So I didn't log on until over an hour later - just in time to see Tim Cook welcome a surprise guest to the Apple event, and U2 took the stage. Anyone who knows me knows of my unfailing love for the Irish band, so there I was in my office, jamming out to their new tune. Followed by a slightly cheesy exchange between Cook and Bono about the synergy of this company and this band, both doing new innovative things and how great it'd be if they could do something together...
And then, this:
Immediately. To over a half billion people around the world. For free.
So, the predictable personal effect: I was freaking out. It was like Christmas morning, except I had no idea Christmas was coming. I was incessantly closing and opening my iTunes until the songs appeared. Texts and tweets started pouring in: Steve, have you heard the news? Steve, are you okay?
Once I got the songs and started listening to them (and a more detailed album review will surely come at some point, but on a first few listens, a solid thumbs-up), I started thinking about the ramifications of this crazy thing. Amazing that a new album could be dropped this quickly to so many people - even Bono seemed genuinely in awe. Technology can be pretty mind-blowing.
Even bigger than that, though, is the larger issue about music in general and the music business in particular. One one level it's fair to say that the events of yesterday shouldn't surprise us. Bands "giving away their music" is not an entirely new concept. Dave Matthews, Phish, Grateful Dead, and Radiohead have all taken their crack at models that veer further and further from the traditional "album release" format, and for the most part it's worked out. Streaming music services like Spotify have gotten us more comfortable with engaging music absent a CD or even an mp3 purchase.
But to instantly give away a legit studio album? This was new.
Now, to be fair: U2 isn't exactly giving this away for free. As Bono was quick to point out at both the Apple event and later in a letter to U2.com subscribers, U2 and Apple did agree on a sum of money to make this happen. How much, no one knows. Still, not too shabby to get pre-paid for your new album. And it isn't like U2's livelihood is uber-dependent on album sales, anyway. The real benefit to the band is immediate exposure to an incredibly diverse audience. As Bono points out in his letter, fervent fans like me will jump all over it, but perhaps a country music or hip-hop fan who wouldn't otherwise will give it a listen.
For U2, this is very much a win. Back in 2009, when they dropped their last studio album in the traditional manner, it was generally met with a collective "meh" from those outside the fervent fan circle. It didn't get a ton of radio airplay; and with streaming services still very much in their infancy, its reach wound up being pretty limited. Now, this new album is free, accessible, and has immediate exposure tied to something as visible and culturally relevant as an Apple product release.
And speaking of product, we know what Apple is trying to sell. But what is the product for U2? We're used to paying for stuff, and we didn't pay for this. So is the music really what's being "sold" to us? Or is it the things that surround it - concerts, merchandise, and other "stuff" that supports the culture around the music? Or is it something else?
This is a pretty important question for the independent musician, who will never get to sit down with Apple execs to discuss mass distribution. As a performer and singer/songwriter who dabbles in this sort of thing but whose livelihood isn't solely dependent on it, I'm in tune with these matters but not overly wrapped up in them. But I have good friends whose heads I'm sure are spinning this morning.
Back in 2011 I released Let Go, a 7-song EP, as an entirely free download. That was, I think, part of the draw; and certainly part of the promotion behind it. But it was never really free - it cost studio time, some guest musicians, production costs. Those costs were paid for by a sabbatical grant I received a year earlier, for which I had budgeted those expenses. My rationale for not attaching a consumer cost to it was simple: since I hadn't spent any of my own money to create this "product," I didn't think it was right or fair to ask people to spend money to get to hear it. So it was, is, and will always be entirely free - even though in reality it never was.
My personal hunch: the average music fan will understand that megabands like U2 have the clout and tools to do stuff like this, which is great. But they'll also understand and accept that this game is a game for the elite, and the vast majority of career musicians, especially independents, will still need to get paid for their product. And they'll be happy to oblige. The challenge for this "everyone else" category is how to get their stuff out there to be heard in a way that draws people in to the point where they're willing to invest. More than likely this will require continued gigging, house concerts, personal interactions, and crafty use of social media - all of which direct people back to the music, in a way to develop faithful followers who will become evangelists of sorts when the next album comes out.
But that's just a hunch. The truth is, there is no manual of operations here because the manual is still being written. If the game isn't fundamentally changing, it's definitely undergoing yet another most interesting extrapolation. It's a brave new music world we're living in, folks. I'd love to hear your thoughts on where you think this is taking us.
As I continue listening to U2's new album, of course.