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Millions of smartphone users were surprised to learn this month that the rock band U2 had not only made a new album available to them for free, but that it was already loaded into their iPhones. U2 gave away the album as part of a blockbuster business deal with Apple, which is rolling out its newest devices this fall. But the band and the company are both being criticized over how the promotion affects the value of music in the digital age. Join Kojo for a Tech Tuesday conversation about the intersection of technology and music.
- Chris Richards Pop Music Critic, The Washington Post
- Casey Rae Vice President for Policy and Education, The Future of Music Coalition
- Catherine Mayer Editor-at-Large, Time
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Tech Tuesday." One of the biggest bands in the world wanted to give us a gift. Earlier this month, U2 announced that its new album, "Songs of Innocence," would be made available for free to all Apple iTunes users. To be sure, a good many of those 500 million people were happy when that album was digitally delivered to their smartphones and laptops, but a lot of people felt violated by the band's attempted act of generosity.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere were those, of course, who don't like U2's music and don't really care for it to be on their devices, but there were also those who questioned what this digital giveaway means for the artists who don't make piles of cash from partnerships with big technology companies that allow them to make their music available for free. Those who might now be concerned about the value their art carries in the digital age. Joining us for this "Tech Tuesday" conversation is Chris Richards, pop music critic at The Washington Post. Chris, good to see you again.
MR. CHRIS RICHARDSHey, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Casey Rae, the Vice President of Education and Policy at the Future of Music Coalition. Casey Rae, thank you for joining us.
MR. CASEY RAEThank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone, from Manchester, England, is Catherine Mayer, Editor at Large at Time Magazine. Catherine Mayer, thank you for joining us.
MS. CATHERINE MAYERYou're more than welcome.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850. How did you react upon learning that U2 had made its new album available to you, through Apple, for free? Did you start listening to it immediately? Or did you freak out to start finding a way to delete it from your iPhone? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet using the hashtag techtuesday or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Chris Richards, U2 may have pulled off one of the biggest album releases in the history of music.
NNAMDIBut after it happened, you described the feeling of finding "Songs of Innocence" in your iTunes library like receiving a piece of dystopian junk mail. Like getting an IKEA catalogue or a jury summons. Why did you react this way to getting what U2 advertised as a digital gift to you?
NNAMDIAnd to other Apple users.
RICHARDSI think that's a very interesting choice of words that they use when they call it a gift, because it did feel to me like junk mail. And the implications of being asked to engage with music or any kind of piece of culture without your consent seemed really gross to me on, you know, first contact, as soon as I found out this happened. So I tried to write about it in a column for the Post and I think what I wrote was part of a huge backlash against this gesture. U2 fans called that gesture, or called that backlash, a lot of like kind of privileged whining.
RICHARDSLike wah, wah, why are you crying about getting a free record? And maybe there's some truth or some validity to that, but I think this is a very frightening door being cracked open. You mentioned Apple called this the biggest album launch of all time. And a majority of us, I'd argue, instantly became unwilling participants in this like global music event. So what kind of world are we creating where we have a world where that happens, where passive participation is tallied as active participation. This seems like a whole can of worms that I'd like to get into in the next hour with you on the show.
NNAMDIOther people have experimented with free online album releases in the past, all the way back in 2007, Radiohead made its album, "In Rainbows" available for whatever fans wanted to pay for it. Many people, of course, downloaded it for nothing. What makes what U2 just did different for you?
RICHARDSIt's the fact that we don't have choice. The fact that it was put onto your iTunes without asking you. And this idea where, you know, your vote, your lack of a vote kind of counts as a vote, when we're saying it's the biggest album rollout. Just by using iTunes, you are sort of like complicit in this agreement. And the idea that your vote is like -- non-participation counts as participation. That's so freaky to me. With the Radiohead record, like yes, you are choosing to pay nothing, you're choosing to engage with it in some way, but it's still your choice.
RICHARDSThat's the big difference between this one and the other kind of out of nowhere album drops that we've seen in the past couple of years.
NNAMDIWell, Radiohead's follow up album to "In Rainbows," "The King of Limbs" was not free. What do you think that the group learned between 2007 and 2011 about distributing their music in the digital era?
