U2 went and pulled a Beyonce. During Apple's highly-anticipated product launch event on Sept. 9, the company didn't just unveil its new line of iPhones and smart watches. Oh no. Legendary rock band U2 was there to perform its new single "The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)" and announce that the band's newest album, "Songs of Innocence," would be free for every iTunes customer.
OK, so this move was even crazier than Beyonce's surprise album launch in December 2013 since not only can you have the album right now, you have to have the album right now. For the more than half a billion iTunes subscribers, the LP was automatically downloaded into their purchased page in their music libraries.
When I first heard the news about U2's latest album, I of course navigated to the iTunes Store on my iPhone like everyone else to see if it was actually there, and indeed, it was in my purchases ready for me to download to my collection. While I would consider myself a casual fan of U2 in the sense that I enjoy the band's most famous songs, I found the whole experience unsettling.
One of Apple's best-known commercials is the Super Bowl ad that referenced George Orwell's 1949 novel "1984." With that ad, Apple tried to show how technology would free us, not make us a bunch of mindless drones controlled by machines. But Apple's latest partnership with U2 certainly makes 2014 "feel like '1984.'"
Music is a form of expression that is supposed to be about choice. There is a deeply personal quality to music where your preferences actually mean something to you and forms part of your identity. In the digital age we now live in where you can buy single tracks so easily, curate playlists, watch music videos on YouTube and stream whole albums legally without spending a dime, shoving U2's new album in our faces in the hopes that we listen to it seems to be the antithesis to that and the ideals Apple was built upon.
In some ways, the move makes access to music more egalitarian. Making an album free for everyone gives everyone the ability to listen to it. Plus, you don't have to listen to it if you don't want to. However, when the album's release is done in a way that just screams "publicity stunt" and wreaks of desperation, it makes you want to see what else is on iTunes, even if that means paying for it.
Maybe this is just part of Apple's plan to make us all love U2 unconditionally. The band appeared in a commercial for the iPod and iTunes back in 2004, which featured the single "Vertigo." There were a lot of close-ups of Bono's bespectacled face but sadly no awkward "E.T." finger taps. A special U2 iPod accompanied the spot, which was red and black and had all the signatures of the band members on the back. It was like an omen that Bono and the Edge would later be involved with the 2011 Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" or something.
It also seems like older musical artists are really trying to make a name for themselves in the digital music game these days. Last week, Garth Brooks announced his new music streaming and download service GhostTunes, whose goal is to give artists more freedom in how the public enjoys their music, as opposed to services like iTunes. You've got to applaud Brooks for taking a risk and competing with digital music giants. However, other than having digital access to Brooks' music, which isn't available to download or stream from any other service, there's really no reason to visit GhostTunes over iTunes, so he might not win this one.
So will U2's new album be a success? Apple announced that "Songs of Innocence" is only available to iTunes customers for free through Oct. 13. After that, you've got to pay for it, so we'll have to wait and see how the partnership impacts album sales. And the reality is that with the music industry in the state that it's in, sometimes a bit of in-your-face fanfare, no matter how cringeworthy, gets results.