The release of a new U2 album for free to 500 million iTunes users has become arguably the biggest music story of the year. I'm surprised that a) they managed to keep it (relatively) secret up to the moment it was announced, and b) nobody has tried to spin "Songs of Innocence" into the "biggest" or "fastest" "selling" album of all time.
A multi-billion dollar corporation has joined with a band of megamultimillionaires to pull an end around the music industry and force their product onto consumers who may not even want it. It certainly sounds bad to have it phrased it like that. Is this kind of practice bad for music fans, as virtually every music critic has been claiming? I don't see how one could argue otherwise. But it is really all that different than what has already been going on? Has a significant line been crossed here? I'm not convinced of that.
In my post about Lady Gaga at SXSW, I wrote that mainstream music seems to be heading toward a model where a small number of wealthy patrons (or companies) will support the work of an equally small number of artists. The arts thrived with this type of funding structure for centuries. Did it provide work opportunities to anyone other than a select few? Did it give consumers (i.e. extremely wealthy people in the proper social circles) much choice about what to listen to? No. But a small number of excellent artists were able to thrive and produce meaningful work.
We're going to be left with a very small number of obscenely funded artists at the top of the food chain, and a huge number of talented people barely able to make a living in music. The music of the rich will be well preserved and easily tracked down by future generations, and the music of the folkspeople will be fractured into so many mini-scenes that it'll remain difficult to collect and process, with or without the internet.
In fact, this is more or less the setup we already have, except that the wealthy patrons are the major labels, who for the time being can fund a relatively large number of artists each (but a much smaller number of artists than they did a generation ago). The majors seem destined to die out within another generation, which will separate the wheat from the chaff even further. Music will be distributed in increasingly creative ways, but seeing bands live on tour may be more difficult unless they're funded by the right sponsors looking to leech off their cred. Rock and pop might have to start taking cues from EDM -- the selling point is the DJ and the party atmosphere first, and the music they actually play comes second.