RICHARDSI think that they probably wanted to make some cash. Straight up. I've heard that -- I've read before that the managers of Radiohead called the experiment, the name your price experiment, not as a devaluation of music, but a value, like a valuing of music. It gives fans the power to decide how much this music actually should cost them. They learned that a lot of people think it should be free. So, yes, the next record came out with an actual price on it, and I think -- we'll get more into this in the hour, of course, but the idea of what music is worth. That's a huge question that U2 and Apple are implicitly asking with this gigantic giveaway.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, it's a "Tech Tuesday" conversation on U2 and digital music with Chris Richards, pop music critic of the Washington Post. Casey Rae is the Vice-President of Education and Policy at the Future of Music Coalition. And Catherine Mayer is Editor at Large at Time Magazine. Catherine, you spent a lot of time with U2 to write your piece for Time and you reported that the band actually sees its gigantic digital release as a way to help save music in this brave new world we're living in. How do they see it?
MAYERWell, I mean, it was a very interesting experience, because when I flew out to Malibu to join with the band, I wasn't supposed to know where I was then going to be going with them. I actually sort of put two and two together and thought it might be Cupertino, but I, you know, they were joking that they were kidnapping me because they'd asked for my passport details so that I could get on a private plane with them. And I was, I was very interested in the experience, because, I mean, I've known them for a long time.
MAYERAnd I knew that they certainly would not want to be giving any messaging that appeared to be supporting the idea that music shouldn't be paid for. But I was -- I had never been to an Apple launch before, and I was instinctively quite worried by the idea when I realized what it was. I don't know, I'm not trying to be wise after the event, I don't know whether, if I had been given a chance to voice an opinion on the wisdom of what they were doing, whether I would have said, the messaging could go wrong here.
MAYERBut certainly, it was very easy to understand when you're in the belly of the beast, you know, at the Apple event, how that could happen. You know, there are -- I recognize very much these issues about why people were worried about receiving it unasked. I also understand that it was easy to misunderstand it as being free music, because it was free at the point of consumption, or of receiving it unasked, even if it had been paid for. But what U2 believed they were doing was something very radical.
MAYERLike, you know, you mention "In Rainbows." I mean, one of the things that was very obvious there is that again, that wasn't -- what Radiohead did then was not something that could possibly serve as a model for smaller bands or lesser known artists. That was a one-off sort of piece of theater. And I think what U2 was doing with this first massive release was they wanted something dramatic. They cared a lot, are very proud of this very autobiographical album. They wanted a very high profile way of releasing it. But they were also, you know, there was a lunch afterwards.
MAYERAnd they were very excited at that point, when they hadn't seen the responses to it, because they felt that they had demonstrated a way of sort of riding the tiger, of looking at digital and how this is impacting the music industry. And actually sort of seizing it and using it for their own ends.
NNAMDIAnd so how did they react to the pushback to the launch? Apple actually had to create a special page with instructions so people who wanted to remove this album from their iTunes accounts could do so. How did the band react to that kind of pushback?
MAYERWell, I can't say that they looked hugely happy over the next few days, but they were, they were very, they were incredibly frantically busy and also exhausted. You know, this is a band that, whatever you think of them, they're an extraordinarily hard working, driven band. So, they were, they were actually working around the clock in the studio. They went straight back, after Cupertino, to Malibu to Shangri-La studios. And I was sitting with them while they were then recording an acoustic version of the album.
MAYERWhich is part of what's being released with the physical product on the 13th and 14th of October. So, they didn't actually less up in pace, and to that extent, I don't think there was any sort of moping about. Adam, at one point, said something to me, and he wasn't being self-pitying, but he was sort of bemused. He said it's as if everybody's just vomiting their first response. But it was also interesting because, you know, it was when I was back there with them that Bono then let slip about, you know, that this was only part one of a sort of, as it were, double campaign, where the second half of it was going to be the release of another album.
MAYERYou know, obviously, William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience," well, there's "Songs of Experience" coming too. And he hopes that this is going to be on a new format which they have been working on since the Steve Jobs days with Apple.
NNAMDIBono told Time that he does not believe in free music, he says to you. That music is a sacrament.
NNAMDIDo you have an idea, however, as to just how much U2 was paid by Apple for "Songs of Innocence?" Can you reveal that?
MAYERI genuinely -- I wish I did have an idea. I don't have an idea. I do know that there was some confusion over that 100 million figure. That was definitely marketing, not payment for the album. I think, you know, in other words, they were paid on top of that. And what he -- one of the, at least, also said to me that they thought that they had probably earned less from the deal than they would have done if they had just charged for the album. But it was because they believed in what they were doing that they had done it that particular way.
MAYERHaving said which, of course, whatever the nature of the publicity that attracted, it drove their back catalogue back into the album charts again.
MAYERSo they will have made some money from back catalogue as a result of that release.
NNAMDICasey Rae, Bono wrote on U2's website that music usually comes at a cost to the art from and to the artist. With that in mind, how did you react to this digital release? Your organization exists so that artists and musicians can have more say on issues that affect their livelihoods.
