There’s been a lot of complaining and moaning about Apple putting a free, not-so-good U2 album in 100 million iTunes accounts. It’s a true First World problem we have, that so many people have been subjected to music they don’t want. Music consumers just have too much to complain about.
But from the distribution perspective, the free U2 album is an incredible portent of what’s to come in media as well as the growing power of big distributors. Consider these facts:
- Apple distributed content in a “friction-free” manner to hundreds of millions of consumers.
- The U2 album (regardless of how good it might be) is exclusively available on iTunes for one month.
- The amount of buzz about the album (regardless of how good it might be) is enormous.
- The number of companies with this breadth of distribution is limited to only a handful (Apple, Amazon, Pandora).
Push distribution is not new, but consumers tend to have very personal relationships with their curated lists of media (“What’s on your iPod?”), which makes the iTunes-U2 deal very different from others. A media distributor’s ability to monkey with playlists is very powerful indeed. Philip Ingelbrecht at TechCrunch adeptly lays out how Apple has single-handedly elevated the concept of “windowing”, where new digital media is made available only on certain distribution platforms for limited periods, drawing new customers who demand particular content. But there’s another aspect here too: Pushing content at people who would never have been otherwise aware of it.
What if a video recording of the President detailing how Obamacare works was pushed to your iTunes playlist? What if it was a campaign video? What if Aerosmith decided to resuscitate their career by pushing a new album to everyone in the US for a week? What if This American Life pushed an episode?
What if you signed up for “Interesting Music” and Apple or Pandora pushed new content to you regularly? What if 60 Minutes pushed out a devastating report on the NFL on the Friday before the Super Bowl?
You wouldn’t have to watch or listen to it. But it would be there. In your playlist. You could ignore it, or listen to/watch it.
This, in digital form, is basically the power newspapers used to have when they landed on everyone’s doorstep. You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there, and you could see them.