Is what U2 did really so awful? Ever since the band showed up at Apple’s iPhone 6 launch on Tuesday and gave away its new album, “Songs of Innocence,” to 500 million iTunes users, I’ve read commentary after commentary about how horrible they are.
My Facebook page has been deluged with discussions about the new album and my friends can’t seem to decide what they’re maddest about but it seems to be down to these five things:
*U2 gave its new album away by inserting itself into people’s iTunes library
*Bono is a blowhard
*They hate U2 and see this as the latest craven move from a band that cares more about getting attention then making good music
*They think the new album is horrible (read my review here)
*They really can’t stand that Bono invokes both Joey Ramone’s and Joe Strummer’s names in a pitiful attempt to align U2 with these far superior artists who would never have done anything as commercial as get in bed with Apple.
The Washington Post called U2’s ploy “disgusting,” because the new album arrived in iTunes’ users inboxes like an uninvited guest, just lurking, mocking them. Other journalists have brought up that the move devalues music by setting the price at free (In a total misunderstanding of this point, U2’s manager Guy Oseary has pointed out that U2 did not give the music away for free: Apple paid them dearly for it.) I’ve even seen arguments that Apple completely bungled the iPhone 6 launch because all people are talking about is the U2 album and not that there’s a new iPhone 6 and watch. Really? I didn’t even pay attention and I totally am able to grasp the fact that there are two new iPhone 6s coming and the iWatch. Do other journalists really think people are so stupid that they can’t grasp more than one takeaway from a product launch?
So here are a few thoughts of my own two days after the incident.
In one way, U2’s pact with Apple was a complete success: The band wanted people to know they have new music out and they have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in free publicity touting the new album. Even the bad press is still alerting folks that there’s a new U2 album out there. Plus, there’s now a TV commercial advertising the album that Apple has paid for which some reports value at $100 million. U2 and Apple have a long history of being in bed together: in 2004, Apple created a U2 iPod (remember them?) that had more than 400 U2 tracks available for purchase.
It’s hard for a band like U2 to get attention for new music otherwise. They released two songs earlier this year—neither one of which is on the new album— and they gained little traction. As part of rock’s greying old men club, U2 isn’t likely have a huge hit at radio these days unless it collaborates with Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea. Their last album, 2009's "No Line On The Horizon," sold 484,000 in its first week. There's likely no way that "Songs of Innocence" would have hit that number given the continuing downward spiral in album sales, so the band won't have to face humiliating first week numbers (The album comes out at a paid price the second week of October).
I don’t blame them for dropping their new music this way. First off, they are one of the world’s biggest rock acts— and as their sold out tours show—still have a faithful following. There aren’t that many acts that iTunes would have found valuable to get in bed with, so that says something about U2’s enduring popularity. But what seems to bother so many critics is that U2 so badly wants attention in a way that seems unseemly and desperate. That doesn't bother me. Most artists make music to be heard. U2 has never ever been about the small gesture. Ever. This might bother me if the move seemed out of character for U2, but it doesn't.
The release does raise one serious question: Should iTunes be able to drop anything into my “Purchased” box anytime it wants to, regardless of whether I choose to download it or not? In terms of facility of use, that was the easiest way to have someone download it, but I’m not sure I’d want to see it be a method employed often.
Worst case scenario? U2 fans get the new album for free. Plus, there may be some younger iTunes users who don’t care about U2, but since the album is waiting there for them to download at the push of a button, they will check it out. As far as the heat U2 is getting from critics, they can soothe themselves by the soft landing their fat wallets afford.
What to watch for now is the adoption rate. Billboard reported that in the first 24 hours, 200,000 people downloaded the album. That is a paltry number if it is indeed available to 500 million. U2’s label, Interscope, says that number is wrong, but didn’t provide any figures. If people don’t care enough to even check it out for free, then that begins to be a much bigger issue for U2 and one that the band is supremely aware of. Bono has said that the band needed to find a way to stay relevant and the iTunes giveaway was a way to stand out. However, the way any act does that it through making great music. No gimmick will make a band seem relevant for one second longer if the music isn’t there…