RAEAbsolutely. In some ways, we could be celebrating. I mean, America did, after all, achieve a single payer U2 album, which has taken us this long to do. Whenever a big artist tries something new with distribution, people naturally ask my organization, what does it mean for musicians? Obviously, when it comes to acts like U2, the answer, in a lot of ways, is not much. Because very few musicians or bands have the clout of U2 or Jay-Z, who made a deal with Samsung on their mobile phones...
NNAMDIWe'll talk about that.
RAE...to do those kinds of deals. But the good news is if you're one of those big acts, you can probably absorb any negative blowback that comes your way. I imagine that U2 didn't anticipate quite the level of blowback that they've gotten on this. You know, the amazing thing is that younger generations, apparently, don't even know who U2 is. Some of them. There's a Tumblr blog dedicated to, you know, screen capturing the most befuddled Twitter responses from the younger generation about who even is this band, basically.
RAEYou know, one of the interesting things about U2's strategy for releasing this album is that it does run counter to what the band's management has been saying for years about the supposed devaluation of music on digital platforms. U2 did recently bring in a new advisor who probably wanted to make a big splash. And Apple, for its part, obviously wants to tap into that magic that Steve Jobs was able to conjure back when U2 and Apple teamed up on the iPod marketing.
RAEBut the idea of giving away a new album to anyone who has casually installed or purchased something on iTunes doesn't really jive with the band's position on free music, in my opinion. Bono gave a somewhat awkward explanation that they got paid, but if you're even a moderately successful indie band who's out there touring until the wheels come off the van, you probably aren't in a position where a global tech brand is going to pony up, you know, whatever -- however many millions of dollars for your next record. So I think for some of the folks in the broader music community, the answer is, meh, or you know, Bono's defense of the strategy sounds a little tone deaf.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here's Ryan in Chevy Chase, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I did -- was one of the many people that received this album from U2 and I'm -- I probably -- I would have been much -- much happier having received it if it was awesome. But it isn't. It's actually like adequate at best, as far as, you know, their past music has gone ever since their first album from "Unforgettable Fire," to "Streets Have No Name," like back in '80s and stuff.
RYANAnd I think this was probably a, you know, everybody got -- I keep hearing about people talking about how this is a marketing decision. And I think that, you know, as opposed to marketing, it's probably more of a business decision. If you were guaranteed $100 million to drop this thing to all these people, you know, rather than put it out there where maybe you're only going to sell, you know, 10 million records, where, you know, are you going to $100 million off of 10 million sales?
RYANBecause I don't think it's good enough to have been -- to have sold nearly, you know, even half as many copies or…
RYAN…albums as they gave away. And then I…
NNAMDIGot your sentiment, but I know you have a question.
RYANYes, sir. I have a question. And I was wondering -- because my wife and I used to share the same iTunes account, and now I have all of this like kids' bop and some of these songs on my phone that I've never been able to figure out how to delete on this box.
NNAMDISo and you would like -- you'd also like to delete this, right?
RYANNo. Actually, I -- maybe it'll grow on me. But not yet. I'm not really willing to like get rid of it yet.
NNAMDISo you'd just like to know in general how to delete songs from your iTunes account.
RYANCorrect. Because when I researched it there was no -- there was no way when I, you know, for the first six months that I had had the 5.
RYANAnd maybe now with the 6 they've let…
RAESure. You know, we aren't exactly Apple tech support. They have a genius bar for that. You know, obviously the response from the tech company is interesting. They did respond like a tech company does. They released a patch. You know, so there is at tool to remove the U2 album from your library. They were a little bit scoldy about it. They said that if you choose to do that you might have to buy it again if you decide you want it later. But the interesting thing is, unlike a tech company, U2 can't release a patch to upgrade the quality of the music.
RAEAnd I think there is something to that. If they were really at the moment where people thought that they were at the peak of their power, they could create this cultural inevitability without having to do the total saturated marketing blitz.
NNAMDIIn general, how can Ryan get music off of his iTunes account -- if not this particular album?
RICHARDSYou're asking the wrong guy. I shouldn't even be in the room on Tech Tuesday. I'm here to talk about rock and roll. But I would love to chime in on what he thought of the record.
RICHARDSBecause I agree with him completely. This is a completely different conversation if this album was great. If U2 were at their creative and innovative peak, we're just having a different chat right now. But they've kind of entered this -- what I like to call, like, the sort of like painful, like, Mobius strip part of their career, where it sounds like you are not imitating your imitators, you know. Like, suddenly your followers are standing right in front of you. And you're trying to find your sense of self in the people who have been pantomiming you or ripping you off.
