When a company is no longer successful enough for its consumer base to buy their product out of free will and choice, it will first include free extras of some kind to entice the buyer into continuing loyalty. Then it might try to make that choice for them, making its products difficult or impossible to use with other brands or systems. And in the recent case of Apple and U2's new album, Songs of Innocence, it simply force fed its customers a product without warning.
This is disturbing on several levels. Not only did Apple deny its consumer clients a choice in whether or not to acquire U2's new album (which could have been done with a simple add or download option), Apple enforced its authority and control over people's personal music libraries (although "personal" is not really accurate, as Apple retains a level of ownership of all iTunes tracks), by adding in the U2 album for them, whether they desired it or not. This was not a free offer of music to all Apple consumers, this was an infringement on privacy, personal preference, and an affront on the ethics of the music industry.
From the tiniest of indie scenes to the major world of Top 40 and multi-millionaire musicians and producers, the foundation of the music industry in America is based on choice. Don't like the song? Change the station. Really like the song? Request it on air or buy it and listen to 50 times in a row. Excited about a band? Go see them on tour, or stream their live performance online. Dislike a song or its message? State your opinions where you like, or petition it off the radio if you desire. America is obsessed with music, with bands, with experiences, and whether or not you like the most popular music today, you have the freedom to choose exactly what you listen to any day of the week. Choice is where the power and agency of the listener is embodied, and listeners and professional musicians are intrinsically dependent on each other. Without choice, the whole system fails to work properly.
And by taking away the option of choice in purchasing or downloading U2's album, Apple has reduced the value of Songs of Innocence to nothing. While the bigger name musician you are, the less hype your music needs to sell, that doesn't mean that it deserves to be automatically added to anyone's library. Artists such as Beyonce have released entire albums and corresponding music videos without warning to great success, flipping the tactic of anticipation in marketing on its head. Some artists give away new albums for free for a limited time, sparking excitement and urgency. But there is always, ALWAYS, a choice in a person owning the music. Spending your hard-earned money on an album not only supports the musicians who have created the music (and the labels that support them, and the record stores that sell it, etc.), but it is a demonstration of worth towards that product. It is proven that as consumers we highly value what we pay for, more than if we just got it for free.
The automatic installation of this music into your iTunes library is like if your famous older cousin was like "ehh I don't like this classic designer shirt I bought last week," came into your apartment without asking or you knowing about it, hung it in your closet and left. Only to announce later that day that they so graciously gave you this new shirt because they "thought you would looove it!" and you are left standing there thinking: "how did you get in my apartment without a key?!? and you've been in my closet?!! What? Why?!" Maybe in a day you'll finally look at the thing and realize it's not that ugly, and maybe you'll wear it (if it fits), but the confusion and shock of its sudden appearance in your life will taint its reputation forever.
So no, U2 and Apple, no one was thinking "oh my gosh I got a free album! how thoughtful of them!" when it showed up in their libraries. They were thinking "How did this get in my library?! Apple can do this without my permission?!" And then a day later maybe they got around to listening to it and thought, "well, it's not a bad album at least..." But it will forever be The Album That Apple Put In My iTune Library, not "the U2 album that proved the band was still relevant in 2014." And as Fortune magazine notes, “U2 lead [singer] Bono noted on the band’s site the day of the release that everyone might not appreciate the gift.” No really.
This whole situation got me thinking about the work that I do. I claim to find “what you wanted to hear before you knew it existed” and let you know about it. That sounds a bit like I’m choosing the music for you, that I am taking away your choice. On the contrary – I am like the host of a large party with many friends who have not yet met: I help create connections, start up introductions, and then each person can decide for themselves who they would like to spend more time with, or never talk to again.
My mission is to introduce people to new music that they can take or leave, buy and go see live or never care about again. But I am not paid to tell you to listen to anything, ever. Either I have been asked personally by a band to share their music, or I personally admire a band's sound and desire to share it so that you can enjoy it, too. And I never recommend anything that I don't feel is worth at least one listen, whether it is to broaden your experience with music, or just get out of your comfort zone once in a while. Most of it I am unabashedly in love with, and I suspect you might end up in love with it, too. I aspire to create a more informed choice, to reduce limits, to be able to listen to more of what you love rather than less.
More choices equal better a situation for all… Sounds a bit like the greater economy of capitalism we live in, which the music industry reflects: consumer choice determines who is successful and who will need to change their strategy. So when a powerful company takes choice out of the game, it's not playing by the same rules anymore; it's cheating because it knows it won’t win if it lets people choose. And Apple hasn't ever played fair to begin with, cornering the market and paying the musicians who create the music they sell measly sums compared with the massive profits iTunes rakes in.
Luckily, there is one choice that a consumer can always make: not buying a company's products.
So here's to choice - to Bandcamp, to SoundCloud, to all the independent magazines and blogs and radio stations and writers out there who support and spread their un-bought thoughts across the world, and to good old word of mouth, for giving us the ability to make our own discoveries and choices about the music we listen to, purchase, and live by. And to the hard-working musicians who make it possible for us to do so.
For the record: I have only ever bought 2 albums off of iTunes and have never owned an Apple product in my entire life, and I am alive and doing well - and as a music critic and promoter to boot.