Restoring Those Old Liner Notes in Music’s Digital Era
By BEN SISARIOSEPT. 29, 2017
G. Marq Roswell, one of founders of TunesMap, laments the digital era’s loss of the sense of music coming from a particular time and place. Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
Two decades into the era of online music, streaming has been hailed as the industry’s savior, but a complaint from the earliest days of digital services persists: What happened to the liner notes?
Much of the material that once accompanied an album has long since been stripped away — not just the lyrics and thank-you lists, but also essays, artwork and even basic details like songwriting credits — leaving listeners with little more on their screens to look at but a song title and a postage-stamp-size cover image.
One company, TunesMap, wants to return much of that lost information, and more, through an interactive display that, when cued by a song playing on a streaming service, will present a feed of videos, photographs and links to related material. After a decade of development, TunesMap is scheduled to make its debut in November as an Apple TV app that will work with Sonos, the connected speaker system.
TunesMap will display a feed of cultural and historical context connected to the song being played. TunesMap
The app is the brainchild of G. Marq Roswell, a Hollywood music supervisor who has worked with David Lynch and Denzel Washington. He bemoans the way early digital players and online music stores like iTunes removed all sense of music coming from a particular place and time.
Working with Nigel Grainge, an influential record executive who died in June; Erik Loyer, an app developer and media artist; and Jon Blaufarb, an industry lawyer, Mr. Roswell in 2007 began to design what he calls an interactive “context engine.” Stream a song on a Sonos speaker and, if TunesMap’s app is also fired up on Apple TV, images and historical information related to the artist or a song’s origins begin to float buy.
For a Bob Dylan song, the app shows vintage photographs of Greenwich Village, news clippings and links to related artists (like Martin Scorsese, who directed the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home”). The goal is to present fans with a web of educational “rabbit holes” to explore.
TunesMap co-founders Erik Loyer, center left, and G. Marq Roswell, center right, inside the company’s office in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
“We’re going through the prism of music,” Mr. Roswell said, “but it’s film, it’s fashion, it’s art, it’s news, it’s comedy — it’s everything that created that scene.”
The company has deals with publishers like Genesis Publications and Rock’s Backpages, a decades-deep archive of music journalism, as well as rock photographers like Jay Blakesberg; TunesMap receives a cut of any sales made through the app. (TunesMap also shows articles from The New York Times by using the paper’s programming interface.)
During its long gestation, the company secured two patents for its navigation system and raised $4.75 million from entertainment-industry veterans like Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, and Jerry Moss, one of the founders of A&M Records, and from the Visionary Private Equity Group.
For a Bob Dylan song, the app will show items like vintage photographs, handwritten lyrics and links to related artists. TunesMap
“I produced a Hank Williams film with Tom Hiddleston that took 10 years to put together,” Mr. Roswell said, referring to the 2015 biopic “I Saw the Light.” “I wouldn’t know any other way to do it. I just never let the vision die.”
The app is free, and it works when a user plays songs on Sonos from Spotify, Apple Music and other major streaming services. But in many ways, TunesMap runs counter to the trends of digital music consumption, which are moving toward simple mobile displays and programmed playlists.
Equipment costs are another potential barrier. The cheapest Sonos and Apple TV systems cost a total of $350. TunesMap said a minimal mobile version would also be available.
Reimagining liner notes for the digital age is a guiding concept, but Mr. Loyer, TunesMap’s director of user experience, said the company has tried to avoid the nostalgia of “Oh, remember when we had liner notes.”
“The real question,” Mr. Loyer said, “is how do we design the systems in such a way that values the real output of all the culture that surrounds a piece of music.”