RICHARDSSo I think this album is very inoffensive in that regard. It sounds like the most watered-down familiar version of U2 that we could imagine. And that's also interesting in terms of that's the album that Apple decided they should give to all of their users. Again, a hugely different conversation. And I think the outrage would be 10 times louder if this was Miley Cyrus album or a One Direction album or a Little Wayne album, you know. The idea that U2 is this group that everyone should love, that's such a preposterous sort of gesture of ego and I think that's been a huge part of the backlash against this entire thing.
MAYERI think -- if I may come here. I mean, I also blogged a little bit about this, but I think that a lot of the backlash is also related to Bono's campaigning activities. I think it's something that, you know, is -- the band is incredibly -- they're all amazingly supportive of each other. Very weirdly for a band that's been together for as long as they have. They actually really genuinely like each other, which, you know, I don't know how -- I see most of you have been around bands, but it's a pretty bizarre idea.
MAYERBut what is clearly true is that in founding ONE and founding (RED) and going around schmoozing a lot of politicians on the right on the basis that they will have the influence necessary to make the changes to, you know, tackle extreme poverty or combat AIDS, Bono has created a persona and a backlash to that persona. That also interferes with people's ability to listen to the band. I'm not…
NNAMDIGot to interrupt for a second, Catherine Mayer, because we're going to take a short break, so hold your thought. We'll resume the conversation when we come back after that break. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. When was the last time you bought an entire music album online? What was it? What compelled you to do it? Do corporate relationships affect your opinions of musicians and their art? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the U2 release by iTunes that you can get on your iPhone, that you have already gotten on your iPhone, as a matter of fact, and what it means in this era of digital music. We're talking with Casey Rae, vice president of education and policy at the Future of Music Coalition, Chris Richards is pop music critic at the Washington Post, and Catherine Mayer is editor-at-large at Time Magazine.
NNAMDICatherine, I interrupted you when we had to take that break, but you were talking about the downside of Bono's public activities in -- on issues like AIDS and worldwide poverty and how that might be affecting some of the pushback that they're getting for this album.
MAYERYeah, I think that if we don't acknowledge the fact that they were already up against several big barriers, at the point where they're contemplating an album release. You know, they have the problem of legacy, their own legacy, you know, that everybody's looking to see if they can match the high-water marks of, you know, obviously, "Achtung Baby" and various other albums. By the way, I think the track "Sleep Like a Baby Tonight," on "Songs of Innocence," does come up to that high-water mark. But I can tell Chris Richards does not agree with that.
MAYERThe, you know, but added to that there is, as I say, there's this kind of static that is created by what Bono's doing. And, you know, if he acknowledges it and the rest of them are aware of it, too, that this is -- it's not, you know, it's not very rock and roll, is it? It's not very cool rubbing shoulders with, you know, I -- he was telling me that taking Jesse Helms to a U2 concert. But this is the antithesis of what a lot of us kind of think of rock as being.
NNAMDIRight. But I guess we'll never know exactly to what extent the pushback is in part motivated by the international political activities of Bono. But Casey Rae wanted to get in on this part of this discussion.
RAESure. You know, I work for an organization that is very much in support of artists using their voice on whatever issues that motivate them. In fact, you know, one of the things that we exist to do is to help artists feel agency in entering into conversations on policy matters. So I think it's important to separate Bono's motivations to, you know, change the world and make the world a better place, which I believe are coming from a genuine place.
RAEAnd, you know, what might be a set of business decisions or esthetic decisions about where they want to point -- what direction they want to point the band in. You know, one of the things that is really important is in this space in general is seeing more artists taking on, you know, a little bit more responsibility for their musical destiny, their personal advocacy and so on and so forth. And Bono is honestly a groundbreaker there. We've been having these kinds of conversations about digitization and artist advocacy for years.
RAEWe have another one coming up in -- right here in D.C. in October, The Future of Music Policy Summit. Bono is, of course, invited. I don't know if he'll show up, but thought I'd say that over the air just in case he's listening.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do corporate relationships affect your opinions of musicians and their art? Do you think differently of Jay-Z's music because he distributed it through Samsung, for example? Does it make him, well, less cool to you? 800-433-8850. Or send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris, if the band is saying this is about amplification and using digital tools to reach the biggest audience possible, you still feel that the other message that this partnership sends out to consumers is that the band's music is, to quote you, "technically worthless." Can you explain?
