U2 And The Business Of Music

A lingering question that has plagued musicians since the dawn of the Age Of Napster has been what music is actually worth, and how to get people to pay for it.  As digital music became more than a mere pipe dream, and as broadband internet made entire catalogs available at the click of a mouse, the very nature of how we relate to the music we listen to has changed.  Loving music no longer meant having to drive down to the local record store, hoping that the album you picked up wasn’t a lie in the guise of hit singles.  Being a fan had long been a frustrating experience for fans, as we were at the whims of the record labels, having to swallow whatever bitter pill they wanted to shove down our throats.

The digital revolution changed that, because the power shifted from the hands of the producers to the hands of the consumers.  No longer did we have to sit back and blindly buy music that spin-writers told us was the gift of the gods.  We could hear, if only samples in lieu of whole albums, what was being offered before putting down our money on worthless albums.

Bands have struggled with this change, few understanding how to stop the bleeding decline in sales that had started even before digital music and a-la-carte purchasing had become established.  Some clung to the old ways, some embraced the possibilities of change, and the vast majority tried to pretend nothing had to change.  What was true then is true now, namely that record sales have not been the driving factor in band income for decades.  The shift has not made as much of an impact to the bottom line of bands as it has the labels, but those are not the terms in which the issue is talked about.

When Napster first came online, the argument made by the big-name bands was not that they were against digital music, but that they should be able to decide how their music got released.  It was a position that was not well argued, even if it is reasonable.  The bad PR campaign relegated that argument to the trash heap, forgotten and distorted the same way “Beam me up, Scotty” has become an untrue fact that everyone holds.

U2 have reminded me of this, as their release of “Songs Of Innocence” has once again pulled down the curtain on the disingenuous way the music industry works.  After giving their album away for free to anyone who wanted it, and many who didn’t, U2 has been in the cross-hairs of musicians who claim they are contributing to the death of the industry.  I am in no position to judge whether or not that is true, but there is a distinct irony running through all the talk and spin that continues the stereotype of the music industry being one of the most morally bankrupt entities in the world.

What U2 did may or may not have been a smart business move, but it was certainly a bold decision.  More than anything, what it was is the perfect illustration of the self-centered dishonesty that has always been a part of music.  U2 made an album, and they chose how they wanted the world to experience it.  They voluntarily eschewed the traditional model of album release, preferring to take a corporate sponsorship so it could reach as many people as possible, and at no cost to them.

Where is the dishonesty, you may ask?

If we were to ever believe musicians, all they ever wanted was the ability to control their own music.  U2 did exactly that, and yet it is not good enough.  As soon as a band makes a choice that doesn’t mesh with what is best for business, a choice that doesn’t maximize profits for everyone involved, it is criticized as heavily as the theft they claim has eroded the sales of stale, recycled music.

What should be happening here is that all bands should be applauding U2 for using their freedom of choice.  We shouldn’t need to be reminded, but music is supposed to be art before a business, a fact that sadly gets lost along the way.  Not every musician is going to have the same goal of making as much money as humanly possible from their work, and we, and other musicians, shouldn’t consider that a bad thing.  If bands want to give their music away to their fans, we shouldn’t be talking about what that means as far as establishing and feeding an age of entitlement, we should be talking about the artistic choices that lead bands in different directions.

It is possible that we could be headed in the direction of having two industries, one in which musicians who are in it for the art give their music away for free, while those in it for the money still offer theirs for a fee, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.  A shift to a model where less money is spent on music could have the opposite of the assumed effect, opening music up to a world of experimentation, where anything is once again possible, because corporate profits no longer need to be protected.  If the art is put in the hands of the people who truly do it for the love of creating, we will end up with fewer arena headlining acts with the (forced) broad appeal to capture national attention, but we would also end up with a music industry that is focused on making great music.

More than anything, the criticism U2 has received for their choice goes against everything artists have fought for since the beginnings of recorded music.  Artists have spent their entire careers, often at great personal and financial sacrifice, to gain control of their careers and their music.  Owning their own work is one of the most powerful statements an artist can make, and U2 is dodging verbal bullets for making use of that power.

It is a disgrace that people who live under the corporate thumb, who know perfectly well what it’s like to not have control over the work they have poured their blood and sweat into, are not supportive of a fellow artist in a position to do what they desire.  Perhaps there is a string of jealousy that is tripping them up, but it reveals an ugly side of the music business, which is that friendship and support only run as deep as the coffers.

From an artistic perspective, it makes no sense to hold U2’s actions against them, nor does it from a capitalistic perspective.  All of these arguments work on the assumption that music has an inherent value that must be paid, lest it be theft.  No matter how ardent a free-market believer, this assumption is based on a fiction.  Anything is only worth as much as people decide it is.  Gold is no more inherently valuable than any other metal.  It was desired, therefore became treasure and fought over.  If we decided gold was no longer useful tomorrow, it would become worthless overnight.  Music is a consumer product, no matter how much I wish it weren’t, and like any other product it is subject to the market.  The last fifteen years have shown us that there isn’t the same market for purchased music there once was.  This doesn’t mean music is worthless, or that society has fallen into moral decay.  All it means is that our priorities have shifted, and we believe our money is better spent in other places.

Fighting to keep a system in place that people no longer want isn’t just bad business, it’s antithetical to the foundation that free economies are supposedly based on.  The first VCR that was offered for sale cost $800.  Today, you can’t even buy one.  That’s not an indictment of the electronics companies for not being able to force people to continue paying for something they didn’t want anymore, it’s an acknowledgment that times and opinions change.  Being stuck in the past is not a principle, it’s a delusion.

Marketing stunts like U2’s might hasten the demise of the recording industry.  I can’t say.  Whether it does or not is irrelevant, because the industry is already contracting.  U2 might be one of the first to step off the cliff and take the leap of faith that their fans will be there to catch them, but someone needs to be.  If everyone waits until there is no other choice, a new market will have to be built from scratch.  For all we know, U2 might have discovered a sustainable model of driving ticket and merchandise sales that could more than offset the loss in album royalties.  If that is the case, there will be an extinction, given the amount of crow that will need to be eaten.

Regardless of the outcome, U2 took a risk with their own music, with their own future.  They exercised the freedom every artist wishes they could have.  They should not be crucified for doing the unpopular thing, they should be celebrated for taking control of their music and doing with it what they want.  The fact that so many artists don’t understand that is a depressing reminder of how little music means to the music industry anymore.

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