Music is one of life’s most profound joys. It has the capacity to entirely rewire your day, to move you to tears, to soundtrack your most cherished moments and to offer escapism when every other avenue has been exhausted. For many of us, it is a defining aspect of our personality and our identity. Everyone has their own routes for discovering music and, often, the act of becoming acquainted with a song is part of the fun. Increasingly, the sites and programs we use look to recommend things for us to try and, while the results are often somewhat tepid, these are at least based on what they already know we like.
All of which makes you wonder just what gave Apple the nerve to sneak into our music libraries, very much uninvited, and deposit a whole album by U2 amongst our lovingly curated collection (yesterday's news). And it’s not even like they were public-spirited enough to give people ‘The Joshua Tree’ or ‘Zooropa’. No, it’s the latest instalment of their gradual descent towards utterly unmoving mediocrity: a whole new LP titled ‘Songs Of Innocence’.
It’s easy to dismiss U2 as shit. See, I just did it, just there. They’re shit. But, of course, that wasn’t always the case. Rare is the person who doesn’t like at least a few of their tracks, and their enduring success is pretty clearly not down to Bono’s humble warmth and affable persona. No, the problem is actually that U2 have spent the last 10 years or so desperately trying to sound like U2. Just as a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy will convey pretty much the same content but in a less satisfying fashion than you’d hoped, the group’s incessant desire to remain the biggest band in the world has had the reverse effect.
Had ‘Songs Of Innocence’ been released normally (and a physical version is coming, on October 13th), it would have no doubt shot in at number one and then dropped fairly quickly after the diehard fans had got hold of it. It would likely have also continued the downward sales trend of their last few outings – Bono himself expressed disappointment with how their last record, ‘No Line On The Horizon’, performed (it was their lowest-selling set for more than a decade).
However, release it for free and you get attention, while sure as hell lowering expectations. But, at the same time, you risk sending a global message that music isn’t worth a penny.
In many ways, what makes this such a piss-boiling experience is not the specific involvement of U2, although having ‘Songs Of Innocence’ appear in your iTunes without warning is about as crushingly crap as being whisked away for a surprise holiday and finding yourself arriving at a static caravan in Merthyr Tydfil. Apple paid the band for the record so that they could push it out there as content, which is rapidly becoming the most offensive ‘c word’ in the entertainment business. For them it was the equivalent of an upgraded camera for their phone, or an infuriatingly slow-to-install software update.
Which particular bulging catheter in the cloud happened to leak over your library matters not, because it’s the very principle that is so frustratingly idiotic. In an industry where the revived and rather generously treated HMV routinely slashes the prices on new releases within weeks, where Fopp’s Covent Garden store gleefully tweets about having the latest St. Vincent album on CD for a quid, and where even artists are reduced to sending promotional messages about how their latest offering is being pissed away for 99p by Google Play, you have to stop and ask what the cocking hell is going on.
The Radiohead honesty box approach to ‘In Rainbows’ highlighted that once you’ve got enough in the bank, you can afford to risk putting your music out there for free. What if you’re an act who sells a few thousand copies, tours small venues and relies on the loyalty of fans to scrape a living though? Surely Bono and his chums can see that they’re sending a message that people don’t need to pay for music?
Thankfully, he put our minds at rest after the Apple launch event which unveiled this unique partnership, with a comment to TIME magazine so lacking in self-awareness it seems almost implausible, even coming from him: “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” Hey, moany new bands slogging your way up to Huddersfield in a van held together by will power and crushed dreams: hold your tongues. U2 aren’t saying that music is worthless. No, not at all. In fact, as long as they get a big wad of cash, us plebs can have it for nothing.
Yes, ‘Every Breaking Wave’ is an interminable chug so desperate to sound BIG and, yes, ‘California (There Is No End To Love)’ is almost as offensively desperate as ‘Get On Your Boots’, but the news that U2 has released a ludicrously earnest, really rather crap new album should not be the surprise, nor should it get the headlines. And, it’s not, is it. Far more troubling is the growing tendency in some corners of the industry not only to press the ‘self-destruct’ button but to also step on the accelerator.
Whether we can, or should be able to, access music for free or not has long been the debate but, ultimately, if we want musicians to keep on making music we’re going to have to pay for it. The online utopia where the sharing of music means everyone gets heard and the good stuff rises to the top is a fallacy. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t pay for music. We get a shitty U2 album. And nobody wants that, do they?
Words: Gareth James