By Howard Druckman
Last week, U2 released their new album Songs of Innocence to 500-million-plus Apple iTunes subscribers, free of charge…at least to iTunes users.
The New York Times reported that Apple paid the band and Universal Music an unspecified fee and committed to a marketing campaign worth up to $100-million in order to release the album “for free.” The announcement came at an Apple event watched worldwide, launching the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch.
It’s already clear that music listening, and payment for it, are moving from an ownership (physical sales, if not so much downloads) to an access (streaming) model. But the ownership model pays musicians decently, while the access model currently pays them mere thousandths of a penny per play. It’s also clear that Apple subscribers will gladly download the U2 album without paying for it. But the public perception of the value of music suffers as a result. And you can’t put a price on public perception, which can take years to build, and only a few moments to destroy.
At the launch event, Apple’s Tim Cook announced a “free iTunes release,” but Bono quickly countered with an emphatic, “Yes, but you’re going to have to pay for it.” In a later statement, Bono – at pains to counter the perception that U2’s deal devalues music – said: “Apple 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… who need to make a living to write [their music].”
But if 500 million iTunes-subscribing consumers don’t have to pay anything to download and own the latest album by U2 – arguably the biggest band on the planet – it sends a message to all consumers that all music isn’t worth paying for. If consumers don’t have to pay anything to own a U2 album, why would they pay anything for an album by a local working musician, or the future musicians to whom Bono refers? Even if U2 are being paid, their deal with Apple contributes to the idea that music is worth less and less (if any) of the consumer’s’ money. And as the perceived value of music plummets, so, too, does the potential income of musicians everywhere.
Recent reports say that some music retailers, and some record industry executives, agree that the U2 deal devalues music. “I’m not sure that this giveaway is good for the business,” one senior label executive reportedly said. Another said it will hurt smaller artists, who still count on sales revenue. Commenting in Canada’s own FYI online magazine, Editor David Farrell said the U2 deal “made many music insiders feel uneasy, that this was a day the value of music died, as Bono and crew… signalled to their fans that buying music is completely passé.”
There are recent examples of similar music-devaluing marketing ploys by Jay Z (a million “free” copies to purchasers of Samsung’s Galaxy phone, for a reported $5 million in his pocket, in 2013) and Radiohead (offering 2007’s In Rainbows online for a “pay whatever you want” price).
When In Rainbows was released, journalist Will Hodgkinson, of U.K. newspaper The Guardian, wrote: “Spare a thought for the thousands upon thousands of bands and singers who, nowhere near Radiohead’s levels of fame and fortune, now have pretty much no chance of ever making a living from their music.” Substitute U2 for Radiohead, and the same statement could be made today.
What do you think?