Saturday, September 13, 2014

Minor Annoyance

I was mooching around the Internet the other day, bored and between work duties and kind of desultorily researching my upcoming vacation without enough information or money to actually do anything about it, when I picked up a kind of hint that my iPhone and iPad had something on them that I didn't want there. And sure enough, they did.

On the one hand, pretty nifty graphics. On the other hand, I didn't ask for this. Nor, to be honest, would I have.

In case you've been asleep this week, or in case you use iTunes as little as I do these days (ie, never, now that I no longer have neighbors who'll bust me for playing music through speakers after 10pm), if you have an Apple device, you've got it, too. I have no idea what your reaction will be, but I got mad.

A bit of history is in order here. Back in 1968, I started to write record reviews for Rolling Stone. In order to make sure I could keep in touch with what the labels were putting out, their record review editor, Greil Marcus, called some record labels and I got put on their mailing lists for pop music. Stuff began to appear in my mailbox before it appeared in my college bookstore's record section, which was a big outlet for testing new releases. I got Cream's Wheels of Fire from Atlantic, and Waiting For the Electrician Or Someone Like Him, by the Firesign Theater. This was memorable because it was a record that, from its cover, I'd never have bought, and covers were about all anyone had to go on back then. One night, I put it on and a whole new world opened to me: comedy made with all the resources of the modern recording studio, just like a new Beatles album or something.

I got used to free albums pretty quickly. Arguments that people who got free albums were more inclined to like them than if they'd paid for them were hogwash: with $4.98 invested in a record, you had $4.98 worth of reasons to consider that a good investment. I had no investment in a free piece of plastic, and if it knocked me out, all to the good. And it kept me abreast of what proved to be an oncoming tide of music: it seems quaint nowadays, but it was once possible to keep up with pretty much every album that came out. Or every rock album, at any rate, and more and more they were becoming the majority of what was released.

Many times I've told the story of what I don't want to call a tipping point: Rolling Stone had assigned me the new Beatles album, Abbey Road, for review. Weird as it seems, there were copies all over the country in warehouses, waiting for the release date a couple of weeks later. A promo man in Cincinnati who worked in one of those warehouses was asked to hand-deliver my copy. His main gig was for Elektra Records, though, so he brought that month's Elektra stuff with him, too: albums by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Ars Nova, Rhinoceros, Wild Thing, and one the guy candidly told me was awful, so awful he drew on the cover. "These guys are morons," he said. "I have no idea why we signed them." They were the Stooges.

However, let us not forget Wild Thing.
It was like the past (the Beatles audibly falling apart), the present (a lot of pretension, inept rock masquerading as art), and the future (The Stooges was the only album in the pile that got to me viscerally, and I reviewed it, too, for Rolling Stone) all in one neat pile of vinyl.

The great thing about free records is that, once they started flowing in and once some of them proved to be duds, you could almost always find someone to give you a buck or two for them. With what writing about them would turn out to pay, this was a valuable asset.

Of course, this was physical product. I could hold it in my hand, hand it to you to hold, mail it to a friend, stack it in the corner. True, I hadn't specifically asked for most of it, but some of it I was glad to have. It took up an awful lot of room, but that was no big thing. (Well, until I had to move, at least).

The U2 situation is completely different, and needs to be addressed in ways I don't see it being addressed. Most of what I've seen has been "Man, I don't want an album by these guys because they suck!" type of thing, or else "Hey, I played it and liked it a lot!"

That's not the issue.

First, it's not taking up space on your device. What you've been given is the opportunity to download the album for free until October 13. I get links like that every day, since there are still publicists out there who think I'm interested in contemporary rock music, which I'm not. But I have to take the action to click on the link, deliver the product to my desktop, and then integrate it with my iTunes if I so see fit. I think that's fair.

What's not fair is deceptively placing that link on my device without my consent. I can (and do) ignore those links in the press releases. I can't ignore the existence of something I'd never ever want on my device. And I wonder how many people innocently click on the link and download this album, just out of curiosity. Apple, one reads, spent $100 million for the rights to do this, a nice payday for the corporation that is U2. How many people did this? It's important to know: an industry source I trust claims that their last album was downloaded 22,000 times. Yup: no missing zeroes there. Twenty-two thousand. No doubt the people who downloaded it paid for it, and no doubt some percentage of them played it for a while, decided they could live without it (or most of it) and deleted it (or most of it) from their devices. I'm sure that out of the majority of consumers who bought the album as physical product some traded theirs for something else, sold them at garage sales, and the like. In all cases, this is the consumer's right: you made the choice to own the music and you make the choice to do what you will with it, even something technically illegal. Or returning it to the electronic chaos.

The economics of giving music away gives me a headache, and I don't want to discuss it. The blitherers who talk about how musicians should make their money with live appearances ought to do a four-month tour of the U.S. and Canada in an Econoline van and get back to me. Extra points if you're over 45. And yes, someone sent me that article about Joe Ely and his long-standing love affair with Apple Computers (ever heard his album Hi Res?), and no, much as I love Joe, I wouldn't have been any happier if it had been his new album that was forcibly inserted on my devices. (I would, however, have been very happy for him and Sharon if they managed to get $100 million out of Apple. Hell, Sharon's never going to make that much from her posole, good as it is).

What this is about goes to the core of owning these devices in the first place. We give certain entities -- Apple Computer, most importantly -- access to them so that they can make them better: Apple constantly provides updates to the operating system, for instance, that result in better functioning and stronger security. They improve (or, well, let's just say for the sake of argument they're improvements) the various applications like Mail and Safari that come with the computers and let us know they're available. We can choose not to upgrade, and sometimes that's the right choice. What Apple is not doing is slapping a copy of Angry Birds, for instance, on our devices, giving us trial e-subscriptions to Us magazine. Some of us choose not to put games on our devices. Some of us don't care about the "content" in Us.

We all have the choice to configure our devices as we wish, which is how it should be. We choose what software to put on them, what content. The autonomy this technological revolution we're living through is, in fact, liberating, even when it doesn't seem that way at the hands of some political and religious organizations. But those entities aren't forcing themselves on us. U2 is.

I have been denied a choice. Yes, it seems easy enough to rid your device of this stupid thing, yet I scrupulously followed the instructions for erasing it from my devicesyesterday and as of a minute ago, it's still on all three -- computer, iPhone, iPad. I don't like the precedent. I don't like U2, either, but that's not what this is about.

Apple should be ashamed of itself and it should apologize for this breach of privacy.

But of course it won't be, and it won't. Welcome to the oligarchy, consumer tool.


  1. It's on mine. I didnt know it. I want it off. How??? I fondly remember you sending me your vinyl copy of Dr Jawn's GUMBO back in 71 ?? When I lived in Mendocino and was was culturally bereft. Thanks ED.

  2. back in the early 70s, am I correct in remembering that you set a limit of 500 albums in your possession at any one time... and if you wanted to keep, say the new doug sahm, you had to discard one album from your collection? was that you? or lester?

  3. Here are two links to instructions for removing the ewe-too pablum from your device(s)

  4. If I were you I'd more upset that Amazon, Apple et al. can erase things from your devices than that they can add some.

  5. I used to get my review albums at a post office box a few doors down from Larua’s Mexicateria on University Blvd. near the Main Gate at the University of Arizona. This was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Normally I’d check my around 11:30 or noon, rip open the wrapping, sneer at the record, and take it down to Larua’s where the late Brad Hultquist, Larua’s owner, would trade me lunch for an LP. I miss Brad.


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