U2 and Apple made a big splash this week by releasing without warning (although there were a lot of rumours) their new album Age of Innocence for free on iTunes. Of course the album may be free for the consumer (and it allows U2 to claim their album is in the hands of half a billion people, even though most won’t listen to it), but Apple actually paid dearly for the album: 100 million dollars if the rumours are true.
According to Wikipedia, No Line on the Horizon sold a little over 5 million copies in the first 4 months of release. Now, Apple’s exclusivity on the new album is only for a month, and pretty much every artist sells less in 2014 than 2009, but let’s use these figures for simplicity’s sake (and lack of better ones).
Usual consensus is that an artist makes 1-2$ per album sold (once they recoup any label investment), but let’s assume that U2 has a golden contract and that they make 5$ per album sold. This means that their 5 million album sold would net them 25 million dollars. (According to Billboard, barely 200,000 actually downloaded the album from their iTunes library though). So in a widely optimistic scenario, Apple overpaid by 4 times for the privilege of offering the exclusivity. Of course, Apple benefits from U2’s prestige, and makes a big splash that gets them a lot of attention. Also Apple CEO Tim Cook announced the deal by saying that music was their passion, a sentiment that harkens back to the Steve Jobs era (the whole keynote was like that, even bringing back Jobs’ famous “one more thing” trick) at a time where people are wondering if the company can move forward without its late visionary leader. But you have to wonder what is the strategy behind this move, and if there is more to come in this partnership. An Apple pissed off a lot of people in the process, if Twitter is to be believed.
A new U2 album is suddenly on my phone. I don't like this one bit.
— Wanders on (@willanderson_) September 13, 2014
— Ash (@pulverisedrock) September 13, 2014
How the fuck do I have U2's new album on my phone?? I don't even know who they are!! pic.twitter.com/NGwgq0arzd
— Kirsty Harrison (@KirstyHarrisonn) September 13, 2014
Bono’s not gonna like that last one.
On U2’s part, this is a brilliant move. They manage to get paid for an album that probably wouldn’t have sold that much (all things relative), and they manage to claim to relevance a little longer (sometimes it feels like U2 is famous for being U2 more than their music). If truly only 200,000 people downloaded the album, this has to be a huge blow to Bono’s ego though: even when being given the album, only 0.04% of people took it.
With the demise of the traditional label system, and the collapse of albums as a viable commercial product, bands are left trying to monetize their art as best as they can to survive. U2’s done a great deal, but a deal that’s only available to a handful of artists. The struggling artists trying to get heard are still looking for a way out of this. And U2’s just proven them one thing: the album is dead.
EDIT (16/09/14) This move pissed off so many people that Apple has now published instructions on how to remove the album from one’s library! Oops.