Indie rockers Airplane Mode get their spark from Apple


These guys rock — and design great apps. Bassist Joe Cieplinski, left, and lead guitar and vocalist, Dave Wiskus, of the band Airplane Mode.
These guys rock — and design great apps. Bassist Joe Cieplinski, left, and lead guitar and vocalist, Dave Wiskus, of the band Airplane Mode.
Photo: Airplane Mode

Cult of Mac 2.0 bugThe indie rock band Airplane Mode does indeed get its name from the feature on an iPhone that shuts off wireless transmission.

The name and the resumes of three of the band’s musicians — well-established iOS designers — have led more than a few people to assume they have found a source of cute parody music about Apple culture.

In fact, you won’t find any iPhones, iMacs or odes to Steve Jobs in the lyrics of the tight, hard-charging synth-driven music. However, the band’s roots in Apple culture permeate everything else, from its use of technology and understanding of social engagement to its start-up energy.

And there is one other way: Airplane Mode is making money.

Run like a start-up

The lessons learned from building software at smart start-ups is a guiding force behind the 11-month-old New York City-based band comprised of Dave Wiskus, Joe Cieplinksi, Agnes Chan and Patrick Spencer.

Airplane Mode, the band
The crew of Airplane Mode, Joe Cieplinski, Agnes Chan, Dave Wiskus and Patrick Spencer.
Photo: Airplane Mode

The music is influenced by keyboard-centric groups, from The Cars to The Killers, but the rest of the band’s operating mode is all Steve Jobs, Wiskus says.

“Our live performances are inspired by the way Apple presents (a keynote),” Wiskus told Cult of Mac. “I think the Steve Jobs influence is on this band, from a business prospect, from the technology, from a showmanship perspective. The elements of that benefit us in reaching audiences in an interesting way.”

The band has released two EPs, including its first, Amsterdam, which in addition to availability on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon, was released on iBooks with music, lyrics and stories that inspired the music to go along with the four tracks.

Airplane Mode also released the lead track as a GarageBand project so that other musicians could put their own spin on the song.

The band makes regular videos for their songs and records a weekly podcast, all with sponsorships that generate revenue. On the tech side, it also launched Clickarus, a metronome app that was initially created just for them but is being used by other bands.

To take the Apple influence further, Airplane Mode has created its own ecosystem. Money is earned from shows, song and album downloads, merchandise, ad revenues from videos they make and the podcast it produces themselves. The members understand they may not get rich from the downloads or shows, but any source of revenue related to whatever it creates means they can afford to keep making music.


Keeping it fresh

Even the way it records music is unusual. Rather than gather in a studio, the band members will pass songs back and forth to each other, record pieces in Logic Pro, a digital audio workstation for Mac OS X, and share through Dropbox. Instead of ideas getting rejected and feelings hurt in a group setting, each is free to just write and record ideas. Usually, by the time a weekly practice session takes places, the arrangement of a song is set, Wiskus said.

“This is a way for us to workshop stuff individually,” Wiskus said. “We can each try things individually in a Logic file without someone else in the room. It helps circumvent grumpiness. Grumpiness is what kills a lot of bands.”

If it sounds more Silicon Valley than Electric Lady Studios, it’s because, Wiskus and Cieplinski, in particular, remain hard-wired as calculated-risk-taking entrepreneurs with a discipline to get things “shipped.”

Lead guitarist and vocalist Wiskus was part of a team at Black Pixel to create Kaleidoscope 2. He also helped design the mobile note-taking app, Vesper, a “Best of App Store” honoree that was just recently discontinued.

He has served as a creative director for app projects for the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and the NBA.

Bass player Ciepliniski is part of Bombing Brain Interactive, a small independent app development company that designed the successful Teleprompt+, a teleprompter app for the iPad and OS X.

Chan, the band’s keyboardist, is part of the design studio FeltTip, which created the popular “Couch Potato to 5K” app to get people started on a running program.

Bands often solve problems by firing and hiring musicians. Airplane Mode will try to solve its problems with technology. For its latest video for the song, Long-Distance, Airplane Mode had looked to hire a computer animator to integrate live action emoji into the video. Instead, Wiskus taught himself an animation program, and the completed video was just released on YouTube and the band’s website Tuesday.

The video was made with help from Emojipedia, which also used its social network channels to promote it.

“We have this common background and it has really informed us,” Cieplinski said. “We treat the band like a business. The three of us worked in iOS and worked for small companies, it comes naturally for us. Most musicians want to play and don’t think about money until it’s too late.”

‘Good for you’

Wiskus has always wanted to do something with music, but couldn’t get anything off the ground in trying to find musicians on Craigslist. He was living in Denver and knew Cieplinski from the iOS developer’s conferences.

With plans to move from Denver to New York, where Ciepliniski was living, they vowed to get together to jam. Wiskus was then inspired to start a band following attendance at WWDC 2015 where Apple introduced Apple Music and it’s related social network, Connect. Soon, a keyboard player and drummer were on board and by December, the band had its first gig.

Flying a lot for work, Wiskus would work on music while on flights and created a folder for projects. Wiskus named the folder “Airplane Mode.”

The band has played live shows in a few states and countries, including Spain and Amsterdam, and have gigs a couple of times a month around New York City.

This year, the band was among the musical acts invited to perform at WWDC 2016, exactly one year after Wiskus was in the audience with a dream to start a group. They played one of the parties and were in a room full of friends and colleagues, many of whom had not understood how serious Wiskus and Cieplinski were about making it in music.

“When you tell friends you are starting a band, there’s a lot of ‘Good for you’ or ‘That’s nice,’”  Wiskus said. “When we got done playing, the thing we kept hearing was, ‘Oh my god, you’re a real band. You guys are legit.’ That surprise was the best compliment.”


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