Do Extravagant Extras Help Sell Albums?

The many apps for Bjork's Biophilia represent the latest attempt to expand records beyond music

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Not long ago, Björk found herself fighting candida, a recurring fungal throat infection that forced her to change her diet and medication. Being Björk, she not only found this situation "kinda hilarious" ("it's like I have this new neighbour"), but treated it as inspirational fodder for her new album, Biophilia. The result was the song "Virus," which uses the relationship between parasite and host as a sardonic metaphor for love.

We learn all of this from the text accompanying the song's iPad/iPhone app, written by the Icelandic musician and followed by an analysis by University of Sheffield musicology professor Dr. Nikki Dibben. The app's main attraction, though, is the interactive "Virus" game, which allows fans to act as Björk's immune system, using their device's touchscreen to push an increasing number of green virus particles away from a host cell, all while the song plays.

For each of Biophilia's 10 songs, there's an interactive multimedia piece along the lines of the one for "Virus." Other apps in the album's "cosmogony," each priced at $1.99, invite tactile participation based on aspects of nature, including the cycles of the moon ("Moon") and the growth of crystals ("Crystalline").

It adds up to an experience that demands undivided attention—active listening in the truest sense. That's by design.

"With downloadable music, what we've lost is the period when you fall in love with music," says Scott Snibbe, Biophilia's interactive media designer. "With the apps, we're getting back to that, because all of a sudden you have a device and a medium that's captivating all of your senses at once. You can't just pop it onto your headphones and then go about your day."

In a few ways, the Biophilia concept is revolutionary ("No one had done an app box before," Björk told The Atlantic). But it's also part of a long, accelerating trend among artists who have been trying to expand the notion of an "album," often to fight the cheapening of music due to technology ranging from BitTorrenting to bootlegging.

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The vinyl era saw Cheech & Chong including a giant rolling paper in their Big Bambú album, and Isaac Hayes' Black Moses record folded out into a crucifix-shaped image of the soul musician. Compact discs provided new opportunities: Who could forget the Enhanced CD, the futuristic technology that allowed people to watch videos by the likes of Iron Maiden and Beastie Boys on their computers? (Everyone? OK). In 1997, Britain's Spiritualized released a version of their album Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space with CDs encased in "blister packs," like pills. In the current century, the disc version of Tool's last album, 10,000 Days, came with a pair of 3D glasses to view the artwork in the liner notes. It ended up winning the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Recording Package.

Lately, though, the bonus content has become even more extravagant. In March, Radiohead distributed a free newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to herald the release of their latest, The King of Limbs (and it was different from the newspaper that came with the "Newspaper version" of that album). Last year, producer Jake One and rapper Freeway released their collaborative The Stimulus Package in a large cardboard wallet with a download card and fake money inside. The Flaming Lips' most recent project was a $150 four-song EP on a USB flash drive encased in a gummy skull that came out in April. A new version, released in a gummy fetus, was released in July.

Do these efforts help sell records? Judging by the experiences of a few major artists in the past few years, yes. But the key often is exclusivity. Ian Rogers, the chief executive at Topspin Media, a service that enables musicians to market directly to their audience, says special-edition album versions are highly profitable if produced in limited runs—in the 500-2000 units range.

"It's complete B.S.," Bob Lefsetz says of the app album concept

For example, Nine Inch Nails' Ghosts I-IV, Trent Reznor's first album as an independent artist, was released through his website in an elaborately array of formats with ascending prices. In its cheapest form, the album came as a free download that could be shared legally. Its most expensive form was in a $300 special-edition package that included CDs, vinyl, a Blu-ray Disc, a book, and an autograph. Only 2,500 were made, crashing Reznor's site during the 30 hours it took for his ravenous fans to buy out the entire run. That's a gross of $750,000 in just over a day.

Tales like Reznor's have become increasingly common. It happened with the 5,000-run Black Sabbath: Live At Hammersmith Odeon CD, a bundle of the new Evanescence album (which came with an autographed poster) of which only 500 were made, and yes, the Flaming Lips' gummy fetus.

"Hard-core fans are collectors," says Bob Lefsetz, a record label consultant and former entertainment lawyer who runs the widely read Lefsetz Letter blog and email newsletter. "And they want an exclusive item. The average person cannot have contact with their hero."

Rogers agrees. "Fans love to have something that is truly collectible as part of your offering," he says. "Lady Gaga was selling a $160 version of her last record on nine beautiful picture-discs at the same time as she was selling her entire record for a dollar on Amazon."

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Jason Richards is a writer from Toronto who has contributed to New York Magazine, Gawker, and

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