The end of the year is approaching, and with it countless wrap-up posts and lists from every music blog on the internet. You’ll almost certainly see many of these year-end roundups call 2014 “the year of the ‘surprise’ album release”. After Beyoncé shook things up with her spontaneous album drop at the end of last year, this September saw the release of both U2’s new album, and an eight-song LP from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It’s easy to see the ways in which these three release strategies are similar, but their differences speak to complicated issues facing artists, fans, and distributors as the industry struggles to find steady footing in the digital age.
The most obvious similarity between these album drops is the element of surprise – all three were released with little-to-no prior promotion. In terms of popularity and market-share, the artists are all in roughly the same ballpark. The albums were all initially available only as digital downloads. And, in their own way, each was a stab in the dark at figuring out a new way to market and sell music to a consumer base that is jaded, conflicted, and capable of getting nearly everything for free.
But these three album releases also point to subtle differences in the way we consume music. And although each of them is certainly non-traditional, the only one that I would really characterize as a complete surprise was Beyoncé’s self-titled release. Among Beyoncé fans, the general impression was that she had recorded a couple of songs, mainly for promotional deals (H&M, the Super Bowl, and Pepsi), but that there was no album and might never be one. And then, in the dead of night, not only did she drop a finished 12-song album, but one accompanied by 17 high-production-value music videos (The fleet of lawyers that drew up the non-disclosure agreements for Beyoncé no doubt received nice edible arrangements at the end of the year). But Thom Yorke hinted that a new album was on the way by posting a picture of a white vinyl record to Tumblr. Based on a Rolling Stone story about U2 in 2009, fans knew that the band had at least one album’s worth of unreleased music lying around.
Once you take away the element of surprise as a similarity, you’re left with a glaring difference – one that has consumed music writers and industry workers alike. The issue at hand has to do with the value of music, the demographics of consumers, and the next big step for the industry as a whole.
Let’s go album by album. Beyoncé’s self-titled is actually less relevant than meets the eye, because while its release was a surprise, it was, in other respects, fairly traditional. The album was made available exclusively through iTunes for $15.99 initially, and was then slated for a broader release to brick-and-mortar and other online retailers. The fact that it had no prior promotion is still remarkable; it would have been a huge risk for the majority of artists, but for one as widely popular and critically lauded as Beyoncé, it paid off. The single biggest promotion for the album was the fact that there was no promotion. So beyond the fact that people didn’t know it was coming, and that it constituted a fairly large risk, there’s not much that sets this release apart from the norm.
Now we come to U2. Songs of Innocence was released at the most recent Apple press conference, during which the latest slate of Apple products were announced. CEO Tim Cook called it “the largest album release of all time”, since its release was essentially treated like an iTunes software update in that it was distributed automatically to all iTunes users. (Some have less generously referred to it as “worse than spam”).
The scale of Songs of Innocence‘s release is unprecedented for two reasons. First, in the days of physical albums, it would have been completely out of the question for any label, retailer, or label-retailer combination to distribute a record to a consumer base the size of the one enjoyed by Apple and iTunes. Second, no artist(s) have yet had the audacity to assume that every person in a consumer base that large and diverse would want their album. So to pretend like every iTunes user willingly and joyfully accepted the “gift” given them by Tim Cook and Bono is to ignore the very real fact that not all iTunes users are U2 fans. According to Apple, approximately 33 million people have accessed the album, but there have been no numbers yet on how many have deleted it or ignored it.
The other big question concerning Songs of Innocence is its price – ostensibly free, but Apple paid a significant lump sum to U2 for the album, and agreed to a promotional deal reportedly totaling $100 million. Many have expressed their concern that this deal devalues music by not asking consumers to pay for the collection of songs so generously deposited in their iCloud.
But U2 has assigned a value to their work, and it’s not an insignificant one: the unidentified lump sum plus the promotion deal amounts to a very successful sale. Not only that, but their payday has only just begun; in order to mollify non-iTunes retailers, Universal promised a deluxe album with multiple bonus tracks not available on iTunes until a later date. In order to qualify for a Grammy, the label also released a limited-edition vinyl pressing to be sold in brick-and-mortar retailers on the last day of the deadline for Grammy eligibility. To use a personal example, every U2 fan I know – and I know a lot of U2 fans – is a collector of some stripe. Be it vinyl, DVDs, box sets, or special U2-branded iPods, many U2 fans like to have just about anything the band puts out. So in addition to making bank on the deal with Apple, U2 and Universal will continue raking in dough from their already established and wildly committed fan base.
Now we come to Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. This eight-song album is available for $6 USD via BitTorrent’s “Bundle” program, which has been used by multiple other artists previously, although Thom Yorke is the first to utilize the pay-gate feature. For each sale, Thom Yorke receives 90% of the profits, while BitTorrent Inc. takes away 10%.
What BitTorrent really gets out of the deal, of course, is publicity and legitimacy. Chief Content Officer Matt Mason has made it perfectly clear that he hopes the partnership will show that BitTorrent has many legitimate, legal uses (he’s not wrong about that, although it’s undeniable that its primary cultural association is with illegal file exchange). He’s also stated that, in his mind, this deal is “exactly the opposite” of the Apple/U2 arrangement, and even goes so far as to posit that “the U2 thing is a way to encourage piracy more than anything we’re doing.” I’m not convinced that his assertion is right, but it’s true that Thom Yorke’s collaboration with BitTorrent constitutes a direct exchange with fans, rather than an indirect deal that offers the album to fans for free. BitTorrent reports that the bundle has been downloaded over a million times so far, but those numbers include the free single-and-video-only bundle also available. The number of purchased and downloaded bundles has not been disclosed.
Yorke has always positioned himself at the cutting edge of the industry, specifically with regards to how his music is sold and distributed to his fans. This particular release is meant to be a trial run. In the letter accompanying the release, Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich called it “an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around” and that “if it works, anyone can do as we have done.” It’s a calculated risk, and the risk to Yorke and Godrich is relatively small; a bigger risk would be using BitTorrent to sell a new Radiohead album. (Most fans thought the picture of the mysterious white record was hinting towards a Radiohead release). All parties to this arrangement have very little to lose, and BitTorrent stands to gain a spot as a new avenue for the legal and lucrative distribution of digital music.
The complex underlying challenge faced by Yorke, U2, Apple, and BitTorrent alike is the complicated balancing act between three groups of people: fan base, consumer base, and user base. BitTorrent’s Matt Mason has pointed out that using their platform for distribution allows access to their 170 million active users. Bono’s gift to iTunes users put Songs of Innocence in the music libraries of 800 million people. But pretending that these three groups are the same is a mistake, and one that has already backfired on Apple and U2.
Not everyone who uses iTunes wants the album, and many of those who received it free of charge never would have purchased it in the first place. Of those 170 million active BitTorrent users, surely not all are Radiohead fans, and more importantly, many are accustomed to downloading their content free of charge (Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes has already appeared on popular torrent finder The Pirate Bay, proving once again that no matter how you release something, people will still steal it).
Making the picture more complicated is the fact that not all U2 fans are iTunes users, and not all Thom Yorke devoteés use BitTorrent. The crucial formula is finding out how to make music available to the greatest number of people with the most ease and at the greatest benefit to the artist. It’s too early to tell which (if any) of these methods will prove itself to be viable for artists less in the position of Thom Yorke and U2: the position of minimal risk and potentially significant gain. The crucial fact of these various release schemes is that at this point in the industry, it is not “this has never been done before,” but rather “this is what will be done from now on.”