Tech Tuesday: When Free isn’t Free

Big news of last week was the release of U2’s latest record. In a somewhat novel attempt at redefining the distribution paradigm that continues to confound the music industry, U2 teamed up with Apple to ‘give away’ copies of the new record to every iTunes user.

U2 was paid by Apple $100million or so (reports widely varied when I looked it up) as part of their continued co-branding effort. If you remember, U2 already had a branded iPod and was a centerpiece of several generations of iPod releases helping define the iconic, yet terribly subpar sonicly, white earbuds so this isn’t some extravagant one-off deal, it’s part of a larger (and probably more sinister) plan which involved more than just insane amounts of money changing hands.

Now, some people were probably legitimately happy to just get anything for free. There will always be a sub-set of those suffering from the human condition who cannot say no to free no matter how unnecessary it is, hell Extreme Couponing is a television show! Even if it were sounds of farting (and it’s debatable to some if that’s not exactly what this is) they’d be happy to have it for free.

There are also some legitimate U2 fans out there who were pleasantly surprised to receive this gift of manna from the digital heavens. They’ve been duped into buying the U2 catalog time-over-and-again and finally getting something for free would of course made them happy. Believe me, I’m that way only for Iron Maiden. I’d still be writing this, but I’d have a smile knowing I didn’t have to fork over money to own their latest even though I’d be super critical of them in having done it. To me, this transcends the band and is more about the action, but I’ll be honest, because it was U2 it definitely was one of the reasons the backlash is as strong because they are polarizing and this smacks of the kind of attitude surrounding them that created their polarization in the first place.

Then, there’s the rest of us. Skeptical of free, especially considering the privacy trade off sans transparent disclosure that’s become all too common with our free experience coupled with the fact we really didn’t want the damned U2 record free, or not.

And, there inlies the problem with U2 in their arrogance. They assumed everyone would react as if in the first two categories and discovered a systemic problem with those kind of self-servicing assumptions … they backfire.

I haven’t ready many of the articles but I have seen only two responses to this giant publicity stunt: 1) Get this Shit off my Machine! and 2) Why are you bitching, it’s free.

Well, here’s my response:

When I signed up for iTunes it never said it would automatically update my private library contents as part of my opt-in process for using the program. Any changes to the Terms weren’t disclosed in a way that I would know that it had changed in a transparent way (simply posting the new terms in front of a software update without highlighting the changes is NOT transparent, and, for as much backlash as Facebook gets on their terms changes they go through a very public commenting period and run a publicity campaign around the changes, something Apple in all its opaqueness has never done). Taking advantage of a stealth opt-in process breaks whatever trust existed based on a brand’s good will and this falls on Apple as much as U2 for why people were upset to find out that their machines where being invaded by U2 content.

Furthermore, it’s considered a best practice to allow an explicit opt-in for receiving content. This didn’t even offer an opt-out of receipt before the push, it was literally everyone gets it no matter what and if you don’t want it, then you need to erase it post-receipt. The user action is at the wrong time in the user experience! That’s what junk mail is. That’s what spam is. That’s what dinner time telemarketers are. That’s what door-to-door Relgious Cults are. And, now, U2 is in that same garbage category for millions of music fans. For every happy consumer out there enjoying the unexpected surprise there’s one (ore likely more) that are frustrated by it and legitimately upset the same as they’ve always been when they were forced to deal with that kind of invasive practice.

Another way to look at it is it was treated like a software update. Granted, the majority of software updates that happen are because you initiated them. You opted into them and either accept them when first prompted or previously explicitly told your machine to run them in the background when they were available. That, of course was not this, it was more nefarious in nature and just showed up from a direct push. Some software updates are totally legit for security reasons and bug fixes for user features, but sometimes they feel like cosmetic crap that just serves to slow my machine down for no good reason. I hate that most of them include some kind of bundle that’s not just updating the main program but trying to gain new, unnecessary permissions or load on add-ons I’d never otherwise want. That’s all essentially bloatware and the only thing worse than your machine coming preloaded with bloatware is when it’s pushed onto the machine unexpectedly. And, worse, a lot of bloatware is loaded with maleware-esque behaviors. So, yeah, U2 chose to put themselves into this category too, pushing their record onto my machine bogging it down with something useless that I’d never otherwise have chosen to put on it and who knows what kind of stuff came with the songs I’m not privy to right now (lest I remind you how many tech companies get in trouble for that, or the Sony Music RootKit debacle on their CDs).

Semantics aside about consumer choice though, let’s look at this a totally different way for a second.

Music is already under the heavy stress of commoditization. This comes from it being nearly ubiquitous in it’s consumability along with the depressed price. Since the advent of file sharing the consumption of music has changed. The consumer response was evoked for any number of reasons but the result of the valuation of music in the marketplace has seen it become devalued to just about zero, at least in its pre-recorded form. There are still fans who are willing to pay a premium for select music, be it for vinyl or for lossless digital files or for exclusive access of some kind but the average music consumption experience is only slowly regaining any kind of worth (but it will probably never achieve the consumer worth it once did). This delicate balance of trying to re-value recorded music is undone by publicity stunts like giving music away for free en-masse. This kind of action re-enforces that recorded music has no monetary value to the consumer. It signals to consumers this is not worth paying for, here, have it for free.

