U2 and the Power of Scarcity

U2 Songs of Innocence

Finally, we have a global music event where we can use all those armchair forensic skills diligently acquired from hours (a disturbing amount, really) studying an infinity of episodes of “Dexter,” “Sherlock,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Orange is the New Black,” “The Killing,” and “Breaking Bad.” Any series with a bazillion episodes should come with a certificate for successfully completing the “course.” With the “Songs of Innocence” sudden global infil into everyone’s iTunes library, as if by Seal Team Six or official state mandate, we’ve been given something that everyone can use their forensic skills on: to uncover the “truth” behind Apple’s… hubris? and U2’s… arrogance? Everyone not taking their shot at Tim Cook or Bono is taking a shot at the complainers, defending their favorite genius tech visionaries, or their favorite philanthropic fashionista rockstars. It’s a slug fest. But like Olympic boxing, there won’t be any knockouts, just points and controversy.

But here’s the thing: giving away any record to most of the world for free is supposed to do… what exactly? I like free stuff. But usually the free stuff I like most is the stuff I already want, sort of, but just haven’t got the money or the access or the focus to buy for myself. I’m a record collector of the first order, which means I have a problem: rampant desire. I have a lot of records in a lot of forms, from Edison’s “Diamond Discs,” to Mastered for iTunes downloads. And the whole reason I fork over the cash everyone asks me to fork over, for these objects of my desire, is because, somewhere, in the back of my collector’s micro chip, is the code that tells me… “the shit is super rare, dude, and you better grab it now or you’ll never get one, ever, and the rest of your life will be miserable, incomplete, and dark!” That’s what my chip says, but I know the difference between an iTunes download and a Ryan Adams boxed set of live recordings pressed deep into virgin vinyl, limited to 100 sets worldwide, and sold through the artist’s barely functioning website. Scarcity, whether real or perceived, is what directly excites my collector’s chip. It makes me want.

There’s an unwritten rule in the self-help training industry that says people should pay for new ideas because if they get them for free they’ll see them as worthless, and therefore won’t change their evil ways. Same is true for therapy. The real breakthroughs don’t come when your parents pay your shrink. They come as a waterfall when you fork over the cash yourself. So here we are with a complete surprise U2 download, written, recorded, and produced DL by professionals in expensive studios. It wasn’t cheap to make, but U2 has the money to make hundreds of these things (they just don’t have the songs). And now we know from sleuthing that Apple forked over a fortune to the band (if it feels like ad hype it probably is ad hype), so the people of the earth could be given a “free” U2 download. Plus, U2 gets megatons of PR stomp for their apparent global-sized musical agenda and their inevitable next multi-year world tour (U2 is the only band that appears twice in the list of top-ten biggest-earning world tours: “360” and “Vertigo”). Money. That’s what they want. And we all give it to them.

But now what? “Songs of Innocence” is in my iTunes library. I played about 10 seconds of two songs. Yep, that’s Bono. The digital booklet has pictures of typewriter-typed lyrics and grainy B&W band pics, all very warm and retro. And as I played those few mastered-for-iTunes seconds I sort of remembered something: I’m not that into U2 anymore. We used to have a thing, but now we’re just friends. They were gods back in the day, and what they did with their music broke new ground. I’m grateful. I already showed my gratitude by collecting their vinyl and their CDs and their DVDs, and was at peace with the U2 chapter in my life. I moved on. So getting “Songs” feels a little like getting a tie for Christmas from a distant aunt I haven’t thought about in years. I wear ties I like. She’s sweet, but her choice for me just isn’t me. The tie is in my closet and eventually I’ll give it to a thrift store. So for me, U2 has become a distant aunt who gives me things she thinks I might like, but really has no idea who I am any more.

In a world where there are billions of digital songs (in 2013 Apple said they’ve sold 25 billion songs), there’s no scarcity. And without scarcity, there’s little desire. I don’t want to tear down U2, or even Apple, for dumping their download into my library. It’s not about storage space. I can even let it slide that it was a bit rude not asking me first, or letting me decide, because that’s modern life in Apple’s walled garden. It’s all just a little sad, doing what they did. It reduced a once cherished love and period of my musical development to the level of digital junk mail. I suppose if I saw “Songs of Innocence” as a vinyl LP in one of my favorite record shops I might have bought it (my collector’s chip still softly vibrates over the idea). But as junk mail, it earns a yawn, and a shrug. It’s why I’m so grateful The Beatles make me buy the White Album over and over again. Music is so much more than a new product or market penetration. It’s life.