The free U2 album 'Songs of Innocence' was a debacle for Apple fans on September 9, 2014

Posted:
in General Discussion edited September 9
In a big surprise at its fall event in 2014, Apple presented a free copy of U2 album 'Songs of Innocence' to everyone with an iTunes account -- whether they wanted it or not. AppleInsider looks at how one of the biggest misfires of the Tim Cook era took shape.

Bono and Tim Cook at the 2014 event


The day was September 9, 2014 and one of Apple's most significant Fall events. This was the presentation where Tim Cook and other Apple executives unveiled the iPhone 6 and also made the first announcement of the Apple Watch. After revealing that the Watch wouldn't be out until the following year, Tim Cook said that Apple had one more thing to announce.

It had been rumored in the days leading up to the event that the popular Irish rock band U2 would be participating at the keynote, possibly with a live performance. A separate rumor had the new album coming "pre-loaded" on the new iPhone, much as the U2 special edition iPods from a decade earlier had included a coupon to purchase U2's digital box set.

The New York Times reported the day before the event that "U2 said to play a role at Apple event," but then a spokesperson for the band issued a flat, unambiguous denial.

"They are not releasing their album on the iPhone, and they are not performing at the iPhone launch," the spokesperson told media outlets.

Reports that a recent video shoot in Ireland was in fact an Apple commercial were also denied in relatively unambiguous terms.

Apple and U2: A long history

The idea that Apple and U2 might work together was not particularly surprising. Frontman Bono and Steve Jobs were close friends, and Bono once referred to Jobs as "the hardware software Elvis."

Bono was one of the first major musicians to endorse the idea of an iTunes Music Store, therefore giving it legitimacy at a time when the Store was still considered a big risk. U2 was also featured in Apple commercials, most notably for the iPod in 2004, featuring the song Vertigo:





Shortly before Jobs' death in 2011, Bono defended Jobs' philanthropic record, noting the Apple co-founder's contributions to AIDS research.

Apple and U2 teamed up in 2004 to launch the U2 special edition iPod, the iconic black and red-colored device. In 2006, they teamed up again with (PRODUCT) RED for a special edition iPod nano, which raised money for AIDS research.

Then three years later the band would again star in commercials -- but, unexpectedly, for an Apple rival.

In 2009 U2 briefly jumped to BlackBerry. Parent company Research in Motion agreed to sponsor U2's tour that year, and a news report at the time quoted Bono as saying that RIM had agreed to grant the band "access to their labs and their people," in a way that Apple had not.

Bono reportedly said that this access would mean "we can do something really spectacular." It's hard to imagine the band feeling they could make a contribution to, say, the bezels on a phone. Then whatever they thought they could create through BlackBerry, nothing came of it, or at least nothing for the phone company.

U2 returned to the Apple fold, but it was five years before they tried anything you could call spectacular. And then they regretted it.

The day of the event

Despite all of those absolute denials, U2 did indeed appear on stage at that September event, and they did indeed announce a special deal with Apple.

"A decade ago, we began a deep collaboration with one of the best bands of all time, and that band is U2," Tim Cook said on stage, near the end of that day's keynote. "U2 has agreed to perform for you today, and we could not be more excited about this. U2 is among the most respected artists in the world, among the best selling, and they've won more Grammy Awards than any single band in history."

U2 then performed a new song called "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" -- and followed it up with a surprise.




After the song Cook, somewhat dubiously, asked "wasn't that the most incredible single you've ever heard?"

When Cook suggested "a whole album of that," Bono replied that the band had, after years in the studio, at last come up with an album "as good as our very best work, as good as the best we've ever done."

After Cook said he felt the same way about Apple's approach to its products, Bono then bestowed the nickname "zen master of hard and software" on him.

Then came the announcement. The album, U2's first in five years, was called "Songs of Innocence," and Bono wanted to get it to "as many people as possible." So they would be doing something unique and never before seen -- he would get the album to all of the half-billion iTunes subscribers at that time, that very day, for free.

The album would be free as an exclusive to Apple for over a month, before going on sale through normal channels in October.

Tim Cook and U2


The maneuver, which entailed getting one of the most popular musical artists in the world to forgo an opening month of traditional album sales for their first album in years, cost Apple around $100 million, The New York Times reported at the time.

Aftermath

To say this announcement wasn't as well-received as Apple hoped is a major understatement.

The album was "experienced" by 33 million people the first week, Eddy Cue said at the time, but the backlash was almost instantaneous.

Rather than a gift, many Apple customers saw the free album as something of an intrusion of the sacred privacy of their iTunes account. Putting an album in the account of a user -- much less all of them -- was a step that Apple had never taken before, and it was seen by a lot of users as an affront.

Wired described the giveaway as "devious" and a "worse than spam." Salon argued that the giveaway had made U2 "the most hated band in America."

It turns out that not everybody is a fan of U2. And, by 2014, the band was hardly at the peak of their powers, with "Songs of Innocence," music-wise, not getting reviews quite as stellar as some of the band's earlier work.

