On Sept. 9, 2014, the global rock icons of U2 changed the rock world forever. It was during Apple’s annual keynote presentation, which most people were watching for the iPhone 6 reveal. Luckily, everyone got a little something extra; U2’s brand new album released not on the iTunes store, but straight to every iTunes customer’s library. “Now that’s instant gratification!” U2 frontman Bono laughed, shaking Apple CEO Tim Cook’s left hand. Songs of Innocence is a revolutionary album release, the most groundbreaking music-to-person event in history. News outlets went wild; one overly excited headline read, “Did U2 just out-Beyoncé Beyoncé?” referring to her highly surprising, highly successful iTunes Store album launch.
The answer is a firm, definite “No.”
I have nothing against U2, and I also have nothing for them. They’re one of the most successful (and wealthy) bands of all time, and even if you don’t listen to them you probably know who they are (though their relevance is starting to dwindle in Generation Y). Their brand of inoffensive stadium-ready rock feels impersonal and quickly wears thin for my taste. I have no emotional connection to their work, so anticipation for new music was nonexistent.
The problem with launching an album in the manner U2/Apple did is that they assumed one-and-a-half billion iTunes libraries giddily anticipated U2’s new album, and would happily receive it for free, and be grateful for it. “The album,” Bono proudly proclaimed at launch, “is a gift [from Apple] to all of their music customers.” His train of thought is highly egotistical. It’s also pointless in this musical age to “gift” music for free. If someone wants music for free, they’ll find it on Spotify, they’ll stream it from BandCamp, they’ll play a record uploaded to YouTube, they’ll (gasp) pirate it from torrent-hosting sites. If you cannot (or refuse to) pay for music, nothing will stop you from getting it. Free music is hardly a revolution. The album’s release is, however, a revolutionary violation of consumer consent. The album infiltrated countless libraries. U2’s perception of a “gift” is irrelevant; if Davis Waste Removal hurled garbage at Aggie Pack as a promotion, that would be far from OK, even if the trash is a sincere gift. U2 fans were ecstatic to receive the gift, while many were enraged at their violation of consent. I was confused, and eager to find the proper place to throw this trash away.
But violation of privacy is not where the harm lies. It’s easy to decide not to listen to an album, and Apple released tech support that allows people to delete the digital record. But this album is far from a gift. U2 gave this album out for free not out of the kindness of their hearts, but out of a $100 million between them, Apple and Universal Music Group — along with a deal with retail stores to sell physical copies of a deluxe version, according to an article written in Spin magazine. They were paid handsomely for a “free” album release, unlike many musicians who have no choice but to start out their careers putting up their music for free on the internet.
Bono explained that the album’s unusual release was motivated by “a deep fear that [the] songs that [they] poured [their] life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard.” Right. Because artists everywhere aren’t pouring their whole hearts and souls into meaningful, personal sounds, released for free or a few dollars they work their asses off for, that will be forever eclipsed by bands who are paid millions of dollars to give out their music for “free,” out of, you know, generosity.
Later, Bono apologized. “It’s like we put a bottle of milk in people’s fridge that they weren’t asking for.” Lots of people are lactose-intolerant, U2.
Contacting STEVEN ILAGAN at email@example.com is free (on behalf of a multi-thousand dollar deal between him, his parents and UC Davis)!