September 16, 2014:ERA slams U2 / iTunes giveaway: ‘Dismal failure… devalues music’


The morning after Apple launches a dedicated webpage to help people delete U2’s new album from their devices should be a good time to issue a press release calling the partnership a “dismal failure”.

However, the broadside from the UK’s Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) bears deeper examination for some of its assumptions about the promotion, including how its success should be judged.

The basics are clear enough: ERA is angry on its members’ behalf that U2 chose to give their new album Songs of Innocence away via iTunes, and it says it has figures to show the decision backfired.

Those figures: U2 sold “just 6,047 additional copies” of their back catalogue in the UK last week, with less than 60 of those being sold through high-street retailers – the rest were downloads sold from online stores.

“This vindicates our view that giving away hundreds of millions of albums simply devalues music and runs the risk of alienating the 60% of the population who are not customers of iTunes,” says ERA chairman Paul Quirk.

“If one of the justifications of this stunt is that it would drive sales of U2’s catalogue through the market as a whole, then so far at least it has been a dismal failure.”

Note, those 6,047 additional back-catalogue sales is, by ERA’s calculations, an 868% week-on-week increase. Yes, the week before Songs of Innocence launched, U2’s old stuff only sold 697 albums in the UK.

“This promotion is a failure on so many levels. It devalues music, it alienates the majority of people who don’t use iTunes and it disappoints those who prefer to shop in physical stores since few shops had U2 stock available,” says Quirk.

“Giving away music like this is as damaging to the value of music as piracy, and those who will suffer most are the artists of tomorrow. U2 have had their career, but if one of the biggest rock bands in the world are prepared to give away their new album for free, how can we really expect the public to spend £10 on an album by a newcomer?”

Oh, and: “Dumping an album in hundreds of millions of iTunes libraries whether people want it or not, reduces music to the level of a software update or a bug-fix or just plain spam.” A view borne out by Apple’s decision to help fans get rid of the album if they don’t want it last night.

But back to that idea of a “dismal failure”, which can be challenged. Apple also said last night that Songs of Innocence has been listened to by 33m people since its release, which against a backdrop of falling sales for the band’s last few albums, might be counted as a success – and this before the $100m marketing campaign promised by Apple kicks in.

(Caveat: not the best measurement of success, mind. How many people listened to it all the way through? How many listened more than once? How many liked it? How many are going to buy tickets for the band’s next tour? There are lots of ways to judge this particular promotion: some we’ll never know, and others will only become clear in time.)

Is Quirk right about one of the aims of the promotion being to drive sales of U2’s back catalogue? Maybe. Apple has claimed that 26 of the band’s albums reappeared in the iTunes Top 200 albums chart in the wake of the promotion – why so many? Most of the albums have additional ‘Deluxe’ versions – which suggests a certain uplift.

(Another caveat: taking ERA’s ‘697 sales the week before the Apple launch’ stat as a guide, any uplift in iTunes sales is likely to come from a small base. And beyond the impact of the Songs of Innocence publicity, Apple has also dropped the price of older U2 albums.)

What about ERA’s claim that the promotion “alienates the majority of people who don’t use iTunes” though? It’s very hard to prove without some proper sentiment research into how people feel about the promotion. We suspect most of those people don’t really care about how a new U2 album is distributed.

While 60% of the UK population may not be using iTunes, how many of those are music fans? How many of those are U2 fans? Is there really a large mob of U2 fans who don’t use iTunes, and are thus angry about being left out? Again, very hard to prove: there is a backlash on social media, but it’s about people who don’t like U2 raging about being pushed their album.

ERA says that when U2’s last album No Line On The Horizon was released, 87% of its first-month sales were physical not digital. What the press release doesn’t add is that the album was released in February 2009. Half a decade is a long, long time in digital music trends.

You can’t fault a trade association for fighting its members’ corner – note, Apple may be an entertainment retailer, but it’s not a member of ERA – and there’s evidence that U2 and their label Interscope are aware of the dangers of alienating retailers. Witness plans for “a deluxe package with four additional songs and two to seven acoustic versions” when the album goes on sale physically on 13 October.

There is an important debate around the value of music, and how the U2 promotion affects that. Whether it alienates fans is debatable – if there’s a discussion to be had there, in 2014 it’s more about digital services hoarding exclusives from other digital services: iTunes v Spotify rather than iTunes v the high street. “Plain spam”? Okay, ERA is on firm ground with that criticism.

As a trade association, ERA has done great things with the annual Record Store Day initiative, providing positive reasons for music fans – younger fans in particular – to support their local independent stores, and proving that physical music does still have a value, given the right care and attention.

That positivity is a contrast to the negativity of its criticism of the U2/iTunes deal. It may well have alienated retailers beyond Apple, but that’s not yet enough reason to call it a failure – dismal or otherwise. The real implications of this particular giveaway will take a while longer to become clear.


Stuart Dredge
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