Those doe eyed musicians who believe that their art is honest and pure and will overwhelm the world with its idealism have no idea how badly the music game is rigged against them. The U2 deal with Apple is a re-invention of the bait ‘n’ switch that the record labels used to do at retail.

Charlie Brown

Wanna know why Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ was the biggest selling album of all time? Because Epic/CBS made a deal with retailers to wholesale copies to them at a discount. “If you buy copies of our poorest selling titles at 100% wholesale, we will give you 20, 30, 40 or 100 EXTRA copies of the Michael Jackson album to sell…for free.”


Retailers would put the Jackson album on the rack at grossly reduced prices and make nearly 500% profit and still have the option of returning the poor selling titles for full refund. Fact was many of the artists with zero chance of ‘making it’ were sometimes signed to the labels just to be used as bargaining chips in these standardized backroom deals. The consumer thought they were getting a good deal at retail while every artist – except the featured star – was getting shafted.

U2 advert
This practice worked up until about 2005 when the retailers, hurting from the supposed P2P Napster downloading mania, began to double cross the labels – taking the huge free discount on star titles just like they always had but rather than passing the value onto the consumer, instead, tried to sell the albums at full price. The problem was the consumer wasn’t biting because they were looking for a bargain…so no one was selling ANYTHING and stock was being sent back to the labels leading to retailers bitching about diminishing sales. They created the problem that crushed them. It had nothing to do with illegal downloading and everything to do with artificially inflating sticker prices. It might work in the diamond jewelry business, but it doesn’t work in the music biz.

So here we are more than a decade farther along and no smarter than before as an industry. The labels kicked the can down the road hoping that the myriad problems with consumer confidence could be resolved by ignoring the fact that they exist at all. Labels are still working on a mindnumbingly archaic scheduling system – releasing “singles” (a term that really needs to be put out of its misery) months in advance of full albums. Albums that no one gives a shit about when they finally get released – the life span of which is now the equivalent of how long it takes someone to download it from iTunes and then delete it the next week to make room for the next frivolous, and fluff laden bit of audio spunk in the pipeline.

And for the most part music fans are going elsewhere. They’re going to the deep corners of the internet (or back to vinyl) to find something, anything, with a soul and one with an actual face value. That puts the responsibility of carrying the music industry over this gluttonous and bloated economic tailspin squarely on the shoulders of those aforementioned independent artists with stars in their eyes and hipsterdom in their pants.

But there’s a new sheriff in town. One that rode in to fill the void left by the record labels over the last decade and can get the music to the masses as a ubiquitous distributor. It’s iTunes. They re-wrote the book on retail pricing, digital distribution and accessibility of music. It’s arguably the biggest music library in the history of the world. And they control the world now – even dictating to the major labels themselves what will be carried and for how much.

U2 Gramophone
Through aggregate deals with smaller online networks such as The Orchard, TuneCore, CDBaby and others, Little Jimmy The Singer from Spokane, Washington can now have his music available there as well. It’s an equal opportunity platform for 30,000,000 artists. But Jimmy isn’t worried about competing with them. Suddenly, this week, Jimmy and his 30,000,000 competitors got bent out of shape because U2 rigged the game and bought their way into the digital devices of 500 million people worldwide on the back of the Apple beast. The music user got U2’s new album for free. And it sent shock waves through garages and basements everywhere.

U2 was reportedly paid enough money by the Apple corporation to buy Queen Elizabeth a new island in the South Pacific…and in several other locations around the world. And have enough money left over to pay all the taxes they’ve been dodging for 20 years.

Artists are now crying foul. The U2 deal is a game changer, they say. They’ve raised the bar/moved the line/re-wrote the cliché. The optics is that it has further devalued music. Well, here’s a little history lesson my poor delusional music pals:


Music was devalued long before Napster. It happened when Columbia House paid pennies on royalties for major label licenses that you got a dozen of for a fucking DOLLAR! You know what the artist got for those tens of millions of dollar sales? NOTHING. It wasn’t counted as a royalty against their unrecouped expenses – but the label got a percentage of Columbia House’s administrative fee and the two partners laughed all the way to the bank. The artist got a gold record to hang on his wall as a consolation prize.

Despite this, artists continued to survive after being bent over and dry humped. And no one said shit about it. Beer companies were doing it in the 1990s with EPs of Canadian rock bands stuffed into tens of thousands of cases of beer. The labels got paid. The artists got ‘exposure’. The customer paid for the beer and got the disc for free.

Classic Rock

In the mid-2000s Prince and Ray Davies of the Kinks deals with daily British newspapers to have their new albums given away with copies of the print editions. They were paid to do so. The customer bought the paper and got the disc free. In August Toronto’s The Trews made the exact same deal with Classic Rock magazine in  the UK for their new self-titled album. Buy the magazine, get the music for FREE. And, again, the music industry has carried on…and it has not affected you, Little Jimmy The Singer, one iota.

So, if you think the U2 album was free then you haven’t considered the 7500% mark up at retail for the very device consumers need to just listen to the album in the first place. Nothing is FREE. How the music has been monetized has changed – that’s all.

Yes, U2 drew a new line in the sand – one that runs parallel but nowhere near yours. If you think this affects you then you also believe that U2 is your competition. They are not…anymore than Kanye or Katy Perry is. You’re not a brand. You’re not an institution and you certainly aren’t a corporate bargaining chip.

Getting paid to make music is a modern construct. Up until the Rock ‘n Roll era people were paid to perform LIVE….and before that they were ‘kept’ by patrons who paid them a stipend to create their works on demand. Beethoven and Mozart, among others, were workers for hire. So, for God’s sake, stop blaming corporations for your inability to make a living selling your music. The fact that you think you ever could means you weren’t paying attention to what was really going on out there in the first place. Get on with making your music and doing what you can to sell it….or not. And if you’re really still bent out of shape about U2 residing on your iPhone here’s how you can get rid of the whole band:



Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com


  1. Glen (aka Barney Rubble) Says:

    Man, Jaimie, if no one ever thought they could ever make a living (or at least part of it) from music sales, we’d probably have NO bands in the pantheon of classic rock: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan et al would simply have told the labels, “Sod it!” and focused on playing live. But guess what… they believed. And they succeeded. Maybe a minority amongst masses of bands and musicians… but once upon a time, they were indie artists looking for a label as well.

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