Saturday 15 December 2018

What does U2 giving album away for free mean for the music industry and young artists?

Fruit of their labour: U2 were greeted on stage by Apple CEO Tim Cook after playing at this week’s launch of the new iPhone
Fruit of their labour: U2 were greeted on stage by Apple CEO Tim Cook after playing at this week’s launch of the new iPhone
The massive selling Rattle and Hum

Joe O'Shea

U2 have pulled off the 'largest album launch of all time' - giving their new opus free to half a billion iTunes users. But what does this mean for the music industry and for any young artists trying to follow their path to global success?

In October 1988, U2 fans queued at record stores all over the world to get their hands on their latest album, Rattle And Hum. This week, the latest U2 album popped up - for free - in the iTunes accounts of half a billion music fans, before the vast majority of them had even realised it existed. Back in 1988, the band made a surprise appearance at HMV on Grafton Street in Dublin at midnight, to meet the fans and personally sign copies.

Fast-forward 26 years and Bono and Co are joining Apple CEO Tim Cook onstage in Cupertino, California, to help launch the iPhone 6. And pull off what Cook called "the largest album launch of all time".

Earlier this year, Bono did an interview with BBC radio and mused on the group's insecurities, admitting that the band had asked themselves if they still held any relevance.

"We were trying to figure out, 'Why would anyone want another U2 album?' And then we said, 'Well, why would we want one?' There was some unfinished business. We felt like we were on the verge of irrelevance a lot in our lives," he said.

After poor sales for the last album (and well done if you know it was titled No Line On The Horizon because one major US media organisation got that wrong this week) U2 obviously decided they had to do something big. A game-changer.

And that is exactly what the Dubliners have done. Using the current industry buzz-word, U2 have gone 'Freemium', giving away a premium product (in this case, 13th studio album Songs Of Innocence) in the hope of making money on other products. Such as concert tickets.

But while the album is free to the fans, U2 were still paid a rumoured $100m by Apple for their efforts. Still, it is a bold move, especially for a band that has always been clever and creative when it comes to protecting their revenue streams and earnings.

But while teaming up with Apple and giving away hundreds of millions of free albums has certainly got the world talking about U2 again, the move has sent shock-waves through the music industry.

Simply giving a new studio album away would have been inconceivable before we entered the digital age. Now, as U2 have shown, it may have to be the future.

Illegal downloads, piracy, sites like iTunes and Spotify which make their own rules, these are very tough, bewildering times for the major music labels that as recently as the '90s had an almost perfect business model.

In the case of album sales - once the great money-maker for bands and labels - many music fans now only want to buy one or two tracks and not an entire album, spending 99 cents when they once (as with Rattle and Hum) queued all night to spend ten old punts.

U2's 'freemium' move may be a sign that the industry is now willing to take radical steps to survive.

With U2, the strategy looks simple. Piggy-back on the biggest tech launch since the iPhone5 was unveiled in September 2012 and gain global headlines with the most dramatic album launch in history.

If Bono was harbouring doubts about the band's relevance, he need only look at the social media storm or the headlines generated around the world.

Some industry figures are calling it a loss leader. Instead of selling records, U2 will hope to reach a new generation of fans and sell millions of concert tickets.

By instantly putting their product into the inboxes of 500 million iTunes customers in 119 countries, they reach a global audience, many of whom were not born when Bono was in his '80s, be-mulleted pomp and who may think Live Aid is some sort of energy drink.

This is also the generation that is not exactly used to paying for their music all of the time, even if they have iTunes accounts.

Speaking at the launch, Bono said it was all about reaching a new, younger audience. "From the very beginning, U2 have always wanted our music to reach as many people as possible, the clue is in our name I suppose - so today is kind of mind-blowing to us."

"It's exciting and humbling to think that people who don't know U2 or listen to rock music for that matter might check us out."

As the frontman will only be too aware, these are bleak times for the music industry.

This year, so far, album sales in the US have plummeted by 14.6pc while digital album sales are down 11.7pc.

However, as the album is being given away free, it will not be rated on official charts.

And Songs Of Innocence will also miss out on the Grammy awards eligibility period - which in any case only applies to commercially released records

For Apple, the benefits of teaming up with one of the few supergroups still standing are obvious.

The free album release has the potential to expand the number of iTunes users - who are being invited to open accounts to download the album before the offer runs out on October 14.

And the offer may also help to move more next-gen iPhones. The brand has suffered recently through battery problems and fierce competition from android rivals.

"It makes music history because it's the largest album release of all time," said Apple CEO Tim Cook.

U2 are also not alone in looking for innovative ways to release new albums.

Beyoncé shattered all album download records with the "stealth release" - it came totally out of the blue - of her latest in December.

The album - titled Beyoncé - instantly became iTunes' fastest seller, with more than 800,000 sold in just three days, going to No 1 in 104 countries. However, people had to pay for Beyoncé's album.

"We were paid," Bono said this week. "I don't believe in free music. Music is a sacrament."And there will be a traditional label release, including bonus tracks, with U2's label, Interscope Records.

Of course, U2 can also afford to give away one album for free. They still sell out world tours and have a large back catalogue that continues to shift.

But what does this latest lurch towards free music downloads for all mean for young artists just starting out, who cannot call on Apple to give them worldwide exposure when they release new music?

If there were four young guys from the Northside of Dublin trying to do today what U2 achieved in the '80s, how would they even start? Or pay the bills through the first album and the tour of cowsheds and outhouses that followed?

Before perfecting their sound and look, our notional "Next U2" might want to start hothousing a digital marketing strategy.

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