App Review: Groovebug

Groovebug Rihanna Artist Page

The first page you see when selecting an artist. Notice the music player controls in the header.

Evanston is the near north suburb of Chicago. It’s far from the rush and drunkenly misplaced phone prototypes of Silicon Valley, preferring a more low-key lifestyle enhanced by Evanston Northshore and Northwestern University. From the latter is a crop of graduate and undergraduates behind a new music discovery app specifically designed for iPad.

Music apps are often hit, miss, or gimmicky. The hits including VEVO, Pandora, Shazam, Spotify and iheartradio while the rest can slip through a sieve without the world noticing. Browse the Music category in the App Store and you’ll see what I mean: My Dream Band, Bollywood Hit Songs, Baroque Trumpet, Free Music Downloader: Download Free&Legal Music. Mostly useless in the long-run. I had a chance to sit down with Groovebug in their offices and it is safe to say that thankfully this app doesn’t fall into that category. It has a strong potential to be a quick, comprehensive source for music information, videos and discovery.

Music in Groovebug

The Music page, which includes what is in your iPad's library as well as available tracks in iTunes to preview and purchase.

When you first open the app, you’re presented with a series of tiles that represent predominately genres. The tiles are matched with what music is currently on your iPad, scrollable through right-hand pane. All that music is playable in the app. Select a genre and you’re presented with artists. Select an artist and you’re given biography (often pulled from Wikipedia or Last.fm), music or a discography with iTunes buy icons, videos pulled from YouTube, a news feed and finally related artists. It’s all quite simple and snappy to navigate. The presentation too is clean as on video and bio panels that leave most of the work to the left side of the display, allowing the background to shine through and rotate through artist photos. It’s quite pretty.

It’s also quite smart. Want to watch a video? It plays in-app, easily, and gives you the option to use the iPad’s YouTube App. Want to read more? An in-app browser pops up, minimalistic, that allows you to read in the app. The fact you can do this all in one application without having to ever hit the Home button remarks to the fluidity I saw. That ease-of-use with navigating a plethora of content makes Groovebug especially promising. I can see myself switching to this to quickly find out as much about an artist as I could instead of reverting to Google searches and Wikipedia pages.

Videos in Groovebug

With an option to view in the standard YouTube app

The music discovery portion is intriguing. In the shape of a vinyl record, you can spin the vinyl around or scroll up and down to view similar artists. I tested this out with Beastie Boys and found the results rather generic, limited to major names, but accurate in tone (i.e., A Tribe Called Quest). With Nick Jaina, the results were surprising. They listed off several nearby Pacific Northwest artists that are spot on in similarity. It’s an excellent start that with more profound tweaks could prove powerful. For example, along with Similar Artists, I’d like to peruse who else is on their label’s roster. Growing up up to my nose in music, this was always a preferred way to find non-major label, non-commercial radio artists and a very under-utilized method of sorting.

Similar Artists in Groovebug

Similar Artists, which runs quite well and is fun to play around with.

What impressed me the most, offering the most potential, was a tile for the World Music Festival in Chicago. Once selected, you can peruse through the Festival’s participating musicians. Imagine expounded on a larger festival and you could have quite the reference guide to festivals. It could also translate into a smaller, pocket iPhone app to use on festival grounds. But as long as it retains simplicity and ease of use.

The news portion is intriguing. Headlines come in from various websites (i.e., Stereogum, Pitchfork, etc), then when you select to read more an in-app browser allows you to visit the site and read the article. The articles are news from larger sites, which is good. I’d prefer to see smaller sites represented but that runs into a problem. Smaller sites or blogs often receive press releases detailing “New Video” or “Tour Dates Announced”, then crawl out via these outlets. To reach out and grab those pieces can easily overwhelm the news feed with the same “New Video” or “Tour Dates Announced” postings and articles. Sifting through that mess would greatly degrade the news page in the app, making that section useless. However, sometimes you miss out on interviews. Take for instance Blessed Feathers. They have a new album out. An interview? You may be hard pressed to find one since they’re relatively small and an interview that MFR did may not catch and show up. That’d be a pity, since it’s relevant information and gives new insights into the band.

Thus far, it’s a successful one stop shop for music info and news. The recommendation engine could use a little more tweaking, perhaps to show why artists share a common bond to further explore. Are they in the same city? Same label? Same genre? Example…Fitz and the Tantrums are linked to Evidence. How? Noelle Scaggs of Fitz recorded with Dilated Peoples, which includes Evidence. Maybe somewhere along that line someone would find something they enjoy. Similarly I’d like an option to choose where I’d want to purchase music (Amazon MP3/iTunes/Bandcamp), although I’m not sure on how practical that may be given app policies. Convenience will reign for the time being.

From talking with Neal Ehardt, the Chief Technical Officer and co-founder, they have some interesting plans and ideas in mind to strengthen Groovebug. Just like Clyde Smith, contributor at Hypebot, the app actually makes owning an iPad compelling. I’m a little jealous now not having it on my Macbook Pro. Groovebug is now available in the iTunes App Store.

Thoughts?