Apple likely viewed U2 as a safe band, with a broad cross-section of popularity, but at that point in U2's history that wasn't the case any longer. If there ever was a musical monoculture, or artists that are universally beloved, that era was over by the time of the "Songs of Innocence" gambit. Apple, normally savvy when it comes to matters of culture and especially music, had badly miscalculated on that point.

Less than a week after the giveaway, Apple released instructions for how to remove the album.

Apple's instructions for how to remove Songs of Innocence


The following month, Bono apologized for the move.

According to ABC News, the frontman continued: "Artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There's a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it."

After the Innocence

Apple, of course, never tried anything like the free U2 album again. And a couple of years later, the company completely upended the model of its music business, with the launch of Apple Music.

Exclusives with artists are a big part of Apple Music's competition with its rivals Spotify and Tidal, and these sometimes lead to controversy, most recently with Nicki Minaj. But a streaming service is very different from a personal iTunes account where an album has potential to appear without permission.

As for U2, it teamed with Apple Music in 2015 on a virtual reality music video for "Song For Someone," with Apple also participating in U2's "Experience Bus" on their tour that year. The band's next album, "Songs of Experience," arrived in late December 2017, and is available on Apple Music. And Apple's charitable partnership with (PRODUCT) RED has continued.

The "Songs of Innocence" incident didn't comprise a technological failure, a security breach, a crime, or any type of scandal that involved anyone being defrauded or hurt. But it was, in Tim Cook's first years as at the helm, a rare moment of Apple severely misreading the mood of its audience.

If you missed all of this or if you now miss having the album to listen to, check out U2's Songs of Innocence on Apple Music.





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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 37
    roakeroake Posts: 583member
    I used to like U2 a lot, but by the time of that event, I was so “meh” about them that I never bothered to listen to the album on my iTunes account.  That being said, it certainly didn’t offend me that Apple gave it to me.  But I can imagine being offended by the material of certain other bands being “shoved down my throat,” which is how some people described the U2 issue.
    freediverxGeorgeBMacsuperklotonjonagoldasdasd
  • Reply 2 of 37
    It’s a bit tone deaf. Should send notification, with download button if they’re so eager, telling users they got a chance to have this album for free and let them act instead. 
    edited September 9 jeffharrislolliver
  • Reply 3 of 37
    the popular Irish rock band U2 

    Um, U2 weren't all that popular in 2014—and hadn't been for many years. This is a band that peaked in the 80s but then continued to aggressively promote themselves long after they became culturally irrelevant—much of it via blatantly commercial promotional work with Apple.

    Most older fans had long since grown tired of them and most younger people had barely even heard of them outside of an Apple event. Add to that the fact that Apple's music-related presentations have been excruciatingly cringeworthy since Steve Jobs' death, and you'll realize that, yeah, there's some justification for the backlash when taken in context.
    edited September 9
  • Reply 4 of 37
    dewmedewme Posts: 1,607member
    Pushing the album into end-user's iTunes accounts was a huge mistake and came across as a rude imposition. The fact that the album was the work of U2 was completely ancillary to the offense. If the artist/band involved was anyone else the outcome of the scenario would not have changed one bit. Putting any blame whatsoever for this fiasco on U2 was wrong. I'm sure some folks at Apple were very giddy about being able to give away what they saw as a wonderful gift that so many people would enjoy. Good intentions, but poor execution. I love pecan pie, but if someone shoved a slice of pecan pie on to my plate without asking, I'd view the gesture, not the pie, as an imposition. Changing it to a cherry pie wouldn't change my feelings. Either way, I'd probably still eat it. Hey, I like pie. 
    jeffharrisFoliololliverentropysasdasd
  • Reply 5 of 37
    There were only two legitimate reasons for objecting:
    1)  Most phones/iPods back then had very little storage.  People horded it.
    2)  Political.  You didn't like the band's political stances.

    If it was the second, then the correct response was to simply delete it and move on.  But the radical fringes (on both sides) are incapable of not making a fuss when provided with an opportunity.
    ronn
  • Reply 6 of 37
    A debacle?

    Only to tech bloggers.

    Most people just didn’t care. A minor annoyance at most.
    mjtomlinjeffharrisStrangeDaysGeorgeBMaclolliverjonagoldwatto_cobraronnYvLy
  • Reply 7 of 37
    nunzynunzy Posts: 660member
    The zen master of hard and software!
  • Reply 8 of 37
    mjtomlinmjtomlin Posts: 1,774member
    bikertwin said:
    A debacle?

    Only to tech bloggers.

    Most people just didn’t care. A minor annoyance at most.

    Exactly!

    People talk about 1st world problems... this "debacle" was way above and beyond that. LOL
    GeorgeBMaclolliverwatto_cobraronn
  • Reply 9 of 37
    I just removed it from a friends iTunes only a few weeks ago.  It really ticked him off.  He couldn't figure out how to remove it.  I had to google to find the URL from Apple's support KB.  
  • Reply 10 of 37
    crowleycrowley Posts: 5,524member
    There were only two legitimate reasons for objecting:
    1)  Most phones/iPods back then had very little storage.  People horded it.
    2)  Political.  You didn't like the band's political stances.

