 500 artists have created music apps Mobile Roadie, including Daughtry, Madonna, Drake, and Taylor Swift — not exactly lightweights. The resulting apps include any mix of about 20 modules, including free streams, photos, news, videos, live videos, chatter from other fans, the option to buy songs, tickets and merchandise, and more.

“When we started in early 2009, the idea was really simple: We were getting a ton of requests for custom iPhone applications in the music space, and nobody could afford them — even large artists,” Mobile Roadie CEO Michael Schneider told Evolver.fm. “A custom app can be 20, 30, 50 thousand bucks. Artists were coming back saying ‘I can’t afford it, but it’s something I really need.’ It finally hit us that the only way to bring the cost down tremendously is to make it self-service.”

Spinal Tap's Mobile Roadie app treads the fine line between clever and cleverer.

The drag-and-drop, modular layout of the tools mean that anyone can create a basic artist app in about a half an hour, as opposed to waiting weeks or months for an expensive app developer to submit a finished product. Once the app is created, all an artist has to do is start distributing the Android version and submit the iPhone version to Apple for inclusion in the iTunes App Store. (The company plans to roll out Blackberry apps within the coming weeks.)

One sticking point: In the past, Apple has objected to apps created with toolkits other than its own development tools. But it appears to have no problem with apps created using Mobile Roadie’s toolkit.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Apple wants quality apps,” said Schneider. “Our response to that has been, ‘let’s build tools that give our clients the flexibility to be individual and unique so that they don’t all look the same, and give them tools to monetize so Apple sees revenue from iTunes sales… We don’t regard ourselves as a template anymore, we regard ourselves as a platform.”

If artist apps actually represent a new music format, as I have long contended, then Mobile Roadie might be considered akin to the new TuneCore: a slimmed-down middleman that can scale the creation and distribution of artist apps to the point that any band with a budget — not a huge budget, but a budget of some kind — can have their own app.

And unlike one-off app developers, Mobile Roadie helps artists keep apace of the latest technological developments without paying extra. For instance, its artist apps will soon include Apple AirPlay compatibility at no extra charge, whereas a human developer would certainly expect a fee for adding that.

Artist apps are an odd sort of music format, compared to those of the past, because they feel free. It’s what’s inside the app that sometimes costs you. According to Schneider, the “freemium” model makes the most sense for artist apps — give fans as much content as possible for free, but include lots of ways for fans to purchase songs to play in outside programs, as well as tickets, T-shirts, and so on.

We expect these freemium artist-themed apps to continue to explode in popularity — and when they do, they could return something that has been sadly lacking from many music experiences these days: focus.

“Apps, way more than a Facebook page or a MySpace page or anything else, are a focus,” explained Schneider. “You don’t have a banner ad on the right, there’s not something popping up at you, there’s no link to take you into someone else’s website or experience — it’s completely about the artist, and that hyper-focus within the app is incredibly valuable.”

By solving one problem — how to distribute artist-related music, news, and purchasing opportunities to fans — music app developers such as Mobile Roadie appear to be solving another, far more important problem: how to get people to pay attention to music, rather than relegating it to the background.