Can Apple and U2 Save the Digital Music Download Market?

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It appears that offering (or pushing) U2’s latest album to millions of Apple users won’t be the last collaboration between the Irish rock band and the Cupertino-based company. In an exclusive interview with TIME magazine, U2 frontman Bono revealed that the band is also collaborating with Apple on a secret project to create an entirely new digital music format. According to TIME, Bono is hoping that this new digital format “will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music — whole albums as well as individual tracks.”

You may be wondering why U2 would need help selling their music if Apple is apparently willing to buy millions of copies of the band’s albums and hand them out for free. Well, much like Bono’s commendable work with various non-profit organizations, U2 isn’t just trying to help themselves, but is also trying to help other artists — especially songwriters. “Songwriters aren’t touring people,” Bono told TIME. “Cole Porter wouldn’t have sold T-shirts. Cole Porter wasn’t coming to a stadium near you.”

While Bono didn’t reveal any technical details about the new digital music format (it is a secret project, after all), he did talk about some of the new features that it will offer. “[It will be] an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens,” said Bono according to TIME via Billboard. “You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before.” Bono also hinted that U2’s next album — which is about 18 months away — will be released in the new format.



Although U2’s latest album was made available to millions of Apple users for free after the company’s media event earlier this month, the rock band is not particularly enthusiastic about the wide availability of free music or the music industry’s recent shift toward music streaming. “We went to Apple and we said, ‘Look, we’re not interested in free music,’” Bono told TIME. “’We think music is, you know, undervalued. It’s a sacrament as far as we’re concerned. Would you be interested in buying our album and then getting it to all 500 million of your iTunes accounts?’”

While it remains to be seen if the new digital music format will reignite digital music sales, Apple and U2 will definitely have their work cut out for them. According to the Nielsen Entertainment & Billboard’s 2014 Mid-Year Music Industry Report, sales of digital albums declined by 11.6 percent in the first six months of 2014 compared to the same time period last year. Meanwhile, digital track sales saw a similar 13 percent decline during the same time period.

Although piracy and the widespread availability of “free” music from sites such as YouTube may have contributed to the digital music download market’s decline, it appears that many consumers have simply shifted their music consumption to the music streaming market. According to the Nielsen Entertainment & Billboard’s 2014 Mid-Year Music Industry Report, the on-demand audio streaming market saw year-over-year growth of 50.1 percent during the first half of 2014. The long-term future of the digital download market doesn’t look much better.

According to a MIDiA Research music industry forecast report cited by Billboard, digital download revenue is expected to decline by 39 percent through 2019. The MIDiA Research report also predicted that streaming music revenue would increase by 238 percent over the same time period until it eventually accounted for 71 percent of digital music revenue and 41 percent of total music industry revenue.

While Bono may be banking on the new digital format to entice consumers to purchase music rather than streaming it or obtaining it for free, it appears that Apple is hedging its bets. The iPhone maker acquired the Beats Music service along with its purchase of Beats Electronics earlier this year and many industry watchers suspect that one of Apple’s primary reasons for acquiring the company was to obtain a readymade subscription streaming service that could bolster its ailing iTunes download business. On the other hand, considering that Apple was the company that first popularized the sale of digital music downloads with its iPod and iTunes store about 13 years ago, it’s quite possible that the company could revolutionize the music industry once again — with a little help from U2.

Follow Nathanael on Twitter (@ArnoldEtan_WSCS)

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