    If it was the second, then the correct response was to simply delete it and move on.  But the radical fringes (on both sides) are incapable of not making a fuss when provided with an opportunity.
    It's perfectly possible to dislike Bono and the boys while having no particular problem with their politics.
    maltz
  • Reply 11 of 37
    It's like the ultimate Rick Roll...
    entropys
  • Reply 12 of 37
    "the biggest misfires of the Tim Cook era"

    LOL.  Elon Musk, the UBER guy, Zuckerberg, and ousted CEOs everywhere would love, love, love to have their biggest misfire be something so trivial.
    StrangeDaysGeorgeBMaclolliverwatto_cobraronn
  • Reply 13 of 37
    bikertwin said:
    A debacle?

    Only to tech bloggers.

    Most people just didn’t care. A minor annoyance at most.
    No! We have been victimized and must sing it from the rooftops! Apple must atone... 😎


    edited September 9 GeorgeBMacdewmewatto_cobraronn
  • Reply 14 of 37
    I have an iPhone 6S and I have never succeeded in removing the U2 album from my phone. I quite like U2, but I hate the fact that I cannot get my iTunes music on my phone, only U2's "Songs of Innocence", and the fact that my AV system suddenly changes from the AppleTV video it is playing to a song from U2's "Songs of Innocence" on random, but frequent, occasions. This iPhone 6S has been wiped and re-installed at the Apple Store on a couple of occasions and they gave me a replacement iPhone 6S at least one time. 
  • Reply 15 of 37
    tardis said:
    I have an iPhone 6S and I have never succeeded in removing the U2 album from my phone. I quite like U2, but I hate the fact that I cannot get my iTunes music on my phone, only U2's "Songs of Innocence", and the fact that my AV system suddenly changes from the AppleTV video it is playing to a song from U2's "Songs of Innocence" on random, but frequent, occasions. This iPhone 6S has been wiped and re-installed at the Apple Store on a couple of occasions and they gave me a replacement iPhone 6S at least one time. 
    I have a similar problem with my car stereo.
    When I plug it into the USB port, unless I'm already playing something on the phone, it wants to automatically start a Abbey Road  playlist from Apple Music that I deleted long ago.   It doesn't happen when I connect via Bluetooth.   So, I think it's the car stereo rather than the phone.
  • Reply 16 of 37
    I was never familiar with Bono or U2, but I gave the album a listen, and I loved almost every song!  Soon I knew all the lyrics, and yes, I’m proud to say that I both enjoyed and loved this album.  

    And today it brings back precious memories of a time of ... innocence.  
    lolliverjonagoldronnGeorgeBMacasdasd
  • Reply 17 of 37
    FolioFolio Posts: 369member
    dewme said:
    Pushing the album into end-user's iTunes accounts was a huge mistake and came across as a rude imposition. The fact that the album was the work of U2 was completely ancillary to the offense. If the artist/band involved was anyone else the outcome of the scenario would not have changed one bit. Putting any blame whatsoever for this fiasco on U2 was wrong. I'm sure some folks at Apple were very giddy about being able to give away what they saw as a wonderful gift that so many people would enjoy. Good intentions, but poor execution. I love pecan pie, but if someone shoved a slice of pecan pie on to my plate without asking, I'd view the gesture, not the pie, as an imposition. Changing it to a cherry pie wouldn't change my feelings. Either way, I'd probably still eat it. Hey, I like pie. 
    Ditto. And somewhat inexplicably, it still raises my hackles.
  • Reply 18 of 37
    Anyone who was (or even still is, haha) honestly  upset about this (admittedly somewhat gaudy and a little too pushy) little marketing and collaboration gag should seriously reconsider their priorities in life. Geez...
    randominternetpersonlolliverronnwatto_cobraGeorgeBMaclorin schultzStrangeDays
  • Reply 19 of 37
    anomeanome Posts: 1,093member

    I remember at the time jokingly saying "Is there a way I can pay to have the album removed?" or something similar. To paraphrase Stewart Lee, it was the funny position to take, not what I actually believed. I don't care for U2, but I didn't really care whether the album was free or not.

    So I was quite surprised when people actually started complaining about having the album foist upon them. I hadn't considered the issue around download limits, etc, simply because I'd turned off automatic downloads over Cellular, and forgotten it was on by default. I still think there was a general over-reaction to the whole incident, which could have partly been avoided if Apple had been a bit more careful about how they went about it, but it still came across as a bunch of people who just wanted something new to complain about.

    ronnwatto_cobra
  • Reply 20 of 37
    I can't believe that after all these years, people are still upset about this. It was done, they apologized, they corrected their mistake. End story. 
    When I opened my movie account, I was given 'Ice Age 2' for free. Never watched it. Then one day, I decided to delete it. Went on with my life. 
    watto_cobraStrangeDays
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