RICHARDSWell, I think, yeah, this is the kind of idea that we've been talking about for the past few minutes. This idea that of balancing the music that you're creating and the way that you're going to release it. And I would love to speak with the members of U2 or someone like Jay-Z, who have tried these different roll-outs, to see if the roll-out plan is sort of like a compensation for the lack of artistic vision. I think Samsung album that Jay-Z released last year -- which I'm calling the Samsun album and not by its proper title, actually, which is crazy. I'm realizing that live right now.
RICHARDSThe idea -- that album to me was so boring and dull and lacking ideas. And I feel that, like, the conversation compensates for that. That's being created around the way that it's released. And I'm just curious to see if artists feel that they can get away with being lazy in their creativity by sort of embracing these "bold" new release ideas. Does that make sense?
MAYERI really don't want to end up being an apologist for U2 because I really don't see myself that way. But I would say that the -- that whatever they think that they did and whatever their intentions, they were not being lazy. You know, but they've taken -- they've missed umpteen deadlines on this album because they kept reworking it and reworking it and getting it as good as they felt they were being. So as they could -- as they felt it could be and is. You know, they are very proud of it. So it wasn't laziness.
NNAMDIWell, that raises another kind of question, which I'm interested in all of you weighing on. Were it not for this Apple controversy -- Casey Rae, you first -- would we be talking about this album?
RAEIt's hard to say. I mean, first of all it's hard to categorize this release as a failure. I mean, something like 33 million people actually accessed the record, which is probably more than would have listened to the album in other circumstances. Definitely more than I think the last album sold. Plus as Catherine mentioned, the, you know, the buzz reminded people that, hey, U2 still exists. And didn't we use to like them a lot?
RAEAnd that's resulted in uptick in the back catalog and having those albums chart again. Album sales aren't what they used to be. And for Bono that bump is probably like finding a penny on the street -- which has no name. But, you know…
RAEOoh. But, you know, in general, I think that it might have worked out for Apple in a certain way. They were able to kind of make an otherwise boring product launch with their funny little wristwatch into an event. And, you know, U2 is going to be able to coast on this negative publicity or positive publicity for a little while. Probably up until their next release.
NNAMDICatherine Mayer, you think we'd be having this conversation if it were not for this Apple controversy?
MAYERWell, I do think that it is slightly too early to work out whether this has been a success or a failure or somewhere in between for precisely that reason. I think even for a band as huge as U2, it is incredibly hard to cut through the noise. And that's why everybody -- that's the other reason why artists like this are sort of trying to find interesting ways to release. You know, David Bowie being another example of somebody who sort of suddenly comes out of nowhere with an album.
MAYERAn album which I was very excited to hear that there was that album. Immediately sort of rushed to buy it. And haven't really, in the end, fallen in love with it, but I'm still really pleased that he did it and I still felt that was a nice way of doing it. And it, you know, it drew our attention. So in terms of making older people like me who still buy downloads buy -- go and buy albums, I think, you know, if I hadn't have been involved in this U2 project, I would have certainly been pleased to receive it and listen to it. While I may have been critically of the messaging going a bit awry.
NNAMDIOh, please go ahead.
MAYERI was just going to say, I mean, one of the things that disturbs me, I mean, not just when you're talking about these behemoths like U2, but musicians at different scales is there is -- going along with this sort of culture of everything deserves to be free, there is also this incredibly pervasive idea that there is something not artistic, not true to the art of wanting to be paid for music. So the two things are very nastily intertwined.
MAYERI'm speaking from direct experience here. I happened to be married to a musician. And every time he has sync or you know he has his songs appear in adverts or whatever, somebody pops up to criticize it. And you sort of think, well, what is it that people don't understand about what's happened to the music industry that they think that it is still possible, either to be a sort of traveling troubadour with no income whatsoever or to -- or, you know, that you should not in some way have some kind of financial transaction, probably involving some kind of corporation there, if you want to actually make a living as a musician these days.
NNAMDIWell, Chris Richards has an even closer relationship with a musician. He is one. And he wanted to speak on this.
RICHARDSThat's an interesting point. And I think Casey will be able to speak to the point of musicians and how they get paid. The one thing I wanted to chime in is what you just said, Kojo. The idea of, like, is it uncool for an artist to associate themselves with a mega brand, like a Samsung or an Apple. And I think the thing that I'm interested in is the contact point between the music and the fans. And in America, we let massive corporations shape our values far more than we are probably willing to admit.
RICHARDSAnd there's a little parallel I was thinking about the other day. If you remember in the '80s and the '90s with telecommunications companies, all the commercials were like, you could hear a pin drop, or you can hear it in the next room. And the idea was that the quality of the sound was going to be the most important thing. Now you fast-forward to the cellular era and all we care about is coverage plans and data maps and things like that and the sound is the least priority.
