by Kevin Erickson, Communications Associate
In some ways, I’m the perfect target for U2’s big new release partnership with Apple. U2 was my favorite band all through junior high and high school. I dutifully collected all their singles, and I still have my ticket stub and sweatshirt from the 1998 Popmart tour. Yet my interests drifted elsewhere as I got older; I’m part of the reason their last record sold relatively poorly, as I still haven’t heard it. Theoretically, a free copy of Songs of Innocence might rekindle my fandom.
But: it’s complicated. U2’s avowed commitments to social justice were a big part of what got me interested in activism and policy at a young age. It feels a bit jarring now to see the band whose liner notes got thirteen-year old me to join Amnesty International so closely associated with a company that’s facing protests both for inhumane factory conditions abroad and low contractor wages domestically.
The ambivalence doesn’t stop there. The Apple/U2/Universal Music Group partnership has also prompted some unexpected backlash. Still, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been successful on the most basic levels; the band was reportedly well paid (over $100 million in marketing, plus a flat royalty fee), at least 36 million people have accessed the music, the new iPhone has set new sales records and everyone’s still talking about U2 and Apple two weeks later. Including our own Casey Rae, who joined Chris Richards of the Washington Post and Catherine Mayer of TIME Magazine—both of whom have recently written about U2—on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on Sept. 23. (Listen to the archived broadcast).
You may be feeling some U2 fatigue, but we think there’s still a need to ask deeper questions about what this deal means, and what it doesn’t.
1. People are uneasy with big corporations telling them what to listen to. (It’s worse than they think.)
If there’s any aspect of the free album giveaway that was bungled, it was probably the appearance of the record on people’s devices without their explicit knowledge or consent, leading the Post’s Richards to compare it to “an IKEA catalogue. Or a jury summons. Or streptococcus.”
It’s true that actual unsolicited files would only show up on your device if you’d set it to automatically download “new purchases.” But at a time when polls indicate that many Americans feel that big companies have too much power, there’s something unsavory about this naked flexing of corporate influence. Should an album release become “the biggest of all time” simply because a powerful company decides to? Does it matter whether consumers actually like—or want—the music?
Of course, corporations do their best to exercise influence over our listening habits pretty much all the time—it’s usually just more hidden from consumers. For example, we don’t know the terms of direct deals between broadcasters like Clear Channel (recently rebranded iHeartMedia) and record labels, but it’s likely influencing what you hear on commercial radio, which already has a track record of tipping the scales . And as digital services like Spotify do their own deals, there’s no way to know whether a music “recommendation” is happening because of a curatorial choice or because of a big money arrangement.
It’s easy to see why it might feel more invasive when unwanted files show up in your library. But it’s worth asking whether the “junk mail” approach is ultimately more or less invasive than being served up a particular album because of paid targeting based on your previous consumer choices and habits. On privacy terms, the U2 offer might even compare favorably to Jay-Z’s partnership with Samsung from last summer, which harvested private data in exchange for early access to Magna Carta Holy Grail.
Still, there’s a big lesson for music and tech companies to learn from this episode: If in doubt, ask permission, and disclose as much as possible. Offering recommendations untainted by deals with rightsholders and being protective of users’ privacy might be strategies for upstart services to differentiate themselves. In the meantime, consumers and watchdogs are right to be asking tough questions about privacy.
2. Exclusivity still matters.
They key to U2’s deal is the band’s ability to grant the rights to the new record to Apple while witholding it from other services. Such exclusives aren’t new—iTunes has offered exclusive bonus tracks, “iTunes Sessions” and other exclusive content for years—nor have such exclusives been limited to digital files; physical media exclusives have been offered by massive retailers like Target and by independent shops participating in Record Store Day.
Recent media accounts have framed exclusivity and windowing in the context of established artists shopping exclusives around to competing services hoping to attract more listeners. But exclusivity can matter to smaller-scale artists too. Developing acts are unlikely to be able to cut lucrative deals with the big services, but they can pick and choose which ones they want to work with based on what serves their needs. Some may opt to sell their work only through the sites which give them the best rates and/or the most control over how their work is presented; others might prioritize broad exposure. (This, incidentally, is a main reason why we support net neutrality and oppose telecom mega-mergers that could restrict artists’ economic choice and access to audiences.)
3. The future won’t be about just one method of delivery or listening.
There’s no shortage of observers who’ll tell you with confidence that on-demand streaming is “the future of music delivery.” But the real future is likely to be more varied, offering different kinds of consumers a wide range of options from which to choose. Apple could have used this launch event to push users towards its newly acquired Beats Music on-demand streaming service, but while the U2 record is available on Beats, most of the hubbub was connected to the record’s immediate availability through iTunes. In fact, the rollout seemed designed to reacquaint consumers with iTunes’ improved cloud integration and Scan & Match features, which compete pretty well with streaming services for easy access on the go.
