What is really being lost in the “free” U2 album controversy…

So I guess I should have tried to fit coffee in my blog title, along with the pints reference, because I chug caffeine and enjoy it just as much as beer. And I am a coffee snob in much the same manner as beer…meaning, there are some kinds I like MUCH more than others, but am I ever gonna turn it away if its not my preference? Probably not. I have found this out through those nameless coffee packets with machines they leave in hotel rooms. I will usually drink this when I want to be alert at 430 pm, a bad idea on most fronts. It’s pretty much brewed swill, but I choke it down anyway, and wait for the words to flow. Here we go…

You may or may not have heard that recently Apple and the music group U2 collaborated to offer their new album, “Sounds of Innocence,” for free to all ITunes accounts. Of course, technically Apple bought it from U2, so it wasn’t free for them….but whatever they paid is minute in their big picture. So if you had your iphone setting dialed to automatic download, the album appeared with all your other music…no obligations. Sounds good, right?


My first reaction to hearing about this move from U2 was, gee, sales must be bad if an iconic band with years of success has to give their music away. And in general CD sales have hit record lows in recent years. But there is more to the story, as there usually is.

I started to hear about a backlash over this seemingly generous move, that it was an atrocious invasion of privacy and how dare Apple and U2 force this upon people? So I did a little more research into what people were thinking. What I discovered took me by surprise, and it made me very sad. Here are actual comments from various folk across the Internet:

“I’d rather have food poisoning on Christmas than to listen to this,”

“U2 virus, is more like it”

“insipid crap fronted by a washed-out egomaniac”

“a scourge,”

“heavy handed, inappropriate”

“conceited arrogance”

“how do I get this gobshite off my phone?”

“really, really rude”

And, this from a Washington Post staffer: ” like contracting streptococcus,”

Hmmm. To be honest, the media did its usual overplay and gave the negative outcries more attention than to the appreciative audience. I also found many rebuttals suggesting people get over themselves and their fake outrage, that it is a pitiful world in which we love to complain. There were plenty of accusations that anyone bitching about getting something free are just crybaby whiners, that those same invasion- of-privacy protesters post every bowel movement on the anything goes world of Facebook. I tended to side with them, but I will say this: it could have been handled better. We Americans will fight to the death our right to have choice, and to many it seemed like a Big Brother kind of move. The truth is, big corporations like Apple just want it to seem like you have a choice about things, as they pull the strings and watch you move. To believe it is any other way is hopelessly naive.

There has also been some backlash from those in the music industry, and I found their commentary interesting. In an interview, Iggy Pop talked about how musicians who had previously suffered at the hands of record labels and execs who had taken their profits, now were penalized by the digitally empowered public. “We are exchanging the corporate ripoff for the public one, aided by power nerds, computer Putins, who just want to get rich. It has forced the biggest bands (such as U2) to give away music in an effort to stay huge and that kind of sucks.” And I think he is absolutely right, that does suck. And “computer Putins?” What a great line.

What it also does is paint a very sober picture for the average Joe singer/songwriter. He or she is slugging from one honkytonk to another, trying to scrape enough money to pay band mates, pay for studio time, possibly pay a manager for promotions, production, and all that is involved in getting their music out there. It is no cheap endeavor, in fact it runs in the thousands of dollars. No wonder musicians resort to operations such as Kickstarter for funding. It is also no surprise that these same enormously talented people drop out altogether and maybe become useless lawyers. They have to eat, as one songbird with an angelic voice told me.

Bono, in response to the criticism of how his giveaway could affect the rest of the working masses, said no one places more value on music than U2. “We thought this was to be like a gift to ITunes users, who do pay for music…and we were just looking for a way to reach masses of people who had not heard our music.” He also went on to say this was a deeply personal album that felt like giving birth to a baby. And in this aspect, he has a commonality with every songwriter out there…paid or not. This, to me, is what disgusted me the most about all the naysayer muck.

Because writing and performing meaningful songs involves a lot more risk than ringing up groceries at Walmart, mowing 20 lawns a day, or filing paperwork. Musicians are putting themselves out there, on the line, and it doesn’t matter if they are millionaires like U2 or if they’re the coffee shop offering. They are writing about things that matter to them, and they are hoping it will matter to you, too. So, imagine if you were to read comments like “insipid crap” about your life’s work for the past 5 years…with that being a milder comment. I just find it so disheartening. Maybe it’s because I’m the mama bear whose cub is out there, whose words, whose creations are up for crucifixion after months of editing and re-takes. And isn’t just me. I thought his dad was going to punch the judges of a recent songwriting contest in which our cub did not win. He is still growling about the injustice 2 months later.

Of course, U2 has had years to develop a thick skin, and develop it you must to survive in this industry. I also kind of think their next album might have a different delivery.

The takeaway from all this? Here’s what I think:

Nothing is really free…get some perspective on real problems…read fine print in Apple user agreements…and…respect the artist. Buy the music.

And here’s some advice that kind of goes off subject, but is still relevant. For the love of God, pay the cover charge and fill up the tip jar. Listen to original songs from a band with the same fervor you listen to cover songs. Buy their CD for ten bucks, even if you don’t think it will make your playlist. Don’t yak with your neighbor in the audience as someone is on stage, straining to be heard. Because if you don’t…

There’s a touchy bear family lurking nearby you really don’t want to encounter.








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