Bono reflects on iTunes free U2 album controversy: ‘Critics might accuse me of overreach. It is’

Download copy of U2’s album ‘Songs of Innocence’ was given away for free 500 million iTunes Store users

Isobel Lewis
Saturday 22 October 2022 14:29 BST
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Bono has said that he takes full responsibility for the 2014 marketing disaster that saw U2’s latest album automatically downloaded onto the devices of 500 million iTunes users.

In September 2014, copies of U2’s album Songs of Innocence were given away for free to millions of iTunes account holders across the world, causing significant backlash.

Frontman Bono apologised at the time, saying: “I had this beautiful idea and we kind of got carried away with ourselves.”

In an extract from his forthcoming memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono published in The Guardian, Bono wrote about the band’s long-standing relationship with Apple.

It stems from the group meeting Steve Jobs in 2004, when the Apple co-founder refused to pay them in Apple stock for their music to be used in an iPod advert.

10 years later, Bono went to CEO Tim Cook with the idea to give away their new album Songs of Innocence.

“‘You want to give this music away free?’” Bono recalled Cook responding. “‘But the whole point of what we’re trying to do at Apple is to not give away music free. The point is to make sure musicians get paid.’

“‘No,’” I said, “‘I don’t think we give it away free. I think you pay us for it, and then you give it away free, as a gift to people. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?... I think we should give it away to everybody. I mean, it’s their choice whether they want to listen to it.’”

U2 with Tim Cook (left)

Bono wrote: “See what just happened? You might call it vaunting ambition. Or vaulting. Critics might accuse me of overreach. It is.

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“What was the worst that could happen? It would be like junk mail. Wouldn’t it? Like taking our bottle of milk and leaving it on the doorstep of every house in the neighbourhood. Not. Quite. True.”

He continued: “On 9 September 2014, we didn’t just put our bottle of milk at the door but in every fridge in every house in town. In some cases we poured it on to the good people’s cornflakes. And some people like to pour their own milk. And others are lactose intolerant.”

Bono stressed that he was the one responsible for the marketing move – “not Guy O, not Edge, not Adam, not Larry, not Tim Cook, not Eddy Cue”.

The album was downloaded onto devices of iTunes customers around the world as soon as it was announced

“At first I thought this was just an internet squall. We were Santa Claus and we’d knocked a few bricks out as we went down the chimney with our bag of songs,” he wrote.

“But quite quickly we realised we’d bumped into a serious discussion about the access of big tech to our lives. The part of me that will always be punk rock thought this was exactly what the Clash would do. Subversive. But subversive is hard to claim when you’re working with a company that’s about to be the biggest on Earth.

“We’d learned a lesson, but we’d have to be careful where we would tread for some time. It was not just a banana skin. It was a landmine.”

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