Apple’s ongoing investment in iTunes may run counter to conventional wisdom, but it isn’t necessarily an attempt to hold on to the past. It’s an entirely sensible business move, given that even as music download sales are trending downward, they still continue to generate much more revenue than streaming for many artists as well as labels, and for Apple in particular. Furthermore, Apple’s ongoing emphasis on iTunes is likely to help keep their relationships with rightsholders (especially smaller rightsholders) positive, as Apple’s timely payments helped keep many an indie label afloat over the last decade. That provides a degree of trust that can give Apple an advantage over rivals like Amazon in future negotiations, including those outside of the download format.
Different kinds of audiences want different things from music. Some are passive listeners, others are more active. Some will most value immediate access and choose streaming. Some seek highest fidelity reproduction. Still others will value a tactile relationship with a physical object (the deluxe vinyl version of the U2 record will be out October 13). Some shift their priorities in different kinds of listening contexts, such as at home or on the go. And then there are those who want to support services that are perceived as as being most artist-friendly. In this diverse landscape, the mysterious new added-value file format that TIME reports U2 is working on with Apple may find its niche, or it may join the 8-track and the Zune in the dustbin of history. Either way, it’s important to understand that consumer preferences and desires don’t emerge fully formed out of nowhere. They’re constantly shaped and channeled by new offerings and new information, so there are no foregone conclusions.
4. The “Free Culture” movement failed to anticipate this.
Despite being the most popular band to ever give away a record worldwide at no cost to consumers, U2 are no big fans of the notion that music should be free. In a blog post describing the deal, Bono writes explicitly:
To celebrate the ten year anniversary of our iPod commercial, [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 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.
Depending on how charitable you’re feeling, you can read this as Bono demonstrating admirable self-awareness about his position of privilege, or like Wondering Sound’s Eric Harvey, you can see it as Bono “speaking out both sides of his mouth.”
For its part, the free culture movement certainly hasn’t historically conceived of itself as allied with corporate behemoths like Universal Music Group. It’s been quite the opposite: they’ve blamed big entertainment companies for overzealous anti-piracy practices, and for copyright laws that they argue limit the production and distribution of remixes and other kinds of new derivative works. Some have even framed not paying for entertainment as striking a blow against big business. But as writer/filmmaker/musician Astra Taylor has argued, “free culture, like cheap food, has hidden costs.” (Taylor will be among the speakers at the Future of Music Policy Summit on October 27-28 in DC!. Register Today!).
In her book The People’s Platform, Taylor argues that the free culture movement “persists in maintaining a core misguided assumption: if something is free, that means that it has been de-commodified.” In her view, “free culture” ideology in the absence of other institutional sources of capital results in greater reliance on ad-supported models and increased corporate sponsorship (though these opportunities are far from equitably distributed). One might argue that hypercorporate partnerships like the Apple/U2/Universal collaboration (produced with help from unlicensed remix posterboy Danger Mouse, no less!) could be a logical result of these trends. At the very least, it’s fair to say that free culture advocates failed to anticipate that for the most powerful players, “free” doesn’t inherently pose a threat to their power or reach.
For those artists who don’t enjoy U2’s high profile or who aren’t making work that serves advertisers’ needs, the calculus looks very different. Our research indicates that corporate sponsorship and brand revenue is difficult for most musicians to access, putting aside the question of whether they’re even comfortable pursuing it. On that note:
5. Perhaps we should all spend less time thinking about U2.
Unfortunately, the release has also triggered one of the worst habits of tech journalism: the tendency to build “music industry” narratives around the actions of an outlier. You see this everytime a superstar act does something only a superstar act can pull off—from Radiohead’s 2007 “pay what you want” experiment to Beyonce’s multimedia surprise release. Artists who aren’t among the biggest sellers can certainly experiment with variable pricing, or eschew traditional advance PR, but without the benefit of a huge pre-existing audience, they won’t see similar results. That doesn’t stop an avalanche of bloggers from advancing their thoughts on “what it means for musicians.”
Case in point: this pretty terrible article from Quartz, titled “U2’s Apple deal shows why musicians don’t sell music anymore.” Now, you can tell from the title alone that the article’s thesis is weak. While not every musician is a recording artist, and the percentage of overall income that comes from music sales may vary, most recording artists certainly do still sell music. Hilariously, the article quotes an ill-informed entertainment writer (who seems to think 300-500k copies of a new release is “not worth the price of printing them up”) and an “internet entrepreneur,” but fails to quote a single musician other than Bono, let alone examine the availability of licensing and sponsorship opportunities for up-and-coming acts.
Journalists could avoid these problems by spending more time talking to a more diverse range of musicians (non-superstars, especially) when covering music industry issues. U2’s professed concern for new generations of musicians is admirable, as is their willingness to speak openly to fans about the importance of supporting creative work. But maybe a conversation about the future of the industry would be more grounded in reality if the actions of “the biggest band in the world” weren’t at the center.