500 million people downloaded U2's newest album, whether they wanted to or not.
The Albums That Defined 2014 explores how this year's most influential records have shaped and reflected the wider music landscape. Today, how U2's brand partnership disguised as an album release revealed a future where corporations determine what you listen to and who gets paid for it. Or, rather, a present.
On September 9th of this year, U2’s 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, appeared on the computers and mobile devices of 500 million people, released as part of a branding tie in with Apple for the launch of their Apple Watch and iPhone 6.
It was hardly the first time we’ve seen an artist enter into a major branding effort with a corporation (Bono described this release as a “[celebration] of the ten year anniversary of [U2’s] iPod commercial”) or even the first time an artist has tied an album release to a vaguely sinister overreach by a company that makes cell phones (recall the give-away-cum-underhanded-data-mining-operation that Jay Z orchestrated with Samsung around the release of his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail), but the Songs of Innocence release felt like a raising of the stakes. And that includes the backlash against it.
In retrospect, Apple and U2 are perfect partners. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that a band and a brand with long track records of outsized self-regard and penchants for grandiose gestures would lead the charge in the continued blurring of marketing and popular music, but the near universal opprobrium heaped upon them seemed to catch them off guard. Apple was sufficiently embarrassed into creating a link that would allow users to reject their unwanted “gift,” while Bono displayed as much self-awareness as he could muster: a passive-aggressive apology delivered during a Facebook-branded Q&A session.
Bono says his main regret was that Apple’s unsolicited gift-giving was “rude.” It was, but the criticism frequently cast it as something more insidious. In thinkpieces and Twitter screeds the move was hyperbolized as an almost Orwellian intrusion, one that implied, in the words of journalist Chris Richards, “the utopian philanthrocapitalist democracy that Bono is always stumping for will also be a place where your belongings are chosen for you.” What Apple CEO Tim Cook called, “the largest album release of all time” was objectionable not because a major rock band and a major corporation engaged in a self-aggrandizing co-promotion, something we’re surely all used to by now, but because two major players in the music industry displayed just how far their reach extends.
On some level it’s perhaps unfair that Apple and U2 have been subject to such intense criticism. Just over the past year we’ve seen a broadening recognition that major brands have almost entirely annexed SXSW, the continued ascent of Spotify, a company that offered significant equity (reportedly close to 20%) to the major labels in exchange for allowing the streaming service to expand their market share while depressing royalty payments, and a protracted lawsuit in which Google-owned YouTube attempted to strong arm independent labels into accepting a cut rate deal to avoid being shut out of its new streaming service. Apple’s mistake wasn't leveraging their power and money to determine what music gets heard and by whom, but by doing so without enough guile.
In spite of all of this it seems likely that both Apple and U2 will ultimately count this exercise as a success. For U2, whose last two albums, 2004’s How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, sold 9 million and 5 million copies respectively, the 500 million people exposed to their latest effort represents a big step up, and the $100 million they were reportedly paid by Apple is likely more than they would have made from the album with a more traditional distribution model. For Apple, $100 million is a small investment, small change for the media attention it drummed up for their product launch. It doesn't hurt that it aligned them with a band who, if Rolling Stone’s recent designation of Songs of Innocence as the best album of 2014 is any indication, at least remain on the cutting edge of relevance as far as older white men are concerned.
We might not see a campaign quite like this again, but it seems all too likely these kinds of efforts will become more common in 2015.