Two weeks ago, I was enjoying a working vacation in the great state of New Jersey, thousands of miles away from my computer and personal internet connection. In order to stay on top of my usual routine, I connected my iPod Touch to my parents’ WiFi signal so I could directly download some new episodes of my favorite podcasts. The connection seemed fairly slow and when the iTunes Store home screen finally displayed, I saw a banner advertising the new U2 album Songs of Innocence as a free download. Up to that point, all I’d heard of new U2 music was from the current Apple commercial featuring the band performing their new single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” (a likely attempt at proving how “real” the band still is despite their nine-figure bank accounts and AARP memberships). I tapped the icon to download the album and it showed up as already downloaded. I looked at my iPod album list and there it was. The little bastard must’ve snuck in as soon as I’d connected to the internet.
The consumptive side of me thought “cool, a new U2 album…for free!” But the rational side kicked in soon after and has placed this album under the “spam” category. Any unwanted digital junk has been dubbed “spam” for the last decade or so, and while some have welcomed the bold move of automatically giving the album to any registered iTunes user, a very vocal group has demanded it be removed, prompting Apple to release a tool to delete the album from your account. Since it was only free to iTunes users, the band also managed to alienate the tens of millions of people who don’t use iTunes. Those saps will have to pay for the album next month.
Personally, I find it annoying how the album was a mandatory download. Mandatory pushes on mobile devices should be reserved for flood and hurricane warnings. The reality is most people want the option of saying no, even when it comes to free stuff. These days, device storage is getting more and more precious thanks to the endless apps we all consume, so that 109 MB could be better used for the next flashing lights/pretty colors game-of-the-moment or yet another means of posting photos of our Starbucks beverages. My larger problem has to do with the band using a PR stunt to further devalue music. The youngest device users are already legally consuming music for free thanks to Spotify and Pandora, who constantly reduce streaming royalties to an even smaller fraction of a cent. Aside from the latest pop singles and occasional mega-hyped mainstream album, music has gone from being a worthwhile investment to yet another bit of daily white noise which should be free for all to consume, production costs be damned. When a band as huge as U2 says it’s okay to give music away for free as “a gift,” it further diminishes the likelihood of smaller acts (see: everyone else) being able to make a living selling their music.
Don’t worry – U2 didn’t take a loss with this move. They signed a lucrative deal with Apple to appear in those seizure-inducing commercials and were paid piles of money for the album. We can rest assured knowing the band profited from Songs of Innocence and will continue to do so when…somebody…buys its physical release in October. I’m sure the handful of retailers who still sell physical copies of music are thrilled at the prospect of carrying a CD a month after 500 million people already have it. The band justifies that by offering exclusive bonus tracks to various retail chains, which is fascinating. You get a set of 11 songs for free but if you want 3 or 4 more, you’ll have to pony up ten bucks. If the plan is for several stores to each get exclusive tracks, you could end up spending $30 to get another nine songs…after you just got 11 for free. At least Jay-Z was smart enough to release the CD version of his digital exclusive album three days after it was first available so he could cash in on the hype.
I’m sure the hope was for this release to prompt sales of U2’s back catalogue, but reports suggest only 6,700 albums were sold in the week after Songs was released. That’s not too much of a surprise. Doesn’t everybody already own The Joshua Tree and at least one of their 17 hits compilations?
And what about the continued devaluation of music? What about the up-and-comer who’s having trouble getting people to buy his debut for $10? Bono hasn’t forgotten about the little guy. He and Apple are working on a new digital music format to help get the public interested in buying music again. It will supposedly be ready for launch in 18 months. Given current trends, we all know how eager everybody will be to buy music after another year and a half passes.
As for me? I still haven’t listened to the album. I haven’t been ignoring it but I’m not particularly invested in it. Paying for something, laying down your money, attaches you to it. You feel a sense of investment. For me, Songs of Innocence is…just there. It required no effort or thought for me to get it so I don’t have anything really pulling me toward it. I’m sure I’ll listen to the album at some point, but I’m in no hurry.
In the end, the world is better off having U2 around because the band has certainly done more good than harm. Bono has been an ambassador for every global cause that has popped up in the last 30 years and, like it or not, he’s brought attention and funding to many of them. In an era of grossly overpriced concert tickets, the band still gives you your money’s worth at every concert by putting on a fantastic spectacle guided by their arena-fueled chicka-chicka-chicka-chicka anthems. Given the backlash, it’s doubtful any other major acts will make a deal like this in the future. Many tried to replicate Radiohead’s success after they offered the “pay what you want” option for In Rainbows, a move which earned them a ton of respect since they did it without any major backing. Making the “revolutionary” move of giving your album away for free after a major corporation has essentially paid you for millions of copies isn’t likely to earn the band any admirers. Like the rest of us, U2 doesn’t stand to lose anything from the free download of Songs of Innocence.
Okay, maybe their credibility.