Now, I know what you’re going to say… the music business and entertainment industry as a whole has been giving away free or discounted product since the beginning of music industralization. Correct, it has. However, never on the kind of scale this was just done on and never at a time when the value of music was at much a core question, so past promotions aren’t equal to this. And, that’s a key difference in that this wasn’t a targeted marketing effort it was a blanket coverage. A few fans receiving something special in the past became an incentive for them to evangelize their experience and would usually result in incremental business.

This being a wholesale dump of the product did not allow for either, who would someone evangelize to if everyone already has it? It didn’t produce evangelists and although the old adage goes no press is bad press, it certainly gave a wrong turn of the head to both Apple and U2 in how the whole thing was handled. Besides, even if my excited friend received it, they know I have it too and although it might prompt a conversation, chances are it wasn’t about our mutual interest in the music as much as it became about privacy and publicity stunts.

And, it didn’t drive incremental sales much either as I understand it. Non-iTunes retailers were not appraised of the situation so there wasn’t the visual placement of U2’s catalog (or, on the off chance you wanted a physical copy the extras available in the brick and mortar pipeline) outside of the huge iTunes spread dedicated to the new record. Because of this lack of coordinated marketing one can either say it was a missed opportunity on the part of U2 to juice back catalog sales or come up with more sinister reasons why they focused solely on pushing the new album and only the new album through this campaign. It sure seems like the second.

Finally, it artificially juiced this albums “sales.” The number of units moved is determined by the delivery rate of the push. Unlike an opt-in purchase which most music retail is determined by, I take an action to gain ownership, this treats all recipients equally even if they deleted the record. Where purchasing or pressing play to listen is an active consumer act that is tabulated representing actual interest in the product, this is passive and assumptive. It treats non-consumers as consumers which is the same as NYC rag papers treating copies thrown away the same as those that were in active reading circulation. What if Atari didn’t bury all those ET games but instead mailed them to every household they could, would that have made ET the most successful game ever just because a bunch on non-interest consumers now had free access to the product? No, it would still be an absolutely terrible video game that would still end up in the junk yard where it belonged. The road there would just be less clear.

U2 had to know the record would not retail at the kind of numbers they’re used to. The writing’s been on the wall not just for them but for the industry as a whole. However, since record sales still determine a lot of other industry related relevance a conceited monolith like U2 are not about to take the chance that their actual sales numbers might not meet some lofty expectation and it could damage other income streams like touring, merch or single’s licencing. Therefor, it scream of desperate attempt as a facade to hide those possibly weak numbers in order to protect everything else. Maybe the album tested poorly pre-release and they knew this, maybe they just felt in their hearts it was half-assed, maybe it was a shrewed business hunch, maybe it was something else but still self-serving so they did the wise thing and changed the parameters of how the legacy of the record would be judged, so that it isn’t on actual consumer interest but in this publicity stunt. And, because they’re U2 they got paid for it regardless, even if every single consumer deleted it, they made their money up front and the hype machine that looks at distribution numbers would still react to those millions given away to retain the value for touring, merch and licensing.

We’ll never know how successful the record would have been because it wasn’t designed to be tracked that way. It wasn’t designed to be tracked that way because it wasn’t about connecting to the actual consumers, it was about gaming an already broken system for financial benefit at the expense of everyone else, including those poor consumers that were spammed with this bloatware and have to spend time, effort and energy to delete the files (hey, at least they’re delete-able right? can you imagine if it wasn’t? After all, why would you EVER delete a cool band like U2 that you got their stuff for free??)

But the real problem is that this is the kind of high profile stunt that only a band of U2 or Jay-Z (remember when he did something similar bundling with Samsung in 2013) can pull off. It’s the same kind of un-replicatable approach that Trent Reznor used when self-publishing Nine Inch Nails music in the early 2000s (remember when that was going to change the industry too?).

It only works because the bands doing it are already as big as they are and already reaped the benefits of marketing and promotion provided to them over the course of decades cultivating a fan base and business contacts. They can leverage getting paid handsomely by their sponsor even if not a single person decided to keep their “free sample” so to speak. This only works because the distributor sees the value of the band to enter into the contract and find the value in paying the band for it. This only works because it’s a novelty in reality, for if every record were to be pushed to every person it would become unfathomably difficult to manage as a consumer.

The average, mid-level artist can never do this kind of promotion for a number of reasons, and the mere fact that it exists sets a president, and expectation by fans that the smaller artists can never hope to fulfill. Mid-level bands are already hurt by big bands perpetuating myths about the reality of the music industry because big bands are insulated from the modern trials having already graduated from the grinding existence of being a working musician. These kind of top-down ways of dealing with music industry problems just serve to make the spread between successful and mid-level even further. Makes sense because entertainment truly mirrors society in general and in society the top 1% are way skewed from the bottom 99% so why shouldn’t the music industry be just as lopsided.

