Why the outrage over Apple's U2 stunt is good news for the future of music
Last week, amid the frenzy over new iPhones and smartwatches, Wired's Mat Honan wrote a truly excellent requiem for the humble iPod. While reading it I felt like I was 19 again, using birthday money and cash from a summer job to buy my first Apple-adorned mp3 player (it was a 3rd generation). I remember experiencing that "new Apple smell" for the first time, wondering how a $300 device barely came with any instructions, and acclimating myself to the oddly soothing "click-click-click" that would follow me everywhere throughout the better part of my young adulthood.
The line that truly hit home for me was when Honan describes how this tiny device, which is now quickly approaching oblivion, changed the way we think about music, identity, and each other:
Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.I know how he feels. I remember trading iPods with friends whose tastes I admired, furiously scribbling down every album and song I had never heard. If I ran across something like, say, Garth Brooks on a device belonging to an ardent hip-hop head, the person would simply shrug and say, "What can I say? I like him."
Despite the fact that we lose our minds sharing and oversharing all day on Facebook and Twitter, we're losing that window into the idiosyncratic soul of a music fan. As the iPod phases out and streaming continues to replace iTunes like iTunes replaced CDs, how does one measure a listener's collection and all of the personal statements that come with it? You might stream the new Miley Cyrus song out of perverse curiosity, and Spotify or SoundCloud or Rdio will be more than happy tell every one of your Facebook followers that you did it. But if you allocated a few precious megabytes of storage to that Miley Cyrus jam on your iPod? That meant something.
Today, however, everything is in the cloud -- disposable -- and that's got many worried that the value of music has become as fleeting and intangible as the stream over which it's delivered. It's what happens, says ex-Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, "when every part of your life has a capacity to be vaporized."
It's amidst this disposable culture that Apple took the unprecedented move of adding U2's latest album, "Songs of Innocence," to half a billion iTunes users' libraries. People were pissed. I'm talking some truly next level Twitter outrage last week. You'd think Tim Cook had penned a Peter Shih-style Medium post about how much he hates poor people. Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz said it was "no different from a rape or a murder, but with even less legs." iOS developer Dan Wineman* was more subdued, tweeting, "Evolution of music sales: 1. Pay a lot 2. Pay a little 3. Pay anything 4. OK fine, just pay once a month 5. Fuck you, now you own a U2 album."
I'm empathic toward the outrage -- I just didn't feel much of it myself. And it's not because I like U2 (I don't). To me it wasn't so different from when that doofy David Byrne song "Like Humans Do" came pre-loaded on every Windows computer in the early 2000s. Maybe if Apple had forced an album on me from a band I hate more viscerally (like the Eagles) I would've cared more. But to be honest, the real source of my apathy was that I couldn't remember the last time I even opened iTunes, on my computer or on my phone -- like many Americans, I use streaming music services almost exclusively. Of course, there are still gigabytes upon gigabytes of music on one of my external hard drives. But who has the need or space to have all that on a phone or computer?
After reading Honan's piece I began to understand why some people were outraged. The iPod is on its way out, and the entire album format may not be far behind. And yet, people still care about having a self-curated library of songs. They still think of it as a reflection of their identity. Otherwise, the feeling of betrayal at having a corporation slot an album into your music library against your will likely would not have been so palpable.
In reading Honan's elegant description of the iPod revolution, you get a sense of the power that expressing your personal tastes through a music collection has -- and that's not going to go away. First it was a shelf of vinyl records, next it was a CD rack, and then it was an iPod library. We're still figuring out what it's going to be next -- it will likely take the form of playlists or even custom remixes and mashups of popular tracks -- and the streaming music services are tinkering with the best ways for listeners to share these playlists with one another.
This is all good news for musicians like Chamberlin who worry that the actual product of music, now that it's ubiquitous, effortlessly accessible, and even less tangible than an MP3, has become little more than a commodity. That people were so outraged that their music libraries, and thus the very core of their identities, were sullied by a lackluster offering from an aging rock band, is proof that fans still have an intimate relationship with their favorite bands (and an active distaste for their least favorites). They may not express it by buying an album or a T-shirt anymore. And for many, live shows have become more about the drugs and the culture and the lightshows than the artist onstage.
But fans still feel it. Now platforms just need to figure out how to harness it.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]
- [an earlier version of this post misspelled Dan Wineman's name]