Songs of praise? Not quite

(Image: Apple)



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16 September 2014 | 0

Billy MacInnesThere’s been a lot written about U2’s involvement in Apple’s iPhone 6, 6 Plus, iWatch and iOS 8 launch event earlier this month, with much made of the decision to give away the band’s latest album to iTunes users for free.

Unsurprisingly, people who aren’t U2 fans were noticeably underwhelmed by the arrival of the group’s Songs of Innocence album on their iPhones and in their iTunes libraries. It wasn’t long before they were agitating for ways to remove the album from their iDevices and iTunes libraries. To be fair to Apple, it didn’t take long (a week) to come up with a removal tool for the grumblers and malcontents to permanently erase Bono’s warblings (although it should be stressed that the tool applies only to Songs of Innocence and cannot be used on other albums from U2’s oeuvre in your collection).

But while the the decision to install U2’s album in iTunes users’ accounts for free and the backlash against it has dominated headlines, the wider implications of the stunt have not been explored so publicly. Because what people saw on 9 September could be interpreted as very clear visual metaphor for the way that music has been subsumed into the technology universe.

The iPod started that journey as a device which enabled people to process music (capture it even) and play it back in a way that they wanted rather than the way its composer intended. Technology allowed them to dice and slice albums, shuffle tracks, skip others, erase those they didn’t like. The concept of the album as the landscape for a musical journey disappeared overnight to be replaced by a bland patchwork quilt of similar sounding or complementary music, often compiled by automated playlist creating technology.

In tandem with the iPod, iTunes helped to computerise the process of marketing, selling and buying music, removing any level of physical engagement people had previously experienced in terms of buying music by visiting record stores, talking to other browsers and flicking through shelves of albums.

Nowadays, many bands view albums as a means to entice fans to go to their live concerts because that’s where most of their money is made. In addition to the fees they are paid for playing, bands make good margins out of merchandising sold to fans seeking physical artefacts that celebrate or commemorate their musical experience. Indeed, you could view U2’s decision to allow Songs of Innocence to be given away in a marketing stunt in the same vein, as a means to keep its loyal fan base engaged and ready to buy tickets for the next massive tour.

But here’s where things get a bit blurry and perhaps not quite as pessimistic for music as they first appeared. Because while it’s true technology has shaped the way in which music is being marketed, sold and listened to, bands and fans have found their own way to adapt to that reality. Bands have started to use it as a marketing platform to bring their fans to their performances and fans, for their part, have sought to recover their physical engagement with music by going to concerts and buying souvenirs/emblems of their attendance.

So while technology may well have taken over the way that music is packaged, sold and consumed, it may have also helped people to understand and appreciate the value they attach to the physical process of playing and listening to music as a communal activity.

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