Apple Pays Dearly for U2’s “Free” Music

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Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

Let’s get something straight: U2 did not give away its new album, Songs of Innocence. To be sure, if you have iTunes, on September 9 you received a free copy (without asking for it) of Songs of Innocence. But Apple paid U2 an undisclosed amount to distribute copies of U2’s album to as many as 500 million iTunes subscribers — a deal announced on September 9 as part of Apple’s roll-out of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. Now, let’s do some math: in 2013, Samsung paid Jay Z $5 million to distribute 1 million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Consider the lucrative sum U2 must be scoring ($30 million according to one estimate). And ponder, if you will, the $100 million marketing campaign the band is getting courtesy of Apple. These old rockers from Ireland have found a way to make a killing off a dying art form.

The distribution deal has created some backlash for both Apple and U2. For instance, music blogger Bob Lefsetz wondered why U2 would choose iTunes as its distribution platform, when more popular (e.g., YouTube) and hip (e.g., Spotify) distribution platforms are available. “They’d have been better off releasing it on YouTube, that’s where the digital generation goes for music,” he wrote. “iTunes is a backwater. It may be the number one sales outlet, but it’s not the number one music platform, not even close.” Plus, the approach of a forced distribution of content on to 500 million iTunes accounts is being viewed by many as obtrusive.

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Photo credit: Peter Neill

On the other hand, what is a rock group supposed to do in order to make money off its music in the digital age? Album sales have reached an all-time low. Getting noticed for your art is harder than ever at a time when music is just background noise for our digital games, advertisements, and movies. Musicians are not making money off streaming services, and YouTube is hardly a sure bet to monetize music. No wonder Kiss frontman Gene Simmons recently declared that “rock is finally dead.”

Yes, dropping content into our iTunes account without our permission is a controversial move. But the approach is fresh and new, and the old ways are not working anymore in the music industry. The relationship with Apple has given U2 two precious assets: money and attention. By participating in the most important and high-profile day in Tim Cook’s history as Apple’s CEO, U2 has turned an album launch into a global event. Tell me: who else can do that? The $100 million marketing campaign will keep the album in the public eye in the run-up to Universal’s official release of Songs of Innocence October 13 — and, more importantly, will serve as advance notice for the inevitable tour.

And you can be sure a tour is coming. Because that’s why albums still matter: as a launching pad for other revenue streams, such as tours and merchandising deals. U2’s last tour raked in $736 million from 2009-2011. U2 just primed the pump for what comes next.

Update, 22 September 2014: since I wrote this post, the backlash against Apple and U2 that I mentioned has intensified, obviously. As Adweek reported, social media sentiment dropped for U2 by 41 percent in the wake of the deal. My take: years from now, the U2/Apple (and similar Jay Z/Samsung album drop from 2013) will be viewed as flawed but necessary experiments in monetizing music, and others will improve upon those approaches.

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