What U2’s Apple Deal Says About The Future Of The Album

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.

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Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.

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Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.

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There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!