If you listened to the new album Songs of Innocence by global rock superstars U2, I am slapping you on the wrist with a subtle guilty verdict. The songs may be innocent, but the means of distribution certainly were not.
When U2 teamed up with Apple Inc. on September 9, Songs of Innocence was revered by some as an unannounced “gift” to over 500 million iTunes users. The music itself received favorable reviews, but the giveaway was no ordinary free download.
Rather than making the album available for free download via iTunes, the album was automatically placed in each user’s music catalogue. Millions of iPhones around the world had their data space violated by the rather ironically titled Songs of Innocence.
The daring public relations move by U2 and Apple is a reasonable commentary on the current state of music sales in a streaming-dominant online world. The likes of Spotify, Google Play, Pandora, and Amazon have pigeon-holed the iTunes business model. With that said, the move has to make U2 the most contradictory group in the music industry. U2 (and notably lead singer Bono) has long been applauded for their extensive philanthropy, and deservingly so. The band is very generous towards humanitarian efforts with their earnings.
Their last tour alone grossed $736 million, the most ever by any musical act. U2 is popular; U2 is charitable—but consider this: should any artist of any medium or agenda force-feed their message the way it was done last week?
Consumers are constantly being entrapped already, as the internet era of marketing toes the line between genius and invasion of privacy. Facebook and Google ads are geared towards user-specific data; they know what your interests are, and they can target you because of it.
Now, journalism is crossing over as well with a new phenomenon referred to as “native advertising.” Major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have written articles praising capital heavyweights like Dell and Ben and Jerry’s.
Free album downloads are nothing new, and my gripe is not with a few good-natured Irishmen. Had Beyoncé released her self-titled chart-topper in the same manner last December, I would have criticized it the same way.
Her album too was a surprise, free iTunes release—but not in an attempt to shovel the sounds of “Drunk in Love” and “Flawless” into our ears, as much as we all would have probably enjoyed it. You may wake up every morning boasting her lyrics “I woke up like this,” but at least Beyoncé did not scheme to have her songs automatically synced to your beloved electronic devices. You had to deliberately seek it out and download it yourself.
The issue at hand transcends wanting to hear U2 or wanting to send the files to your trash bin. Music is a business, but it foremost is an art form. U2 has been noted for addressing real world topics as a sort of musical anti-propaganda machine. I would think forcing your work upon 500 million people would have quite the opposite effect.
Artists have to market themselves, without a doubt. However, some wiggle room should be left for the music to speak for itself. Whether or not Songs of Innocence speaks for itself, I will never know. It probably does, as U2 have held themselves to a high standard over a lengthy career, but they slammed shut any open-mindedness I had. No wiggle room here anymore.
I praise U2 for their burning desire to spread their message. I commend their continual drive to extend their charitable ways and their roles as exemplary public figures. There is a reason, though, that the true anti-propaganda music culture exists in basements, banquet halls, drab night clubs, and in internet obscurity. In force-feeding Songs of Innocence, U2 has forgotten that a well-composed album speaks for itself.
Bono said himself, “For the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.” This is a believable, somber truth, but I cannot say I have ever wanted blood, sweat, and tears forced upon me.
For that same reason, angst-filled teenagers and twenty-somethings probably understand where I am coming from. U2 and iTunes have made a glaring misstep. Our online advertising is ruined, as is our journalism. But did they have to take our right to choose music before possessing it?
Into the virtual trash bin Songs of Innocence goes, as college kids everywhere open Spotify and stream the likes of Rage Against The Machine, Fugazi, and Mos Def. Well, one could dream. Maybe we will have to settle for Beyoncé.