No, U2's new secret Apple music format won't "save music"
Last week, Apple and U2 set off an Internet firestorm by adding the band's latest record, "Songs of Innocence," to half a billion users' iTunes libraries without asking. As someone who hasn't opened iTunes on a computer or phone in months, I wasn't too outraged by the move, but I understand why some were upset. In addition to the album being poorly-received by many fans and critics, Apple had tinkered with fans' personal digital space. In a way, the anger people felt is actually good news for the industry, proving that people still care about music libraries as a form of personal expression. But that didn't temper any of the outrage directed at Apple or U2.
Now the Irish rockers say they have another disruptive gambit in the works. In an interview with TIME, U2 lead singer Bono says the band is working with Apple on a new digital music format that "will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks."
So what is it? A file format with such a sound quality so pristine and mellifluous that listeners will achieve orgasm upon hearing it? Virtual reality goggles that recreate the experience of synesthesia, producing beautiful colors and movement that correspond to musical tones? Songs delivered to your door by actual unicorns?
No, what Bono describes sounds more like a glorified Windows Media Player visualization:
"[It's] an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens," Bono says. "You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before."
And that's going to "save music," Bono?
Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot more than photos and visualizations to convince large numbers of people to buy albums again. Sure, marketplaces like Patreon and Gumroad allow savvy artists to raise money for their work from diehard fans. And 25 percent of Spotify users pay $9.99 a month for an ad-free listening experience. But the masses, now accustomed to piracy and free streaming, expect music to be free, or near to it, and there's no turning back.
Apple's impressive marketing machine may be able to convince a significant number of people to pay a monthly subscription fee to its library. But even then it would have to include artists that are unavailable on other streaming services, like the Beatles, over which Apple has exclusive digital distribution rights.
In any case, none of this sounds like what U2 is boasting. Most people I've talked to in the industry say ad-supported streaming, not a la carte downloads or even paid subscriptions, are the future of the industry, and the numbers bear this out. And while companies like Pandora are experimenting with more interesting -- and potentially more lucrative -- ad products than mere 15-second audio spots, most bands will likely never see the kinds of returns they received in the bloated CD era. That is unless Apple makes a habit of buying 30 million copies of new albums on behalf of its users.
I hope I'm wrong. I hope U2's audio visual bonanza can be replicated by other musicians as a significant positive revenue stream. Like most fans, I would love for artists to get paid more money. But it sounds less like a new way forward and more like a trumped-up promotion for U2's next album.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]