500 million pieces of digital content

While everyone and their dog were salivating over the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch this week, we were left wondering have we properly considered the ramifications around U2’s decision to release 500 million copies of their brand new album to iTunes users for free?

U2 are by no means the first artist to give away their digital content for nothing, Radiohead released their 2007 album Rainbows digitally on a pay as you like basis. Prince gave his album Planet Earth away free to readers of the Mail on Sunday (bizarrely enough), and then followed that up in 2010 with a similar gesture for his album 20Ten. Last year Jay-Z released the first million copies of his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail as a free download to Samsung users. As a marketing ploy it is genius in it’s simplicity: give the album away for free to as many people as possible. The last few U2 albums have sold between 2 and 5 million copies each, their new album is already in the hands of half a billion punters. They’ve just upped their potential audience considerably.

Ethically though, I’m not so sure either U2 or Apple will come out of this unscathed. Reaction as people woke up in the morning to – effectively – spam from the biggest technology company in the world and found the newest U2 album in their iTunes was mixed at best. U2 fans with Apple are obviously delighted. Their Android equivalents less so, as they will have to wait until October to hear their heroes’ latest offering. The rest of the world varied from the decidedly non-plussed to the furiously indignant. Twitter went into meltdown on Wednesday. How dare Apple invade their users privacy by installing something on their devices that they didn’t even ask for, and worse, make it virtually impossible to delete? The word “Orwellian” was banded about. U2 were accused of the ultimate sell out. Apple, of cheapening content and over stepping the boundaries of privacy.

To be fair to both U2 and Apple though, they can’t really be accused of cheapening content. Bono hinted at, and the Wall Street Journal confirmed, that Apple paid U2 handsomely for the right to give away their new work on iTunes. Maybe U2 have just realised where music is actually at right now. Despite vinyl sales enjoying a bit of an Indian summer of late, physical sales of CDs and other musical formats are in sharp decline, and huge chain music shops like Virgin Records and HMV have disappeared from our High Streets. Maybe giving their music away for free is the future for big bands like U2. They make the bulk of their money through touring and merchandise anyway. Legendary punk band The Minutemen always said their albums were flyers for gigs. Maybe this is how Bono and the boys now view their recorded output? As an advertisement for the MegaMegaBucksShow. Their last tour, the mammoth 360 Degree tour, broke records as the highest grossing tour of all time, raking in $736 million from 110 shows, suggesting they might be on to something.

So what does this mean for the future of music? Is this the start of something cataclysmic? Will this soon be the norm? Surely up and coming bands won’t be able to survive by giving out there music for free?

The Arctic Monkeys’ story suggests that it is possible. As a fledgling yet savvy indie band, they gave away free CDs at their early gigs and encouraged file sharing amongst their fans. It bagged them a legion of die hard fans before they were famous, got them a record contract, and now they’re one of the biggest bands on the planet. Whether or not they and the rest of music will follow U2 and Apple down the free music for all path is yet to be seen. Maybe it is one way to beat the pirates? It’s a socialist’s utopian ideal.

The privacy issue is less clear cut. iTunes users were “gifted” the album without asking or being asked if they wanted it. Questions about privacy and the right of Apple to be able to just pop things onto our devices as and when they fancy it have been raised. On the one hand it appears quite innocent and altruistic. What could be nicer than the gift of music? On the other hand, it can be seen to have quite sinister overtones.

What’s to stop them – and other companies, to be fair – dropping other, more invasive additions on us without our knowing?

Strip away all of the U2 hating internet warriors, and there was a small but genuine fear that we are heading down a road where what we listen to, what we watch or what we consume culturally will no longer be completely up to us. Worries that we will be drip fed what big business wants or rather, if you’ll excuse the every so slight melo-drama, “The Man” wants, are real. At least you won’t have to pay for it though.