Universal Mind strikes a chord with new Jimi Hendrix app

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Jimi Hendrix would have turned 69 years old on Nov. 27, and more than four decades after the rock icon's death, interest in his life and music continues to grow. Two months ago, the Sony Legacy label and the family-owned management firm Experience Hendrix LLC launched the five-disc Winterland, documenting three October 1968 live sets recorded in San Francisco, as well as an expanded version of In the West, a collection of live performances first released in 1972. But the Hendrix catalog is no longer limited to traditional album and video releases: This month, digital solutions agency Universal Mind will roll out Jimi Hendrix--The Complete Experience, an authorized free application for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS that touts a wealth of interactive content for diehard fans and new listeners alike.

Jimi Hendrix--The Complete Experience features music, text, photos and video spanning all phases of Hendrix's brief but brilliant career--users can flip through his full discography, download full-length tracks, albums, documentaries and live videos from iTunes, view archival images of the historic live venues where Hendrix played, receive location alerts when they travel within the vicinity of Hendrix landmarks and collect virtual passport stamps and "experience points" deposited into their GameCenter account. Consumers running iOS 5 also can send music and video to Apple TV units via Apple AirPlay. FierceDeveloper spoke to Universal Mind's vice president of business development Tim Wandell about building the Hendrix app, collaborating with Sony Legacy and Experience Hendrix and the art of storytelling.

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tim wandell

       Tim Wandell

Tim Wandell on Universal Mind: We combine the creative design work of an interactive agency with the technological prowess of a systems integrator. We're a tight team of exquisite professionals who want to do great work with great people for great customers. We've developed a lot of mobile apps, and we're pretty broad in terms of what we've conceived and created. We've learned a lot along the way. With each project we ask "What is a relevant experience for each customer? What makes people's lives better and more interesting?" That's the nugget of sustainability.

Wandell on Universal Mind's partnership with Sony Legacy and Experience Hendrix:  About this time last year, I started talking to [then-Sony Music vice president] Matt Koslov. He asked us to come up with some initial ideas. He got it started. Then he promptly quit to go to CAA [laughs]. Matt handed me off to one of his minions, Josh Kahn, who happens to be a helluva guy. Sony then introduced us to everybody on their many floors--we met with all the labels. That got the momentum going.

Our vision is that a frontline artist currently living and producing music can be capricious and difficult to work with. That could create a production nightmare. So we said "Let's go for a catalog artist--someone like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel." But Jimi Hendrix is the ideal. His story and narrative are so exquisite. The content is there, the music is there, the unusual artifacts are there--there's so much information out there. It's a story that is so unique and perfectly suited to investigation and discovery.

We decided to develop for iOS because I could see Jimi Hendrix standing against a white background in an Apple store--I could see that in my mind. It's worth mentioning that Sony contributes 40 percent of iTunes inventory and has a significant relationship with Apple. We also wanted to build our iOS talent.

Experience Hendrix was extremely reticent and reluctant until they met us and saw our vision prototype. I think they saw our humility and our respect for Jimi's legacy. The clincher was meeting [Experience Hendrix catalog director] John McDermott--he articulated how many times he's done stuff with ambitious nerds, then nothing happens. It doesn't build, and it doesn't get refreshed. So he was gun-shy at first, but we talked about sustainability and updates. The goal of the app is continued discovery, and giving you more content than you expected. So I kept talking and stressing the longevity of the relationship--I said "We don't want to do a deal. We want to create an experience."  

hendrixWandell on the Hendrix app's evolution: It changed dramatically. It started on bar napkins, as all great ideas do. All the early ideas are still in place, like the foundation of gaming and achievement, and content that has to be unlocked and discovered. The challenge was getting the stories and content together. It's so difficult to get it all right.

We had access to an extraordinary inventory of content. But when you're telling a story, who's responsible? Who paints that picture? When you have a lot of information, how do you stitch it together? The sheer volume of content out there is amazing--we see a long-term opportunity to show the world unique tidbits and artifacts no one has seen. The Experience Hendrix folks helped us refine it. We're beholden to Janie [Hendrix, Jimi's sister] and her ambitions to keep the legacy pure.

The record industry and Experience Hendrix move at different paces. So while we were waiting for content, we asked ourselves "How do we keep busy? There are other engagements and experiences we can do. What will it look like in world of the [BlackBerry] PlayBook and Android?" We considered those platforms, but we didn't extend to them. We thought "Let's blast the first one out, see the response, and then we'll create a cross-platform experience." The problem with going cross-platform from the beginning is that you end up addressing the least common denominator.

Wandell on the Hendrix app's GPS integration: We wanted to list out locations that tell a story beyond "This is what happened." We really wanted to focus on places where if we want to go in and expand, we have room to do that. Think of complementary content like video, ticket stubs or stories. That's what we want.

The kernel of the idea is that we're trying to get people to participate in walking through Jimi's footfalls.  A lot of the history has moved on. But I love the idea of having the ability to express what that place was at the time of Jimi Hendrix. We can show the architecture as it was--we can show you through augmented reality, and you can gain achievements when you go to these places.

hendrix 2Wandell on the decision to go freemium: We agonized over this, in a good way. There was a lot of banter back and forth. But we believe making it free is a fundamental aspect of the experience. We identified early on that Hendrix fans are impulsive. Since Sony acquired the catalog, they've seen a significant number of individual downloads--the numbers are astonishing to me. And about 80 percent of those downloads are the same ten songs. People want to hear "Foxy Lady" and then they download it.

We asked "What is our intent here?" We want this app in the greatest number of hands--we want the greatest volume of people to experience this. If we priced it at 99 cents, we saw clearly in our financial models that would have a significant impact on consumer choice. If it's free, people feel comfortable downloading it. We wanted to support impulse buys--a lot of people are still being introduced to this music, and a lot of younger people don't have this content.

We've built an app that will make you come back for more. A lot of our plans are still tentative. It's all about how we tee it up logically--we don't want to lose sight of the experience. I still want new content--I want new album releases, I want unfound videos, and I want more than our in-app purchases.

One feature we're considering is called Play Like Jimi. It's unique in how we've conceived it. I don't want to give too much away. But this fanbase is passionate about artistry and equipment. [Hendrix] is an amazing character--the best way to experience that is with a guitar in your hands. I see a lot of interoperability between devices, like patching a guitar into an iPad and using AirPlay to extend it through the TV. It's all in the preliminary design phase. The road map is our biggest challenge.

Wandell's advice for aspiring mobile app developers: It's a difficult path to come up with something that really captivates people. You should always consider the experience in totality--consider the experience like [late Apple CEO] Steve Jobs would, in every aspect of what's being done, and you won't go wrong. Release often, release quickly and get it in the hands of people. Then think about monetizing. There's a lot of waiting--the sooner you can get something out there and get feedback, the sooner you'll avoid a lot of the pitfalls.

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