In the days of social media, anonymous comments and secret-sharing apps, keeping anything under wraps is difficult.
But U2 and Apple managed it this week. Yes, there had been reports that U2 would take part in Apple’s iPhone 6 event and would even promote their new album. But the fact that this new album, Songs Of Innocence, would be given away free to some half a billion iTunes customers was kept a close secret and the resulting media splash when the news was announced was impressive.
What seems to have got lost in this, however, is quite what a ill-judged idea this album giveaway is, not just for Apple but for U2 themselves and the wider music industry. In fact – some U2 fans apart – it is hard to think of anyone who really benefits from the promotion.
On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good deal for U2. Their new album may be on iTunes for 0 pence but the band aren’t going to lose out financially, with the New York Times claiming that Apple paid the band and their label Universal “an unspecified fee as a blanket royalty and committed to a marketing campaign for the band worth up to $100 million”.
What’s more, the band gets a stupefying amount of exposure, with their new single soundtracking TV ads for Apple’s new products and 500m people exposed to their first new album in five years.
The problem for U2, however, is one of perception. They might have got paid handsomely for the album and it is getting a traditional, paid release in October. But Songs Of Innocence will remain forever in our minds as “the free U2 album”. And the less we pay for something, the less we tend to value it.
Of course, you might argue that bands are increasingly keen on giving away their new music for free and U2 are simply following this example. But no one, for the moment, has given away an album that even approaches their best work, let alone an album that might re-start their career. Consider Jay Z: didn’t you just know when he announced plans to give away his 2013 album Magna Carta with Samsung that it would be a stinker? And weren’t you ultimately proved right?
I’m no fan of U2 so I find it hard to judge where Songs Of Innocence might lie in their catalogue. Many people will love it, of course. But early reviews suggest the album is the sound of a band treading water – “treading old ground without much of a sense of how to move forward” as The Guardian puts it. Even the band’s old friend Neil McCormick seems to struggle to find much enthusiasm for the album in his Telegraph review – and he’s thanked in the liner notes.
One argument goes that U2 will use the publicity from the new album to launch a tour. That would have maybe made sense if they announced the tour at the iPhone 6 event, or just after, when the world was watching them. But the news cycle is so fast these days that U2 will be old news again next week. The fact that their album is free – i.e. disposable – will add to that.
The other problem for U2 is this move will arguably damage their chances of ever selling us any new music again. Digital piracy has become so easy to do that, for many punters, deciding whether to shell out for an album or download it illegally has become a moral choice.
To put it another way, there are millions of essentially very normal, music loving punters out there just looking for an excuse to download music illegally for free. And the next time U2 put out an album these people have a ready-made excuse. “Your last album was free,” the argument might go, “and that seemed to turn out OK. So why should we pay for this one?”
This is hardly watertight as moral arguments go. But if you’re looking to justify a sneaky free download it will more than serve.
Other bands and labels
Whatever the effect on U2, though, this deal was at least their decision and they’re likely to benefit from it financially. The wider effect on the music business, however, is likely to impact both bands and labels who had zero say in the deal.
For the past decade or so the music industry has struggled with the perceived value of music: an album, which used to be considered a £10 affordable luxury, has seen its value diminish thanks to aggressive price cutting (often in supermarkets), newspaper and magazine giveaways and, arguably, Radiohead’s In Rainbows “honesty box” album release scheme.
As a result, the perceived value of music as a whole has fallen, putting the music industry in the middle of a particularly unhelpful vicious circle of price cutting. U2 and Apple’s decision to give away the band’s new album for free will hardly help this.
And if U2’s new album – recorded expensively over five years with super producers such as Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Flood and Ryan Tedder – is being sold for 0, then how much do you think people are going to pay for your new album, recorded over a week with your guitarist on production? You’ll be lucky to get a fiver.
That is a problem for bands, of course, particularly those who can’t breeze into the world’s stadium’s ever five years for a multimillion dollar tour.
But it is a big problem for labels too. Admittedly, they are getting more of their income from streaming and other revenue sources. But music sales remain a very important part of this mix, particularly for the indies, who are unlikely to have valuable equity stakes in Spotify and Beats. And if they can’t get money from record sales, then they can’t invest in new acts.
It might be slightly over egging things to call Apple a loser in this deal. At the same time, it is hard to see what the company really gains from Songs of Innocence’s free launch.
Publicity, sure. But why would Apple want people talking about an iTunes promotion the day after it announces plans for new iPhones and the Apple Watch?
Will Apple get more iTunes users as a result? Probably. But iTunes is already installed on some 500m computers. The problem for iTunes is not one of user base – it is that download sales are falling, particularly in the US, as streaming services become ever more prominent,
Getting a big act to put their new album for sale exclusively through iTunes is a neat way of combatting this, as we saw with the Beyoncé album release last year. The eponymous release became iTunes’ fastest-selling album, shifting 828,773 copies in three days and sticking one to the likes of Spotify (where it was initially unavailable).
But giving away a new album is an entirely different kettle of fish. That’s not driving sales. It’s encouraging free downloads. And if the perceived value of music does continue to fall, well that’s bad news for the 30m odd tracks for sale through iTunes and for iTunes itself, which takes a percentage of the sale price on every track sold.
There’s also the problem of Apple’s slightly aggressive strategy for the album release, which saw Songs Of Innocence put into users’ iTunes libraries whether you liked it or not (something Popjustice memorably compared to “Bono inviting himself into my house and doing eleven shits on the floor”).
Yes, it’s hardly the greatest of tasks to simply delete the album. But I can’t be alone in keeping my iTunes rather anally curated, leaving only the best music in there and relegating anything else to an external hard drive. This release, then, feels intrusive.
And while we’re talking about streaming services, don’t forget that Apple has its own such platform, iTunes Radio, and bought Beats (home to streaming service Beats Music as well as expensive headphones) earlier this year.
Songs of Innocence is available on both these services as well as iTunes. But it is hard to see how Beats Music and iTunes Radio – two services that are crucial for Apple’s future in music – will exactly benefit from playing second fiddle to a big iTunes giveaway.
So who exactly does benefit the most from this album giveaway? U2 fans, largely, who you imagine will be delighted to see the band’s new release show up in their iTunes.
And U2 still have a lot of fans: their last tour, U2 360, recorded a gross of $736,137,344 and total attendance of 7,268,430 according to Billboard.
But that doesn’t mean that 7m people would have bought their new album. The band’s last release, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, sold around 5m copies worldwide – not bad but low by U2’s standards. And album sales have dropped across the board since them.
So Songs of Innocence could, maybe, have expected to shift 3m units (at a very rough guess), maybe half of those on iTunes. That’s some 1.5m people who would have shelled out for a digital copy of the album and who have been spared the expense by Apple’s largesse. They, then, are the real winners here and are to be congratulated.
For the rest of us, though, the release remains problematic and – while giving away a new album is hardly the worst of crimes – the wider effect on the music industry will be fascinating to observe.