These kind of self-servicing behaviors put unrealistic expectations on bands to do for their fans what is financially impossible for them to. When the average, mid-level band is begging on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter just to hope to fund recording a decent sounding record and then struggling to self-distributing it on Bandcamp with a minimum suggested but set-your-own-price scheme just to have the opportunity to have a record available to potential it’s indicative of how difficult it is already just to be a band and how tone deaf big bands are in promoting these publicity stunts as the future of music. These bands aren’t making their money on the road, or via merch, because they are constantly being undervalued by things big bands do which undermine the delicacy of the industry itself as it struggles to change.

I’m not saying bands shouldn’t do novel things to help satiate fans and woo new consumers, they made loot at a time when that requires more creativity and is harder to come by, but it’s questionable if some of these short term “successes” are producing sustainable long term health for anyone. And, again, it’s just this kind of short term, near sighted activity that drives Wall Street and corporate greed and so many other social ailes that it’s not surprising it’s pervasive in entertainment as well. Kudos for U2 in raping Apple’s bank account to pad their own by out Jay-Zing Jay-Z but somehow I find it impossible to imagine we should be applauding them beyond fattening only their own bank account. It isn’t “fixing” the music industry and might actually serve to hurt it further down the line. It is not a replicable novelty or a sustainable way for either consumers or bands to connect so let’s call it what it really is a novelty, publicity stunt and stop trying to kid ourselves. If every big name started doing this tomorrow consumption would implode from consumers being overwhelmed and burntout and you know it.

Another interesting thing also missed in this is how Apple has been so focused on pure per track downloading that they, like retailers before them who clung to the wrong format for too long, missed a consumer shift. The fight with artists like the Beatles and Ac/Dc to obtain the digital distribution rights for iTunes seems to have blinded Apple along with their staunch belief they are somehow smarter than their consumer is (you’re holding the phone wrong!) that they’re getting on the streaming band wagon late. Way late, so much so that the only viable way to make a splash was to buy competitors and take them apart along with stunts like this that smack of desperation in order to gain back attention to their service. Apple need the U2 brand in order to appear relevant just as U2 needed Apple in a quite interesting symbiotic relationship.

While it’s true that streaming in its current model is absolutely unsustainable it is a byproduct of the music industry listening to all its critics and widening the consumability of intellectual property that is more malleable and responsive. Fans always loved the portability of traditional radio, along with the discoverability it provided in channel surfing and the curation that came from quality programming. The more mature and adaptive equivalent was born into streaming services that provide enough flexibility for both the average lazy fan who just wants to plug and play to crosssect the music snob buried in each of us that actively wants to find their own unique something new. This experience is something iTunes cannot do now and will not possess anytime soon because Apple to this point hasn’t seen it ever as that. It was, and remains, a driver for their hardware and so long as that’s the case there’s no reason to promote a quality software experience, it just has to be barely good enough to manage the hardware requirement.

Perhaps, now that the egomaniac is no longer in charge they’re figuring things out. After all, weren’t we famously told bigger (and non-conforming) screens were never going to catch on and Apple lost three years of momentum on tabs, phabs, wearables and alternate phone sizes. They’re already behind in streaming for music and struggle to keep pace with it for video content and don’t seem to understand the printed content version of it either. Then again, their strength has been in hardware manufacturer and distribution, not in content retail and it shows. Of course, even with a diminished cache right now, Apple still has more than enough fanbois that willfully overlook their deficiencies at worse or make excuses for it at best pointing out that as yet no one has full mastered it (Sounds a lot like Microsoft some years back on why they couldn’t get ads right). It’s just that blind defense that allows Apple to continue to underperform while making the insane profit they do.

Personally, I haven’t read many articles or really followed all the backlash on this little stunt but I did happen to catch U2 and Apple made another announcement after this little stunt alluding to a seismic change in distribution. My guess is that it’s a progressive way to dupe fans into re-buying access to music they’ve already purchased several times over. If I had to guess, it’ll be some kind of rent-for-access scheme. Although, don’t get too hung up on the word rent, the end user might not be directly spending money, a la Spotify, to achieve access but it will certainly come at a price that the nieve will be all that much more willing to bend over for, just like they did when they let U2 give them a record for ‘free.’ Makes me so excited for the future of music consumption for music snobs like myself. It’s no wonder we’re an ever-dying breed.

In the meantime, as the dust from this big experiment settles, the wrong excuses will continue to be focused on with why free music like this is good, or not and we’ll continue to undervalue music as an art as it becomes further comoditized, homogenized, and deintellecutalized form of mindless consumption while giving technology an ever more evil tinge in people’s already skeptical and paranoid minds. The old adage goes there is no free lunch and to herald this as being free or being a positive step is precicely why we’re struggling with our consumerism (and creativity) right now. But hey, it was free, so stop complaining, right?


About thedoormouse

I am I. That’s all that i am. my little mousehole in cyberspace of fiction, recipes, sacrasm, op-ed on music, sports, and other notations both grand and tiny:
This entry was posted in business commentary, Entertainment, music, Opinion, tech tuesday/thursday. Bookmark the permalink.

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