Like many of you (I’d guess most of you), I received a very cheerful email from iTunes this morning, letting me know that I was one of the lucky 500 MILLION account holders music lovers who received, free of charge, the new album by U2 in their iTunes library. Then they said the following:
Never before have this many people owned an album — let alone on the day it was released. This is a big moment in music history. And you're a part of it.
OK, let’s talk about this for real for a minute. What U2 did, fundamentally, was participate in a publicity program not unlike a Kindle free book promotion, only iTunes eliminated the step where you need to get the ebook into your device—it simply put it there. And frankly, that’s fine, if perhaps cheesy. But then to call it “a big moment in music history” where “never before have this many people owned an album” is eye-rollingly disingenuous. What’s more, it speaks to numerous arguments about value/worth/price of a product.
When I began to work in minor league baseball in 1996, I took over an organization in upstate New York which had, for five years, effectively given away its tickets to every game through a (badly thought-out and inefficient) coupon system that made it unnecessary for any fan to pay for a ticket. The previous operators reasoned that they would make their fiscal nut by getting people into the park for free, then having them purchase food, beer, and merchandise. Didn’t work. Going to a game was thought of as, first and foremost, a Cheap Night Out, and fans were not in fact spending more money on hot dogs because they had budgeted a certain amount for the evening and then had more because of the free tickets. Rather, they spent the same amount or less, because everyone knew that the tickets were going to be free—they had no value, so there was no real savings. The first thing we did when we arrived in town was to set a real value for tickets—albeit a very low number—and while fewer people came initially (because they resented paying for something all of a sudden which had previously been free), those who did actually spent more on food and merch because their expectations had shifted from being a Cheap night to a Fun night.
There have been lots of conversations recently, in the Hachette/Amazon fight, over the way Amazon has stated that less expensive ebooks sell more copies, and therefore will pass the break-even point with the current pricing models and make authors more money while charging less to the customer. I think there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of this. But there is also a significant danger in basing a policy on lowering prices all the time for all products. Amazon itself saw this a few years ago when WalMart stood up to it, and there was a Race To Free for a number of titles. For one or two instances, a retailer can deal with it (and the authors were receiving full royalties so they didn’t suffer, even as it cost Amazon and WalMart money—much as Apple is losing sales on U2 albums in the interest of a splash and enormous distribution). But as a policy…tough to maintain. Amazon clearly believes it has the winning algorithms to make more money for itself while charging its customers less and paying its authors more. If it emerges victorious, we will have to see.
Which brings me back to U2. I’ve been a fan of this band for more than 30 years (JEEZ!) I saw them for the first time at 16, and again at 43. I’ve bought all their albums, and worn out many of them. They haven’t been particularly in the forefront of my mind since I saw them at Giants Stadium a few years ago and thought they were…fine. But when I’m on shuffle and Sunday Bloody Sunday or Beautiful Day or Magnificent comes on, I realize that they are the hall of famers they are.
They also release a TON of odds and sods and remixes and dub versions and acoustic demos, so when I got word that they were releasing their new album for free, I figured it was one of those. Which is to say, because it was for free, I figured it had (virtually) no value. It was just going to be a gimmick, and would be worthy of the eye rolling, and would take U2 further out of the middle of my consciousness.
Then I actually listened to it, and thought it was terrific. It’s new, but hearkens back to The Old Stuff I Love, and feels like a real ALBUM, with an overarching theme (albeit a possibly pretentious one, but hey, it’s Bono) and soaring choruses etc. And I suspect, that by simply spamming it to half a billion people, they’ve actually UNDERSOLD it. How about that?
Quick Note: I’m going to be going on the Disabled List for a couple of weeks for shoulder surgery. This slot will be taken by some terrific guests—Danielle Burby will write next week, and author Todd Moss (The Golden Hour) the week after. See you down the line!