OPINION COLUMNS

iPhones, iWatches and free music

By Jake Harris | Published Saturday, September 13, 2014
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Apple’s been in the news a lot lately. First, it was the whole iCloud-leaked celebrity photos business, now it’s the latest iPhones and the iWatch.

Jake Harris

Jake Harris

But there’s something else that was a bit more subtle (if you can call it that) going on in the background on Tuesday. Amid the phones, watches and other software update announcements at its September meeting, the tech giant released Irish rock band U2’s latest album for free on its iTunes service – putting the new music into the hands of 500 million iTunes users whether they wanted it or not.

This is a new record for the most people to own any album at once, and will top record sales records for years to come, although the whole data dump business model might be considered cheating, just a bit.

The album, titled “Songs of Innocence,” is actually pretty good. It’s happier than some of U2’s other efforts, and it tackles wide-spanning themes like religion, loss, love, grief and growing up. But that’s not the point.

The point is, this was anything but an artistic decision – it was one of the more calculated business moves the band has ever made. It’s not the first time the band has worked with Apple, either. They’ve done commercials with them and even released a special U2 version of the iPod to boost their Product (RED) charity that helps fight AIDS in Africa.

But the album, which can be available for regular download and physical purchase Oct. 14, was just given away and put in the hands of everyone with an iTunes account, which, in the year 2014, is a whole lot of people – more than 500 million in 119 countries.

I’m not complaining; I like free music just as much as the next guy, and I like U2 enough to have been mildly interested when I found the album lurking in my library Tuesday night. But there lies the rub.

Apple’s “Songs of Innocence” ad on its website says, “This is the biggest album release in music history and one more way we’re moving music forward.”

And that’s true. Other musicians have released albums in similar ways, but not at the same corporate level. This is a step above Jay-Z releasing his latest album pre-loaded on a cell phone, and a few steps above Radiohead putting out an album through a “pay-what-you-want” system online.

This is moving the music industry forward, if only to reward Apple customers for simply being Apple customers,

It’s also moving the music industry forward by making it more intrusive.

Sure, if I didn’t like the album, I could delete it and never hear it again, but something tells me that if this strategy works, Apple’s going to continue using the free download thing with whatever band it chooses, with no choice from the consumer. Basically, Apple is becoming Skynet.

In a time when Internet privacy is becoming more and more of a hot-button issue, Apple just installed music on its customers’ computers in the equivalent of a software update. And nobody really reads the terms and conditions page every time they update iTunes, so it’s unlikely that a lot of customers know, or care, about the power that Apple has over its accounts.

But I’ll quit babbling. I’ve got some free music to go listen to.

Jake Harris is a reporter for the Messenger.

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