RICHARDSSo the companies that are selling things decide our values. That's the thing about this entire transaction with Apple that sets off all these alarms for me. is that as the music industry sort of splinters, these large corporations still have a big hold over how we are going to engage with music, how we're going to experience it. And especially with Apple, we think that they're craziest little idea of the day that becomes the norm of tomorrow. It's been proven that way. Look around on the street and you'll see everyone with little white ear buds.
RICHARDSThe way that we consume music and interact with music is largely shaped by these corporations. And that's far more of an interesting discussion and an important discussion to be having, than just like did Jay-Z sell out by cooperating with Samsung.
NNAMDIWell, before you respond, Casey, because that's essentially what you said about Jay-Z's experiment, that it went too far, in making people who liked his music feel like nothing but consumers, customers. That's the point you're making.
RICHARDSI think it's -- yes, exactly. And I think when we are just treated as a consumer base and not actually fans, you know, that's very, very difficult. And it's a very, you know, blurry line, especially in this century, as an entirely new economic model is trying to, you know, find its footing -- or struggling --completely failing to find its footing, maybe. Casey will be able to comment a little more on that. But that's the thing -- the thing with the Apple thing that is really so repugnant to me, is it feels anti-choice.
RICHARDSLike music -- our engagement in music is based on choice. So the choice to engage with it and to what degree. And I think that's why you've seen pop music and rock and roll flourish in a democracy like America, because we have choice. So when you see one of the biggest rock bands on Earth indulge in this massive, global, corporate gesture of anti-choice, it should just set off all kinds of alarms and buzzers. And I think we should listen to those alarms.
RAESure. At the end of the day, it's really about what deepens the bond between the recording artist, the songwriter, the performer and the fan. U2 did impact the marketplace in a significant way. What they probably guaranteed is that no one will try this particular experiment again. I do expect, however, bands of all shapes and sizes and genres to continue to experiment with bundling music with other products and services as part of their release strategies. You already see that in the video-gaming community a bit, with artists that have affinity genre wise. And we know that musicians are getting good at coming up with incentives to support products and projects on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, PledgeMusic.
RAEBut for all of those platforms, and it is very important, and just to underscore what Chris said, participation is volitional. As a fan, you get to choose what you patronize. And I think the U2/Apple incident means that the days of foisting your product on consumers, as through they're purely passive, is over. So cultural communication is now a two-way street. And that's actually really cool. I'm a musician, too. I have a small label. And really, it's like, we can't compete on that scale. But everything that we do is based in, you know, a true bond, a true affinity with the folks who care enough to support us.
NNAMDICatherine Mayer, how does this affect our perspective on what happens when U2 says that more is coming?
MAYERWell, I mean, the more is coming, I think, what they've done is they've sort of somewhat undercut what -- if this technology, assuming that the development is successful and does go ahead within 18 months, it's possibly undercut the surprise element of an announcement from the stage in Cupertino in 18 months. But the idea of that release was that it would be on this new digital format, which he describes to me -- Bono described to me as being so interactive and visual that it would encourage people to pay for it again. So I don't believe that the idea of that was to push it out, you know, to people without them requesting it.
MAYERI think, quite the contrary, it was making "Songs of Experience," which now of course has a lovely new resonance for that title, "Songs of Experience" after the "Songs of Innocence" release, making it available on this new paid-for format that he hoped might be transformative of the music industry. And obviously, we know of many technologies that have not been transformative of the music industry. But there are clearly some that have been and have helped to continue the process of music being paid for.
NNAMDIBut transformative, it would appear, in a way that U2 may not necessarily like. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Are your expectations for how much the entertainment you consume online should cost different now than they were a decade ago? How have they changed? 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about digital music in the wake of U2's album release on the iPhone with Chris Richards, pop music critic at The Washington Post, Casey Rae, vice president of education and policy at The Future of Music Coalition, and Catherine Mayer, editor-at-large at Time Magazine. On the phone is Eric in Springfield, Va. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICOh, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to observe that the backlash to this particular method of distribution. I think it has a lot less to do with artist ethics or corporation, as it does the listeners' sense of self-privilege. You know, when people are complaining about Apple now, they're not complaining that Apple uses unfair competitive tactics or that it doesn't -- or that it takes advantage of unfair labor conditions. They complain that they got a free mediocre album. And that sounds to me a lot less like being upset that U2 has gone corporate, which is not something I observe much anymore among a lot of music fans, but a lot more about, oh, now something touches me in some little way and that's bad.
