If you somehow missed it, Apple just gave 500 million iTunes users U2’s latest album for free.
Album sales are declining, both because people are buying less music and because fewer people are engaging with albums. The music industry has gone full circle. In the 50’s and the 60’s it was all about singles. The 80’s and the 90’s were the glory years for the album but ever since the rise of the Internet music fans have been moving progressively away from albums to single tracks again. We are living in the age of the playlist, not the album. So for a band like U2, who already are way beyond their music sales peak, selling an album was always more about getting bums on seats at concerts, where they make more money than ever. Their last album sold poorly so they won’t have been expecting much from this one. Suddenly Apple transformed it into a global hit and everyone’s a winner. Sure Apple will have had to pay a heft chunk of cash but they got a nice TV ad out of it too. Considered as a marketing expenditure this is genius. It instantly creates the most widely distributed album in history and in doing so creates equally instant headlines.
The album is not dead as a creative construct, far from it. But as a product it is in a death spiral. It needs reinventing if the album loyalists are going to be prevented from jumping ship. They can’t be taken for granted for ever. What should that reinvention look like? Well it should include video, lyrics, dynamically updated content, exclusive content, live streams, artist chat…in short everything the 21st century artist has got to give, all in one place. Artists like the storytelling capabilities of the album. Imagine how much more storytelling you could do with the addition of visuals, interactivity and text. Bjork got it. Even Lady Gaga got it. Now it’s time for the industry to get it, unless it wants the album to be consigned to a long term future as an Apple freebie.