Monday, September 15, 2014

U2’s free album, the music industry, and metadata

Not actually on vinyl, which is kind of the point.

So, as many of you know, the band U2 came out with their new album this week, Songs of Innocence, with very little foreshadowing. And they released the album by letting anyone who has iTunes download it for free between its release and October 13. In fact, the songs just appeared in everyone's library. I won’t spend much time reviewing the album, because you probably can listen to it for yourself. If you would like a review, you can read this one from Peter Tabakis, which I pretty much agree with. In summary, it’s a pretty good album, well-produced, with great (but maybe not outstanding) songs. It’s supposed to come from Bono’s late 1970’s mind, kind of like a memoir. Fear is a big theme.

Instead of “how good is it?”, the question I would rather answer is “why did they give it out for free?”, which is how people will probably remember the album, anyway.

U2 doesn’t need to make money on albums. In fact, albums sold on iTunes make very little for most musicians. U2 makes money is touring and licensing. So, this album and its strange release was about publicity for them and for Apple, which wants everyone to put everything on their cloud (and which has suffered some from the recent iCloud celebrity picture scandal).

While I know now that my iTunes music can be stored on the cloud, I’m not convinced by this release that I should keep my files there. For one thing, there was the big flub with the Songs of Innocence digital booklet. Unless a user visited the iTunes store, searched in their “recently purchased music” folder, and downloaded the album again, the digital booklet did not load. Besides showing that cloud downloading is not quite infallible, Apple’s mistake goes to show that the digital music industry doesn't really care about metadata. Which I already knew from the dearth of information filled in on the music I’ve downloaded already and the woefully inadequate or wrong genre labels that are sometimes assigned.

I should also note that only big acts like Beyoncé succeed when they release an album out of nowhere. Most albums or songs take longer to get the top compared with just few years ago. Look at Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, which is currently at the #1 spot on Billboard—it took about four months from its release to get to that spot, and that's pretty quick compared to some indie music being released.

Vocab: metadata

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