As you may have heard, earlier this week Apple announced a bunch of things -- and that included that U2 was releasing a surprise new album
that everyone who uses iTunes would magically get automatically for free in their library. That struck some people as interesting, given that the band has long crusaded angrily against "free." Four years ago, we wrote about how Paul McGuinness, the band's long-time manager, was railing against "free."
Here's what he said at the time:
If you had to encapsulate the crisis of the music industry in the past decade, it would be in one momentous word: "free." The digital revolution essentially made music free. It is now doing the same with films and books. For years we (and by "we" I mean the music business, musicians, creative industries, governments and regulators) have grappled with this new concept of "free." One minute we have fought it like a monster, the next we have embraced it like a friend. As consumers, we have come to love "free" - but as creators, seeking reward for our work, it has become our worst nightmare. In recent years the music business has tried to "fight free with free," seeking revenues from advertising, merchandising, sponsorship - anything, in fact, other than the consumer's wallet. These efforts have achieved little success. Today, "free" is still the creative industries' biggest problem.
Bono has repeatedly attacked
the idea of free music, complaining that it's "madness."
Music has become tap water, a utility, where for me it's a sacred thing, so I'm a little offended."
Funny, it seems even more ubiquitous under this deal.
Of course, the other side will argue, this
is different. This
is "okay" because they got paid upfront. Bono himself still seems offended by the concept of free, but insists this doesn't count
because it's not really free:
“We were paid,” Bono tells TIME. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”
Yup. Of course. Bono repeated a similar story to the NY Times, and current manager, Guy Oseary, says more or less the same thing
Bono, U2’s lead singer, alluded to the deal himself at Apple’s event. After the band performed, he and Mr. Cook playfully negotiated over how the album could be released through iTunes “in five seconds.” Mr. Cook said it could if the album was given away free.
“But first you would have to pay for it,” Bono said, “because we’re not going in for the free music around here.”
Mr. Oseary, who took over management of the band less than a year ago, stressed in a phone interview after the event that the music still had value even though it was being given away.
“This is a gift from Apple to their customers,” Mr. Oseary said. “They bought it and they are giving it away.”
But, as per usual, this (once again) misunderstands the nature of "free." For years we've tried to hit back on this notion. As we've said free is not
the business model, but free should be a key part of the business model
, with the idea being that "free" helps the artists make more money. And that's exactly what's happened here. Now, of course, because of U2's stature and Apple's billions in cash, this could be done as a big upfront deal (rumors are saying that Apple will pay somewhere around $100 million total). But for others it may involve giving away stuff free to build a larger audience for shows. Or maybe it involves getting money upfront via a crowdfunding campaign and then sharing the music widely. Or maybe it involves using a tool like Patreon to get people to pay for each new track released, but still making them more widely available for free.
The point is that "free" is not some evil. It's something that the public really appreciates, and when done right
fits very nicely in with a smart business model. For U2 that's collecting millions in cash from Apple. For others, it's other things. Free is not evil. It's a tool, and one that can be used to make people lots of money -- as U2 and Bono are realizing, even if they don't "realize" it. Amusingly, since these tracks are automatically
showing up in everyone's iTunes, some are actually arguing that it becomes the equivalent of junk mail
. In other words, there's an argument to be made that this promotion
which effectively pushes
"free" tracks even to people who don't want them does a lot more to decrease the value of the music than any sort of unauthorized files sharing. At least with file sharing, people get the free music because they want and value it
In the end, though, I tend to agree with Amanda Palmer's take
that everyone should be doing all kinds of business model experiments, so I certainly have no problem with this particular one. In fact, I think it's great.
It would just be nice if U2 and its managers could admit that maybe "free" isn't automatically evil.