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Bono Helped Kill an Industry (and Then Celebrated)

It was on the day of the largest album launch in history, when the biggest rock band on the planet may have surrendered the music industry to its grave, that U2 frontman Bono declared “music is a sacrament.”  The melodies that Plato said give “flight to the imagination” have value, embody values, and transcend value. But the truth is also more prosaic. Don’t get me wrong, Bono said, “We were paid.”

U2’s “Songs of Innocence” freely appeared last week in the music libraries of over 500 million Apple iTunes subscribers, descending like manna from Cupertino. In much the same way that Jay-Z paired with Samsung for the release of “Magna Carta, Holy Grail” and Beyonce with iTunes for her latest album, U2 paired a strategic alliance with serendipitous marketing to rake in hefty revenues. The band, already worth nearly a billion dollars, made a reported $30 million from Apple and are enjoying prominent placement in a $100 million marketing push. These magnificent sums, though, are a sweet backdrop to a trade gone sour.

This year alone, album sales in America have declined nearly 15 percent from record lows the year before. Each new floor has become a ceiling for the industry, year-in and year-out. Becoming the number one album in America means selling as much as a niche act would in the 1990s. In Bono’s view, “The charts are broken.”

We are in the age of the streaming playlist. We pick and choose songs from the cloud at will rather than buying them together in encased albums. Music is no longer delivered according to a pre-set menu but by an a la carte buffet. Stripped out along the way are all of the immense production costs that come with physical album production. Music is instead reduced to elemental ones and zeros produced at a vanishing marginal cost. Obtaining these files costs anywhere from a buck twenty-nine apiece to the time spent listening to an ad. And that’s assuming the files are obtained legally.

What U2 has done is make the album a loss leader for its real business: touring and merchandising. While album sales have declined, other revenue streams have picked up the slack and even surpassed it. Live concert revenue has grown by 60 percent since 2000, even as retail music revenue has fallen by 41 percent.

By giving away “Songs of Innocence,” U2 is able to market itself to a wide swathe of the music market in order to drum up business when it hits the road. It’s also declaring that albums are barely worth being made in the first place, and a tech company is better for distribution and marketing than the music labels.

“Music gives expression to beauty and faith best in a system in which it has worth.”

Music acts originally functioned as employees, then later as contractors. They were, for all intents and purposes, owned by their label. Now bands act as entrepreneurs who solicit specialized vendors to handle their product lines. It’s cheaper upfront and bands stand to make more money anyway. In the case of U2, the band can handle recording in-house, have Apple effectively do marketing and distribution, and contract with promoter Live Nation to deal the touring. And the band is not alone. Even the smallest acts are seeing that success is now dependent on their hustle and ingenuity rather than cashing in with a major label who may usher them to greatness.

If U2 cannot see the need to charge money for its album or distribute its music to retail outlets, then you begin to see why music labels are worried. Packaging and distributing music is their bread and butter. It would be like Cargill giving away food from its farms because it made more money from their petting zoos. If I were Safeway, I’d be worried.

This is why “Songs of Innocence” is the sound of creative destruction. The decline of the traditional music industry did not begin with U2 nor will it end there, but the largest music giveaway in history may mark its final turn toward inexorable decline. How ironic it is that the act of creation leads to destruction, even while things are being made anew.

And it’s here that we come back to Bono’s words. Amid so much disruption, he hinted at the truth behind the music. Bono considered his work a sacrament of value. When he looked at free enterprise in its rawest form embracing his craft of music, he saw something of worth and transcendent value. Here perhaps is U2’s greatest lesson.

I believe music is the exhale of creation. It speaks to the sacred and holy as a true echo of God’s good work. Yet so does every good endeavor. Music simply traces bright lines around our labor in the shadow of His creation, lines that draw upward to our Creator. These things of beauty shine brighter in that darkened world; we long for them, even knowing that it’s really our hearts longing for the eternal.

While glory remains the currency of everlasting hope, we have found ways to express similar value in our everyday existence. Our system of free enterprise rewards the creativity that is the call of creation itself. Which is why for Bono, music’s transcendent nature is bound up in its monetary value. Music gives expression to beauty and faith best in a system in which it has worth.

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