Free U2 album: How the most generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster

A free album on iTunes: what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as U2 and Apple have discovered

Adam Sherwin
Monday 22 September 2014 09:01 BST
Apple chief Tim Cook (in blue shirt) with (from left) The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr, Bono
and Adam Clayton of U2 at the iPhone 6 launch
Apple chief Tim Cook (in blue shirt) with (from left) The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr, Bono and Adam Clayton of U2 at the iPhone 6 launch

“Wasn’t that the most incredible single you ever heard?,” enthused Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, after U2 made a surprise appearance at the California unveiling of the iPhone 6. “We would love a whole album of that.”

But the backlash prompted by Apple’s decision to install a new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, directly into the library of 500 million iTunes subscribers, suggests that lasting damage may be inflicted upon the two allied “superbrands”.

Apple and U2 have grown up together. Steve Jobs incorporated Apple in 1976, the same year that U2 formed at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin.

Both thrived on constant reinvention, retaining a loyal audience by delivering pioneering leisure products – the iPhone, and U2’s ever more spectacular live shows.

The 2004 release of a U2-branded iPod first brought them together in a bid to strengthen their grips on the entertainment sector, but now the demise of the traditional record industry has given both middle-aged brands intimations of obsolescence.

Following the relative failure of their 2009 album No Line on the Horizon, U2 feared that the paying public’s appetite for further releases was in terminal decline. U2 aren’t the only victims – album downloads on Apple’s iTunes store are dwindling as fans turn to streaming services, with Apple’s $3bn (£1.8bn) acquisition – Dr Dre’s Beats Music – yet to be relaunched as a streaming rival to Spotify.

Giving Songs of Innocence away made sense to U2, since the album will act as a promotional tool for their next lucrative global tour. Their last “360˚” jaunt grossed $736m, whatever the merits of the accompanying album.

Apple’s deal with U2 and the band’s label, Universal Music, which stands to lose more than a million full-price sales because of the free download offer, guarantees $100m worth of high-profile marketing for the album.

Yet the negative social media reaction to the giveaway seems to have proved that you can’t give U2 music away these days, and that Apple has misread its relationship with its customers.

U2-haters went to town, with some tweets mocking the band’s philanthropic reputation: “Makembe is 12. He has to walk eight miles for clean water. His iTunes account has a free U2 album. Please donate to help make this pain stop.”

Rapper Tyler, The Creator said discovering the free album on his iPhone was “like waking up with a pimple or like a herpes … Fuck Bono. I didn’t ask for you, I’m mad.”

Apple was forced to release a tool to remove the album from its customers’ accounts, with a dedicated webpage providing step-by-step instructions.

Critics also asked whether this was the same U2 whose long-term manager Paul McGuinness opined five years ago: “We are living in an era when ‘free’ is decimating the music industry and is starting to do the same to film, TV and books. What has gone so wrong?”

Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday

As the backlash gathered force, Apple and U2’s tax affairs came under scrutiny. Apple’s beneficial tax arrangements in Ireland are about to be investigated by the European Commission, while U2 have saved around £500m after redomiciling a share of band income to the Netherlands in 2006.

Tax experts speculated that net operating losses elsewhere in the band’s empire could offset the income received from Apple for the album giveaway – all entirely legal.

The UK’s Entertainment Retailers Association, bitter at the loss of a release which would still sell in significant numbers to core fans, called the giveaway a “dismal failure”. Paul Quirk, ERA’s chairman, said: “This vindicates our view that giving away hundreds of millions of albums simply devalues music and runs the risk of alienating the 60 per cent of the population who are not customers of iTunes. How can we really expect the public to spend £10 on an album by a newcomer?”

The giveaway download reduced music to “plain spam” and had generated just 6,700 sales from U2’s back catalogue, he added.

Industry insiders said Apple had betrayed its history of anticipating changes in consumer desires by aligning itself with a veteran band past its peak. Why not choose Pharrell Williams, whose singles have dominated the charts and who played at the iTunes festival in London this month, for an exclusive deal?

Visitors to the Apple store descend a staircase to the showroom below to purchase the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in New York (AP)

Marco Arment, a former executive at Tumblr and a technology developer, said: “The damage here isn’t that a bunch of people need to figure out how to delete an album that they got for free and are now whining about. It’s that Apple did something inconsiderate, tone-deaf, and kinda creepy for the sake of a relatively unimportant marketing campaign, and they seemingly didn’t think it would be a problem.”

Dave Winer, a leading US software developer and influential blogger, wrote: “Is Tim Cook really a judge of what’s the best music? Doesn’t U2 already have billions of dollars? Couldn’t they find a better use for the money? For a company that makes products that are supposedly about personal creativity, they seem to focus on elite creativity a bit too much.”

But was the stunt a success despite the carping? Apple said a “record-breaking” 38 million people had “accessed” the album, far more than would have bought or heard the record normally.

The band has reconnected with an audience that might balk at paying £9.99 for a new album ahead of its tour. Disgruntled retailers will get a new version of the album with extra tracks; a further album is planned for sale in 2015.

Bono remains unapologetic. He told Time: “We want to get these songs to as many people as we can. We went to Apple and we said ‘We’re not interested in free music – we think music is undervalued.’

“We said ‘Would you be interested in buying our album and getting it to all 500m of your iTunes accounts?’ Tim Cook is an unflappable man – he might have flapped for a little bit, but not for long.”

Despite the furious reaction in some quarters, the union between Apple and U2 is set to strengthen. The partners are now embarking on a “secret project” to create a new digital music format which will compensate musicians for their efforts, and aims to revive the dying art of listening to a complete album.

But even a billion-pound business such as U2 can be hurt by the vitriolic reaction to their attempt to spread some free musical love. Bassist Adam Clayton said of the Twitter reviews: “It’s like everyone’s vomiting whatever their first impression is.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in