Let’s go way back in time – to 2014 and recall a fiasco that’s been making the news again due to an upcoming memoir.
The memoir in question is from Bono, the singer of U2. And the fiasco is the 2014 deployment of the U2 album Songs Of Innocence, which saw the iTunes platform distribute the album for free to all users. What seemed like a great idea to Bono turned out to be a complete shitshow, as many iTunes users flipped out over having something distributed to them without them asking. In cases where users had automatic downloads set up, the album would load on devices and even start playing without the users knowing about it until it was too late.
As it turns out, the “gift” of the U2 album wasn’t free – Apple actually paid U2 for it. And all of this was at the suggestion of Bono. This Ultimate Classic Rock article outlines what Bono stated in his book about the incident – he pitched the idea to Tim Cook, who was against the concept of giving away music. Somehow, Bono got Cook to agree to actually buy the album from U2 and then send it out to all users for distribution. It’s not certain exactly how much Apple paid for the album but that was a clever idea on Bono’s part to pocket a bit of cash out of the deal.
The album’s release did not go over well. People were mad – some were upset purely at the thought of having a U2 album on their devices at all. Others hit on what was the likely core of the issue – the idea of tech companies just pushing out whatever they want to their users. While the U2 album may not have been a massive breach of privacy by big tech compared to other stuff, it did raise flags with many people.
Artists were also unhappy about the push – they felt that the album distribution devalued music. It was the same argument Tim Cook initially made. It’s an interesting thing to look at, especially in the wake of streaming taking over the concept of buying digital music. It was a big argument at the time, but the idea of the digital marketplace was about to be obsolete anyway.
In retrospect, Bono has used the opportunity afforded in his memoir to take responsibility for the album snafu. While greater sins have been committed for sure, this didn’t wind up being good PR for U2 or Apple when it happened. I doubt Bono’s contrition really matters much in the end, the issue is eight years old now and a lot has happened since then, but it’s cool he can own up to it.
And it’s worth noting that not everyone was mad about it – plenty of people gladly took the freebie, and over the years people have told stories of getting new Apple devices and playing the only thing in their libraries, which was this album. There was some measure of success in the distribution method.
For me personally the U2 album wasn’t a big deal. I think the band’s ’80’s stuff is cool and all but I’m not really a true fan of the band and I haven’t listened to them in a dog’s age. I did use iTunes at the time and I simply left it in my library, not downloaded to my PC or iPod. In truth I have never listened to anything on the album until I played the video for the song posted below, which was about ten minutes before writing this post.
I do understand why people had reservations about a tech company pushing stuff on people like that. But it really wasn’t my battle. On a scale of things that have happened before and since with “big tech,” the U2 album doesn’t move the needle for me. At worst, some people had an album they didn’t know or want auto-play and scare them.
It was fun to see this controversy pop up in the news again. I honestly hadn’t thought about it since it happened, and recalling the angst over the promotion is pretty cool. It’s a nothing burger in the end, at least to me, but it sure did get people stirred up.
Bono’s memoir Surrender – 40 Songs, One Story releases Tuesday, November 1st.