NNAMDIWell, I don't know if you can combine your response to that, Casey Rae, with this email we got from Jennifer who says, "Perhaps we should be talking about how this affects Apple's cool factor, not U2s. Apple tries to market itself as the technology company that's always in the moment, that's always ahead of what other people are doing technologically and stylistically. What danger do they run into in attaching themselves to any musical artist. U2 may not be as popular as it was 10 years ago, but who that was popular 10 years ago really is?" But of course, Eric makes the point that by attaching itself to a mediocre album is what we're concerned about.
RAEYou know, it does feel a little bit backwards gazing. It doesn't quite pop like back when U2 did their brilliant synergy with Steve Jobs-led Apple. But at the same time, I have always been very supportive of the fact that Apple knows that there's a creative community and is looking for ways to partner with them and, in some cases like this one, directly invest in the creative aspect. So I mean, obviously they're not going to be able to drill down or they don't have any strategy to do that to all the smaller bands in the world. But I have to respect the idea that they know that creative expression and creative content is part of what drives people to use their products. And I think that's kind of a cool thing.
RAESomewhere down the line, when Bono and U2 and Apple come out with this new product, we'll have to judge that on its own merits. Like is the -- this format -- that they haven't really described all too clearly -- something that's going to be a game changer in that old Apple way, like when people first touched a scroll wheel and were like, Whoa, I can take all this music with me? Or is it just going to be like kind of a dud, like iTunes LP, which already exists in the marketplace but really hasn't taken off. You know, honestly, music is something that -- part of the reason it even stays alive in this really, really noisy media environment is that you can multitask with it.
RAESo I think if Bono is making an appeal to kids, first of all, he should know that not a lot of kids even remember U2. Maybe if it was Skrillex or somebody else driving the train, they'd pay a little bit more attention. But the thing is, first of all, you're probably not going to be able to entice anybody by coming up with a way to beat piracy. It would be great if we could do that. I would be totally supportive of it. But Apple already abandoned its locks on its digital files. And second of all, if you're sitting around driving a car or doing other things, you maybe want to listen to music as more of a lean-back experience.
RAEAnd for the vast majority of people who aren't Chris Richards or me, you're probably not obsessing over the line or notes anyway or looking at all the extra goodies that come with it. The vast majority of people and I think the vast majority of U2 fans, probably are listening to it as something nice to put on in the background while they're making dinner.
NNAMDIKevin in Takoma Park, Md., you're on the air, Kevin. Go ahead, please.
KEVINYeah. Thanks for taking my call. I'm not sure if it's already been brought up, but Radiohead released a couple albums essentially for free.
NNAMDIHas already been brought up, but go ahead. Bring it up again.
KEVINYeah, just the fact that they brought up -- that they released the two albums "In Rainbows" and "King of Limbs" only asking their fans to pay what they wanted for it, which I think is a pretty revolutionary idea in terms of the relationship between the artist and their fans and taking the corporation out of the picture and just letting the people and the fans and the artist make their own decisions with what they want to pay.
NNAMDIChris Richards, how does that work in a world in which so many of us are now used to being able to get music for free?
RICHARDSYeah, it's very interesting. I mean, obviously, Radiohead is part of the one percent of pop music creators who have that luxury. If you're an artist starting out, you can't do it. U2 seems kind of aware of that. That's part of the Part II of this. I had read the quote in Catherine's story, I believe, where Bono says that Cole Porter isn't coming to a stadium near you.
RICHARDSMeaning that songwriters who don't go on tour, they can't monetize their careers on the road. So I think this economy has a long way to go before it shakes itself out and finds its footing. But we have to remember, when artists -- a brand-name artist is giving their away their work for free, that's a luxury decision that they're making. And it's not available to 99 percent or more of the artist who are putting music out there today.
NNAMDICatherine Mayer, indeed, when Bono says the charts are broke and that the old music industry has not kept up with the digital world, do you feel like he sees the digital world as one that gives all artists, not just bands his size, more control over what they can do to reach audiences and what they can do with the music they create, or less? And what does that do for songwriters?
MAYERNo, I think his point is that for many people this has meant no control whatsoever. And that, of course, isn't something that's just restricted to music. As somebody who writes books and regularly sees the books appearing online that somebody's decided to give away for free, you know, we all know this feeling one way or another. And what he -- what they believed they were doing with their sort of active theater, was to show that they, in that moment, were seizing the digital world and making it work for them. But it was an acknowledgement of very much the way in which it has eroded -- it has turned things on its head.
MAYERYou know, it has stopped many people from being able to earn a living. It has sent other people out endlessly on the road because they can only earn from live performance. And he was not -- they were not suggesting that this was -- that the digital world was something that was controllable, but that they were looking for ways to do that, that would be applicable not just to us as a fair size.
