In recent years, the music industry has gradually shifted toward letting people hear records for free. Spotify, Apple and Rdio have all embraced free, ad-supported online radio models as part of what they do; according to a recent study, 34 percent of streaming listeners “won’t pay for music because they get all they need for free from YouTube.” Just last week, long-running commercial juggernauts U2 recently teamed with Steve Jobs’s former company to distribute their new album, Songs of Innocence, gratis (see U2 and Apple: Partners in Smarm, by our contributor Eric Harvey).
The willingness of Bono’s band to deliver an album to iTunes users without charge — or, yes, any active opt-in by those subscribers — should not, however, be mistaken as support for getting music gratis. Indeed, as TIME reports, “Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. believe so strongly that artists should be compensated for their work that they have embarked on a secret project with Apple to try to make that happen.” Bono says, in Time‘s words, “he hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them to again into buying music — whole albums as well as individual tracks.”
Along with benefiting U2, a boost in music-buying would help songwriters that don’t have the benefit of blockbuster live concerts, TIME notes. “Songwriters aren’t touring people,” Bono is quoted as saying. “Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you.” (In related news, Jack White recently told Dan Rather, “I doubt Frank Sinatra cared what was on his album cover.” Man, the Greatest Generation didn’t have to do anything.)
The article gives no other details about U2 and Apple’s plans for a new digital music format. The band and the retailer would surely have their work cut out for them. Neil Young has recently been raising investments for his own long-discussed digital music alternative, Pono; the audiophile-oriented format and player are not yet available on the market. Paid versions of currently free streaming services — the so-called “freemium” model — would also offer competition for a new way of buying digital music, with the industry still awaiting a reported YouTube subscription option.
The combined market clout of U2 and Apple tends to give the two globally known brands a powerful advantage, though. Though Apple eventually launched a tool to let users remove Songs of Innocence from their iTunes libraries, U2′s previous albums enjoyed a health sales boost after the surprise release. Apple told TIME that 38 million people have downloaded or streamed Songs of Innocence.
As for criticism of the new album, U2 are aware of it: “It’s like everyone’s vomiting whatever their first impression is,” Clayton, the bassist, is quoted as saying. Forget “never look a gift horse in the mouth”: Forcing an album onto millions of people’s phones and then comparing their reactions to puke? Now that’s priceless.