The Price Of Free Music

The annual tech theatre event that is the iPhone reveal has once again come and gone, with Apple going into overdrive to make sure the world took notice. On this occasion, there was also some significant musical collateral to consider…

Squeeze My Lemon

As every person connected to the Internet is aware by now, Apple released the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus last Tuesday. Oh, and one more thing… the Apple Watch.

However, of more significance to the music community is the rather bombastic bundling of U2’s latest album as part of the release bonanza. This time around, you don’t need to purchase any Apple hardware to get the music – it’s a gift for all iTunes users, added to your library for free, whether you want it or not. So users don’t have to pay for it – but as it turns out, U2 in fact were paid quite handsomely, to the tune of $100m (by Apple, of course).

Looking back through the nostalgic haze from almost a week later, you have to say that this is – in purely financial terms at least – a very clever piece of business by both U2 and Apple. Following the launch, 26 U2 albums have re-entered the US charts, which is in itself a remarkable feat considering that ‘Songs of Innocence’ is actually only their thirteenth album.

Of course, Apple take a healthy cut of all download sales here, and the media buzz around their product launch has been unprecedented, even for Apple.

Where The Streets Have No Gain

However, there has been quite a backlash from the music community against U2’s move, which could be seen to be further undermining artists’ drive to have their work fairly valued by the public. In an age of digital downloads, years of creative toil can be transferred in seconds for free around the world; when the world’s biggest acts start giving their work away for free (or, even worse in this case, merely pretending to) then it seems the average musician may as well throw in the towel.

Or are U2 merely being pragmatic? Is there really any point in railing, like a cantankerous grandad, against a seemingly unstoppable tide of piracy, or is it better to go with the flow?

Perhaps, but going with the flow is a lot easier for a band as well-established as U2, who are in a position to get paid $100m to give their album away for free. I think most musicians have long since realised they need much more than record sales to make a living from their art; but the quest to get the public to support musicians by actually paying for music is now on a precarious tightrope.

Taking an optimistic view, U2’s free album may actually cause more users to begin purchasing music online, through underlining the difference between free and not-free in the public consciousness, and raising awareness of the iTunes model (and other similar download sites); this seems to be happening for U2’s back catalogue already, but let’s hope that any beneficial side-effects don’t stop there. While this may be wishful thinking, at least we can say this launch has put the issue of paid music back in the limelight – and after all, no publicity is bad publicity…


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