The Apple hype machine ensures that any announcement of a new product eclipses all other news of the day, and when the announcement is not only of a big 14 x 7 cm phone (an about-turn on Steve Job’s assertion that “No one is going to buy a big phone”) but also of an Apple smart-watch and a foray into mobile consumer finance with Apple Pay, one wonders why an aging Irish rock band would bury the news of yet another album release (their 13th) in the middle of the announcement. Songs of Innocence was completed just the week before, and had received no prior publicity.
It has become a bit of a trend to suddenly drop an album release in a way that creates a social media buzz, with some artists doing this very successfully. Lady Gaga’s Art Pop release was prefaced by a two-day new album party, Weird Al Yankovic tweeted the news of his new album one track each day, giving him his first No. 1 album on the Billboard charts, the first comedy album in that position in fifty years. Beyoncé dropped as a mid-week total surprise. Justin Timberlake took to Instagram to deliver his 20/20 in two parts.
Jay-Z’s 2013 release Magna Carta . . . Holy Grail appeared as a data collection exercise disguised as a smartphone app delivering his meditations on the tribulations of being filthy rich. Samsung purchased a million copies of Magna Carta in advance, then, via the app, made the album available to subscribers five days before its general release. In exchange, users were asked to share access to their social media accounts, their phone calls, their GPS location and more. While a half a million fans accepted the conditions, many were with Killer Mike.
Apple and U2 did not give fans the opportunity to refuse. On Tuesday afternoon this week Songs of Innocence was in the iTunes accounts of 500 million store customers, and where those customers set their preferences to automatic download of purchases, it was already on their devices (from where most found it surprisingly difficult to remove).
It will be released physically by Island Records on 13th October, 2014. Apple paid the band and Universal an unspecified fee as a blanket royalty and committed to a marketing campaign for the band worth up to $100 million in order to release the album ‘for free’. Bono told Time Magazine at the launch, “We were paid. I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” While an Apple spokesman delightedly told the media that “Now 500 million people own Songs of Innocence”, not all of the recipients are equally delighted, with many people taking to Twitter to share their irritation at U2 arriving uninvited in their music library.
On Tuesday afternoon, U2’s new album was just there, waiting for you. Like an Ikea catalogue. Or a jury summons. Or streptococcus. The latest inescapable unpleasantry for anyone who’s chosen to participate in our great digital society. Chris Richards
An article in The Guardian points out that his roll out is great if you are U2, or if you like U2, but not so great “if you, quite reasonably, think they are a bit rubbish and about 20 years past their sell-by date” and helpfully suggest 10 things that you can do with the unwanted album, including “3. When you are feeling low or uninspired, simply take a moment to look at the Songs of Innocence icon and its play count of zero, and remind yourself that things could always be worse.”
Any of the students in my Music and Culture class could tell Apple and U2 about the close connections between music and identity, and quote Simon Frith, David Hesmondhalgh, Georgina Born and others on how music’s extraordinary powers of connecting actual and desired experiences make it a primary means of both marking and transforming individual and collective identities. They can also cite Michael Bull, David Beer, and others on how mobile music players enable the user to create a personal, privatised, audio bubble – never having to listen to music they haven’t selected themselves. How could they not know that forced acquisition was the complete antithesis of how contemporary consumers engage with music? What were they thinking?
U2 have made a significant contribution to the devaluation of music. My interviews with music consumers in 2011 showed that many of them wanted large amounts of music, they wanted new music, and they preferred free music, but they saw their digital music collections for the most part as constantly changing. This of course suits the goals of the tech companies, who make their money from the delivery of new content. Whether the content is user-generated, or provided by musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers it is the delivery that makes money, not the content. Spotify attracted a good deal of public criticism for the low rates paid to artists, but we may reach a point where all the money from recorded music goes to the delivery system, and the artists are thankful for the exposure that allows them to tour endlessly, selling tickets and merch.
At that point I hope U2 collectively look down and realise they shot themselves in the foot.