— IndyMusic (@IndyMusic) November 3, 2014
What do you think?
You should probably read the full interview in Rolling Stone first.
If you didn’t know, Apple negotiated rights to U2’s current album, Songs of Innocence, and distributed it to half a billion (crazy, I know) iTunes Store customers, for free, in September.
As Bono explained at U2.com:
To celebrate the ten year anniversary of our iPod commercial, they bought it as a gift to give to all their music customers. Free, but paid for. Because if no-one’s paying anything for it, we’re not sure “free” music is really that free. It usually comes at a cost to the art form and the artist… which has big implications, not for us in U2, but for future musicians and their music… all the songs that have yet to be written by the talents of the future… who need to make a living to write them.
However, not everyone was thrilled. By attaching the album to iTunes accounts, it caused unexpected downloads. Furthermore, customers were unable to delete or ‘unlink’ the album from their online profiles. Some people really were terribly upset about getting an album from one of the world’s biggest bands for free. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those people had been helping themselves to music for almost twenty years by downloading illegally. Or envy them for not having more important things to be upset about, for that matter.
I’m not being mean here, I get upset every single day about the most stupid things that don’t matter one jot in the grand scheme of things. I’ve come to believe that we secretly love to be offended and outraged. I’d imagine many were genuinely inconvenienced by it, taking up valuable space on their devices; that’s why instructions on how to remove the “gift album” were demanded. I can see why most teens whose music libraries consist of rappers and pretty boys wouldn’t want it. I had no intention of buying it – my interest in U2 largely ended with The Joshua Tree, I must admit – but I eventually realised I had their kind offering, listened and quite liked it, and I haven’t yet removed it. So, thanks a lot, U2. Very decent of you.
Now, if Justin Bieber’s people ever try pulling a stunt like that…
On being told it was “rude” to force their album on people in this wicked way, I thought Bono’s response was perfectly reasonable:
We had this beautiful idea, we got carried away with ourselves, artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be here. There’s a lot of noise out there, I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.
I’m much more sickened to learn that Apple spent a reported $100 million on a worldwide ad campaign for this. Who can’t think of 100 million better ways of spending that amount of money? (Let’s not make a list.) And I don’t ever like to see guitars getting smashed, as The Edge does in the advert, unless it’s archive footage from 1970 or earlier. How unforgivably wasteful and also just a tad embarrassing for anyone over the age of thirty to behave in this reckless way.
Following the digital release of Songs of Innocence, on 13 October came the physical release. You could choose between (deep breath) a deluxe, gatefold double album containing an acoustic session of songs from the album and four additional tracks, with a 24-page booklet, or a gatefold, double white-vinyl LP with an exclusive remix of one of the songs. I don’t recall which song.
Devalue music, you say, or truss it up like a Christmas turkey?
If it’s really all about the excitement of hearing about people enjoying it, as Nick claims, won’t many more people hear it if you give it to them for free? How many of us buy an album these days from someone we’re unfamiliar with on the basis of quite liking the first single picked up by radio stations? Who takes a gamble when albums cost a tenner that needs to be spent on petrol? I think it should mean more to artists, particularly to the older and wiser ones, that ‘the kids’ like their ‘stuff’, that a lot of people appreciated the gesture (gimmick*, or whatever you think it was) and enjoyed the music enough to want to hear more of it. After all, isn’t the accomplishment all the greater when the ones who like what you’ve produced haven’t generally liked everything you’ve ever done before and have bought it, in multiple formats, for thirty- or forty-odd years?
I think it’s most welcome, getting something new for free that you can discard with ease and zero environmental guilt attached if you don’t want or like it, because much of what I hear on the radio is either old and familiar or new and bloody awful, so that’s not helping me find new music that I want to listen to. YouTube is so full of adverts now, I soon tire of waiting for the link that allows me to skip the ads, so I move on to something else. TV producers and presenters keep bringing back their darlings to be guests on their shows and to perform whatever it is they’re promoting this time, so there’s little opportunity for anyone who isn’t already connected and favoured.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be paid for their efforts. Of course they always should no matter what. But offering a free sample of anything is a good way to get people interested, I think.
