Will They Now Call It U-Tunes?

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U2’s Great Album Giveaway

Will They Now Call It U-Tunes?

Apple's Tim Cook with the band U2

Apple’s Tim Cook with the band U2

By Andrew Goutman

(September 18, 2014) Last week, all 11 songs of U2’s new record, Songs of Innocence, were downloaded to every computer, iPad or iPhone belonging to every single one of Apple’s 500 million iTunes subscribers (mine came on Sep. 9). Free of charge. Like it or not. The reaction to that bit of faux generosity has been vicious on social media, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But before that, I’d like to explore the question: Why?

First of all, let’s affirm that U2 is one of rock’s all-time great bands. Unlike most of today’s iconic bands, U2 still records original music. Their greatest songs, such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Will Follow,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Until the End of the World,” are permanently etched into rock’s vibrant fabric. Their music has an exotic texture, enduring melodies and totally original voice and guitar. One can only imagine the financial rewards of being a top rock ‘n’ roll band for over 30 years.

So why are they giving their new album away?

What’s In It for U2?

Selling recorded music, whether by CD, iTunes or streaming service, is no longer a band’s first option for financial success. U2’s last album, No Line on the Horizon, sold just over one million copies worldwide, a far cry from their earlier successes. Royalties for that 2009 effort must have been walking-around-money for a band like U2.

Like all other bands these days, U2 makes the bulk of its money from live performances. U2’s 2009-11 tour grossed $736 million across 110 performances, making it the top money-making tour of all time. The band has tapped Live Nation to launch another world tour, and they probably suppose that the exposure of 500 million downloads could only boost attendance. We’ll see…

In any case, U2 singer Bono coyly pointed out on his website that the band got paid for the giveaway. “You’ll have noticed the album is free,” Bono wrote, “Free, but paid for.”

Beats executive Jimmy Iovine, Bono, Steven Jobs and The Edge at the launch of the iPod. Hmmm...

Beats executive Jimmy Iovine, Bono, Steven Jobs and The Edge at the launch of the iPod. Hmmm…

What’s In It for Apple?

When Apple recently purchased Beats streaming service (see the post on this website titled, “Tech & Music Moguls Hold Hands, Cross Fingers”), it could see the writing on the wall for a la carte purchased music, a business model Apple perfected. Downloaded music via iTunes declined 13.3 percent in 2013; meanwhile, streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify have tripled their listeners since 2010.

Apple obviously sees this as an opportunity to stimulate iTunes sales and exposure, including U2’s older catalogue. Coincidentally or not, the giveaway is timed perfectly with Apple’s launching of several new products, such as the iPhone 6, the iWatch and a digital credit card called ApplePay. ApplePay…please hold that thought.

A little-know feature of the U2 album giveaway was that Apple asked for credit card information from all iTunes subscribers who didn’t have a number on file. There was no transaction involved–the songs were free–but providing a credit/debit card number was a necessary condition for getting the freebie. There is speculation from many tech outposts that Apple is stockpiling credit cards for the launch of ApplePay. It make perfect sense to me, though this can’t be confirmed.

True Music Collectors Want Choice

If U2 and Apple assumed that this album giveaway would be received with affection and gratitude, they should have followed the advice of my old drill sergeant: ASS-U-ME makes an ass of you and me. The response on social media and search engines has been downright ferocious: “damaging as piracy,” “spam,” “devious,” and “dismal failure” are just some of the epithets. I can only refer to my own experience to point to a reason why people have been so negative.

Like everyone else, I like getting free stuff. It’s a good feeling. But whether something such as a song is free, discounted or priced retail, I want to make that choice to add it to my life. I have carefully curated my iTunes collection over the last nine years (4,679 songs and counting), and I rarely select every song off an album. Except for albums like Revolver, Let It Bleed or Layla, a selection of three or four songs is a strong helping.

So, when U2’s download rudely dropped into my file, I resented it…and then carefully selected the songs that were “iPod-worthy,” and deleted the rest. (For the record, I selected three songs off Songs of Innocence.)

An advisory to the next album giveaway: Make it voluntary.

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