When U2’s most recent album (before Tuesday anyway) was met with lacklustre sales, many critics claimed that the band was losing popularity. However, while this might have been partially true, the more prominent trend was that album sales have been dramatically declining in popularity, in the face of changing consumption habits. Now, following the band’s dramatic free giveaway of their new album Songs of Innocence at Apple’s keynote event, the inevitable may have finally been accepted: album sales are dead.
If album sales are dead, what killed them?
But if they are dead, what killed them? While it probably accounts for some of the decline, the primary culprit here is not illegal downloads, but rather online music streaming. Sites like Spotify, Pandora, Last.fm and Soundcloud are the primary places which a new generation goes to listen to their favourite tunes, and these sites more and more are becoming the primary income stream from which artists make money off their music.
Despite this, the amount of money which artists make off streaming, is generally much less than that which they would have made previously off direct music sales. This is due to the fact that these sites basically put another 3rd party between the artist and listener. While before we had artists, record labels, and their customers, we now have artists, labels, streaming sites and then finally the consumer.
So how does U2’s free giveaway fit into this? Well as it turns out artists more often than not now supplement their small streaming incomes with increasingly large tours, concerts and of course merchandise sales. The amount of money which can be made from these ventures is more often not linked directly to the number of people who have heard (and thus are more likely to like) an artist’s music. And of course there is no better way to get everyone to hear your music than to give it away for free.
U2 realised that the amount of money that it can make through increased tour attendance, streaming numbers and merchandising would amount to much more than it would lose through a free album giveaway. While U2 was probably given some form of monetary incentive from Apple in order to give away so much of its music, we should expect other artists doing this into the future, no so much out of charity, but out of economic necessity.
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