Take the music many of us helped ourselves to in the
good/bad (you decide, I can’t say) old days of Napster et al., when we discovered something we liked, then, on the back of that, bought an album or three, some concert tickets, a DVD and a T-shirt. Lose a few quid on CD sales, make loads of new fans who’ll buy all your merchandise.
Music being devalued… Some will say that nothing devalues music quite as much as yet another remastered, albeit beautifully packaged, anniversary reissue that nobody needs. Or when it’s played to death in television commercials. Or covered badly by whoever’s flavour-of-the-month (perhaps, worse still, when there’s an awkward collaboration between young and old that shames both parties).
Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy (who has put out some pretty lousy songs, it has to be said), insists that U2 gave their “mediocre music” away because no-one wants to buy it. There’s a lot wrong with that, if you think about it. Please think beyond questioning the respectability of using your family as exhibits in a TV freak show, or in oiling the wheels that turn the endless conveyor belt of talent show bores that monopolise the charts and offer the listener nothing new at all.
There’s a lot of truth in Iggy Pop’s “And now the biggest bands are charging insane ticket prices or giving away music before it can flop, in an effort to stay huge. And there’s something in this huge thing that kind of sucks.” It does suck. But I don’t think Songs of Innocence was ever likely to flop. Radiohead’s seventh album, In Rainbows, didn’t flop in 2007. They actually made more money out of it than they did their sixth album, even though they let people pay as much, or as little, as they wanted for it without any record company involvement.
The same year that Radiohead let people pay what they liked to download In Rainbows (and sold 100,000 copies of it in box-set format), Prince upset music industry executives and retailers alike (a “huge insult to an industry battling fierce competition from supermarkets and online stores,” apparently) by giving away his Planet Earth album – which had debuted at Number Three on the US Billboard chart – for free in the UK with a national newspaper. He then announced a run of 21 dates at London’s O2, all of which sold out, earning him $23.4 million. He might well have lost $4.6 million by licensing his CD to a newspaper, but still made a $18.8 million profit.
It must have been worth it, because he did the same a few years later with 20TEN – in the UK, as well as in Germany and Belgium.
In 2007, Ray Davies also gave away his (excellent) Working Man’s Café album in a Sunday newspaper in the UK. “Personally, it’s about reaching as many people as possible,” he said. “I’m incredibly proud of this LP and am truly excited that 1.5 million copies will be distributed to people who’ll hear it organically – the way it was intended. It’s an exciting opportunity I couldn’t resist.” (Of course, when the CD went on sale the following day, it contained two bonus tracks not included on the promotional copy.)
Continued Bono, before the backlash:
Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible. In the next 24 hours, over a half a billion people are going to have Songs of Innocence… should they choose to check it out. That is so exciting. People who haven’t heard our music, or weren’t remotely interested, might play us for the first time because we’re in their library. Country fans, hip hop afficionados from east LA, electro poppers from Seoul, Bhangra fans from New Delhi, Highlifers in Accra… might JUST be tempted to check us out, even for a moment. What a mind blowing, head scratching, 21st century situation. Over 500 million people… that’s a billion ears. And for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t criticise that enthusiasm. I can only wonder, if I cared enough to do so (I don’t), with eyes narrowed suspiciously, whether the real reason he wants to reach so many new listeners is to be able to get more money out of them in the long run.
Perhaps I’m just being gullible, but I don’t see the harm in it.
The BBC’s annual John Peel Lecture this year, courtesy of Iggy Pop, was on the topic of ‘Free Music in a Capitalist Society’. He made some excellent points, but is the process of buying an album really “kind of an anointing,” as he claimed? I find that terribly self-important.
Of course, the bottom line is this: It’s their music, let them do whatever they like with it. And we’re all free, as punters, to take it or leave it.
I’d love to hear what you think, though.
The chatroom will be open tomorrow, from 2pm (UK), so do drop by.
*As Iggy Pop says in his lecture, “Every free media platform I’ve ever known has been a front for advertising or propaganda or both.”