At the launch of Apple’s new iPhones and Apple Watch, U2 announced that their new album Songs Of Innocence would be given away for free to 500 million iTunes users via Apple’s iCloud service. Initially conceived as Songs Of Ascent, a companion to No Line On The Horizon, the album had a difficult six year gestation and was presumed abandoned.
The Internet responded to the news with a mix of faux outrage, anger and snark. Coming hot on the heels of celebrities having things taken out of their iCloud accounts, the idea that so many users would now have something forcefully inserted angered many and gave many more fodder for joke tweets.
I joined the fray of course. I’m only human.
As more reviews started rolling in for the album itself (overwhelmingly middling, by many accounts), it made me realize that underneath my snark, there was real anger, and for a wholly different reason than any concern about the supposed integrity of my iTunes Match collection: yet again, an established act has hijacked the discussion around music.
When Radiohead announced their pay-what-you-want scheme for 2007’s In Rainbows, many rightly pointed out that it came from a place of privilege – after almost 20 years in music, they could afford to eat the costs of recording the album, knowing tickets and merch from the resulting tour would line their pockets again. Lily Allen summed up its potential damage to the perceived value of music by asking: “You don’t choose how to pay for eggs. Why should it be different for music?”
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails piggybacked the buzz from this scheme to help his friend – rapper Saul Williams – get more attention for his The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of NiggyTardust album, and later released his band’s Ghosts I-IV with a similar approach that mixed pay-what-you-want digital formats with exclusive physical packages.
All three, to their credit, were undertaken without the support of record labels or a hugely popular platform like iTunes, but they did seem to start a new trend of established acts using what were essentially gimmicks to release their albums.
Prince, a noted critic of the Internet, used more old school means to release some of his newer material. 2007’s Planet Earth was given away with The Mail On Sunday in the UK, and he expanded the technique for 2010’s aptly-named 20Ten, which released in a number of European newspapers simultaneously. The publicity from the Planet Earth release resulted in his 21 shows at London’s O2 Arena selling out.
The real precedents for the U2 release both took place last year.
In July, Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was initially released exclusively to 1 million Samsung phone owners using a Jay-Z branded app. Jay-Z took to Twitter to boast: “If 1 Million records gets SOLD and billboard (magazine) doesn’t report it, did it happen? Ha…Platinum!!!” Billboard, to their credit, didn’t grant platinum status based on this digital release, but it built enough buzz that Magna Carta Holy Grail soon went double platinum regardless.
While Jay-Z’s album was much hyped ahead of time, his wife Beyonce dropped her self-titled album completely out of the blue in December. Initially an iTunes exclusive, every song on the album was accompanied by a video and generated a tidal wave of near-instant buzz. While it wasn’t given away for free, the iTunes store was essentially taken over with promotions for the album, so it was near inescapable.
In all of these cases, high-profile artists with the means and audience to sustain a career indefinitely are forcing themselves into the conversation. Whether deserved or not – and I am a huge fan of both In Rainbows and Beyonce as albums in their own right – they are demanding attention and focus that is taken away from smaller artists. From promotional space on iTunes being dedicated to them to the vast reams of text on the subject, we’re not talking about fresh artists who might be more deserving.
Bandcamp, which allows smaller artists to promote and sell their music and merchandise with seemingly Radiohead-inspired pay-what-you-want options, is one of the largest success stories in the independent music space. At the recent indie-focused XOXO festival, they announced that fans had paid bands a staggering $81 million through the platform to date. As a member of two bands who recently released EPs through Bandcamp, it has been invaluable.
While independent artists have a number of similarly great tools at their disposal, it’s all for nought if their message cannot get through the noise generated by these larger events. You cannot take over the home page the way Beyonce took over iTunes, and it doesn’t have anywhere near approaching the same audience.
We have so many distractions competing for our attention, a tepid new U2 album should not be something anyone has to fight with in 2014.