RAEYeah, Bono is a very intelligent, very thoughtful person. And I have to take him at his word that he's really looking for ways and solutions that will benefit not just U2 and his band but the rest of the music community. And again I applaud him for taking the initiative. I think that musicians and songwriters have obviously grappled with competing with free or piracy or whatever you want to call it, going all the way back to the Napster days. And the funny thing is, when we talk about a musician's reputation and, you know, their aesthetic achievements, I feel that if you go back and listen to what Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, said at the time of Napster and listen to it with 2014 ears, it doesn't sound like crazy talk.
RAEAnd similarly, to U2, I think if Metallica had been coming off of an artistic triumph like "Master of Puppets" or even "And Justice for All," the music community might not have turned on them in the same way. And it's unfortunate that sometimes artists at different stages in their career face different public perception issues. But at the end of the day, I think it's important that the artists themselves are asking the hard questions and trying to find the solutions. Because if they're going to come from anywhere, it's going to come from the creative sector.
RAEAnd hopefully, the technology folks can understand that there's a benefit to working with the artists, because that's why everybody is attracted to the tech product to begin with. It's got stuff in it.
NNAMDIHere is Gunnar in Huntington, Md. Gunnar, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GUNNARYes. So, you know, we were talking, maybe 15 minutes ago, about how people like to have choice in the music that they listen to. And obviously these days we do have plenty of choice. You know, there's thousands of bands I can pull on Spotify at any minute and listen to any of their songs. So for me to have an organized music library, suddenly have an album that quite frankly I'm not interested in -- I had heard of it, decided I wasn't really, you know, it's not for me, I'm not a U2 fan -- to have it suddenly appear in my library, even just the minor annoyance of getting it out of there, it bothered me a little bit.
GUNNARSo, you know, I understand that they're trying to find new ways to reach a new audience, you know, people my age and younger who just aren't really that interested in U2 maybe. For me, I guess the easiest way to do that is to release an interesting product and release it so that I can get it wherever I want it, Amazon, (word?) , anything like that. Make it easier for me to get it and I'll buy it.
NNAMDIYou know, Chris, from a fan perspective, do you think it's possible to feel as strongly about a piece of digital music you can obtain so passively? Whether it's the U2 album you got for free or the Kanye West album that Gunnar might have just bought with a click of his smartphone. Can you feel as strongly about that as about an album you left your house to buy at a store and can physically hold with your hands?
RICHARDSI think that's a great question. You know, I think we are more engaged with music than we've ever been. It's so accessible and so portable and we have access to it around the clock. So in some senses, we are listening to music I'd say more completely than we were back in the day. But are we forging as intimate relationships with one recording as we used to? Maybe not. I remember when you would go to Tower Records, RIP, and spend $17.99 on a CD. If you didn’t like it the first time around, you'd probably listen to it again and again and again, because you had plunked down your money and taken that chance.
RICHARDSSo I think our relationship to music has changed, but it's just different. And I think we have to embrace those differences. Gunnar, who was just on the line, I think speaks for a lot of contemporary music fans, where the access of Spotify and the accessibility of music is part of the magic, this new magic. And I think we need to sort of -- as music fans, it's helpful -- it'll be helpful for us to kind of, sort of go with the flow when it feels good and also to raise our voices when it doesn't feel good. And that's why I think we're seeing so much reaction to this U2/Apple situation.
NNAMDICatherin Mayer, what did you learn about this new digital format that U2 is apparently helping Apple to develop?
MAYERWell, I learned not much more, sadly, than was in the piece, other than it is something that would be -- the key, besides it being non-piratable, was that it was a visual medium as well as a sound medium and extremely interactive and would look beautiful. The other nugget I picked up -- not directly from the band, by the way -- something that I've seen widely discussed today and you hear it here first, is this notion of what's going to happen to Beats? Because, of course, Apple has bought Beats for a lot of money and also has the iTunes Radio. And people were talking about that within my hearing, so we found there definitely is a plan to integrate the two, because they were discussing it.
MAYERSo, but that's also part -- the interesting thing is, we're not talking about one format being -- one format or distribution system being the future of music. We're talking about a panoply of choices. You know, and everybody -- I think we're all in agreement that choice is very important. You know, the...
NNAMDII'm afraid I have to interrupt because we're just about out of time. I guess the question is we still don't know how these choices are going to shake out. Catherine Mayer, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDICatherine Mayer is editor-at-large at Time Magazine. Casey Rae, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDICasey is the vice president of education and policy at The Future of Music Coalition. And Chris Richards, thank you for stopping by.
NNAMDIChris is pop music critic at The Washington Post. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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