More than ever, the buzz in the blogosphere about new music seems to keep shifting in an uncomfortable direction. Whether it’s windowing, free streaming previews, or the fact that nobody even knew it was coming, the talk seems to center more and more around how music is released than anything else about it, including what it sounds like.
No one has caught a stranger and more toxic end of this lately than U2 and the free release of their new album Songs Of Innocence to 500 million iTunes users. When I first heard about it, I immediately thought: Why does U2, one of the biggest bands in history, need a release gimmick? A strategy, yes, but not a gimmick.
Though I’ve scanned a few reviews on my own, not a single review of Songs Of Innocence has come up in any of my many news feeds since it was released. I haven’t heard one person tell me they love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it. No one has mentioned a single song title to me in conversation. But I’ve seen an almost constant stream of press about the release strategy, and it’s all bad, especially when the opinions are coming from artists.
Patrick Carney of the Black Keys slammed the release, stating in Rolling Stone that the strategy “devalued their music completely,” and that the Apple deal “sends a huge mixed message to bands . . . that are just struggling to get by. I think that [U2] were thinking it’s super generous of them to do something like that.”
Ben Patashnik of NME criticised the release strategy, writing that “the fact it’s free makes it seem cheap.” (You can read his full “4 out of 10 stars” review here.) He went on to say that “they’ve devalued their own brand because, quite frankly, this is a serious mis-step that might win a week’s worth of good publicity, but could foreshadow a year’s worth of bad.”
Unfortunately, I think he’s right about that. And not just about U2 and Songs Of Innocence, but about the conversations that our culture now has about music. Maybe it’s because the listening devices that people use can’t play the music the way it was meant to be heard. Maybe the constant streaming experience is turning music from art into wallpaper. Maybe “free” really does just feel cheap. Whatever the cause, the focus is shifting from the art to the marketing.
Whether it was a “successful” marketing strategy or not for the album’s release, U2 or iTunes, there’s one overwhelming and undeniable thing that I can’t help but focus on after the debate fades out into background noise. I’ve had a brand-new album on my phone for more than two months, absolutely free of charge, made by one of my all-time favorite bands—and I still haven’t listened to it once.
As nature would have it, the effort a butterfly makes to break out of its cocoon forces fluid into their wings, a process necessary for flight. If you slice the cocoon open to help, it falls out and dies. In a similar fashion, my relationship to music is always predicated on a simple cycle of effort. I want something, I seek it out, and I get it. I’ve never found that effort to be too much. Perhaps all of this “free”-dom is causing our artistic hearts to atrophy.
Marketing’s measurable results and easily defended opinions are certainly easier to talk about. But these matters do not speak to my soul, help me express my emotions, set my imagination on fire, send me reeling into the abyss of nothingness in search of meaning. This current conversational landscape is as cold and uninhabitable for me as the surface of the moon. So I ask the simplest question I can muster, with the hopes that I can generate even the tiniest spark of heat…
What about the music?