Tuesday, July 5, 2011

iTunes Festival: A Must Have App

London's RoundhouseFew venues have as much history as The Roundhouse in North London. Originally built as a short-lived steam engine repair shed in 1846, it has been retired and revived a number of times, most notably in 1964 when playwright Arnold Wesker established Centre 42. Everybody played there — Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Peter Brook, The Doors, and Led Zeppelin to name a few.

Nowadays, The Roundhouse bears little resemblance to the original venue after its closure in 1983, reopening in 1996, redevelopment in 2004, and reopening in 2006. No matter.

It's the perfect place to host a global concert with the help of a five-year-old innovative idea from Apple at a venue that just celebrated it's fifth anniversary since the reopening. With the iTunes Festival London 2011, the entire festival fits in your living room or even the palm of your hand.

How iTunes Festival foreshadows things to come.

For 31 nights in July, 62 artists (more or less) have signed on to perform live at a sold out venue in London and the entire planet. The iTunes Festival London 2011 provides live streaming concerts from London every afternoon (in the United States) in July, viewable on a computer, on a portable device — iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch — or on your television with AirPlay.

iTunes Festival London 2011The app is incredibly straightforward, with some minor formatting variations for each device. Apple opted for a calendar format, showing all the opening and main event gigs across 31 days. With rare exceptions (e.g., Paul Simon) missing a live performance doesn't even matter. You can watch any of the past performances at your convenience.

For the most part, the iPhone and iPad interface is largely the same, except the iPad menu also includes an artist section that lists every performer in alphabetical order. In addition to a brief bio, the app includes a button to any live or past gig as well as a link to the artist's work in the iTunes store.

The app also support upcoming news: sometimes serving as an introduction and other times listing any changes to the festival schedule. For example, when Simon Le Bon (Duran, Duran) was forced to cancel over local problems, the news section carried an explanation. Jessie J was another cancellation; the artist broke a foot.

Along with the concerts, there is some additional information about what Apple calls studio sessions (not streamed). In between live events, iTunes has invited some artists, actors, and authors — Any Lame, Gwyneth Paltrow, Berlin-based Beatsteaks, David Nicholls, and others — to speak to a smaller audience. It's a nice touch if you are in London. Otherwise, it serves as a foreshadow of things to come at a location that is becoming the epicenter of a future cultural revolution.

Apple iPadThe future format isn't the only foreshadow. If Apple can simultaneously stream live events and store these events for playback at any time, it opens up new possibilities in global subscription-based or advertising-supported programming. Very literally, the app and concert series is a working model for a true any device, anywhere, anytime experience.

All that's missing for now is the self-imposed Apple limitation of one app on one device at a time. But our editors see this limitation disappearing in the years ahead. The next generation evolution will likely be more social, allowing you to see which friends are tuned in and then chatting with them at your leisure. The world has never seemed smaller.

A sampler size section about recent past and future acts.

The legendary musician Paul Simon might have opened the show on July 1, but it's the lesser known opening act in which I'm most interested. Three days into the festival, for example, Brighton-based Ramona dominated three live performances on July 3.

Having heard the band's U.K. released EP, How Long, I anticipated a straightforward pop rock arrangement. What I heard instead was a sharply exciting alt rock performance with a hint of punk. While it made me less excited about seeing the EP released in the United States, it made me very excited to see a future LP with Karen Anne's grittier vocals and her company's dirty arrangements. Keep an eye out.

Of course, some headline performances will be unforgettable too. Recently reviewed Seasick Steve was joined by album mates John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Jack White (The White Stripes). Some other big names performing this week include Linkin Park, Arctic Monkeys, Adele, and My Chemical Romance (to name a few). As for the openers, some might receive space here for a future review.

The iTunes Festival App Rocks At 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While there is no doubt the app is a must have for 99 cents, there are dozens of small improvements that could be made for next year. Among them: adding self-selected preset concert alerts, additional pre-concert footage instead of a slideshow between acts, and solving the occasional sync issues between the audio and video stream. (The solution is to jump out and jump back into the app.)

On the flip side, there is much more to love. Where else can you see 62 live performances for 99 cents? Nowhere. The production team does an excellent job toggling back and forth between full hall views, multiple angles, and closeup shots. It's the next best thing to being there. A hat tip to the producers, who set up shots that rival televised concerts. Perhaps one day, the app will allow each user to pick their own camera angles too.

*Updated Dec. 2011. You could have downloaded the iTunes Festival London 2011 for the iPhone or iPod or iPad from iTunes. But as the concerts were transferred to independent artist EPs, Apple removed the time limited App. Keep that in mind for next year. The concert value alone justified purchasing a new iPad 2 (starting at around $500) or even iPod Touch (starting at around $225).
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