Last week, Apple gave us all a gift called Songs of Innocence. On Monday, it released instructions on how to give that gift back.
The company concluded its big reveal of the Apple Watch and the newest generation iPhones with a curious coda: 10 years after the U2 song “Vertigo” was used in one of the first “dancing silhouette” iPod ads, the band took to the stage to unveil a surprise new album being distributed exclusively by Apple, and given to all users of the iTunes Music Store. In a press release, Apple calls this, correctly, “the largest album release ever.” “A big moment in music history. And you’re part of it,” crows the U2 page Apple set up on its website. “Never before have so many people owned one album, let alone on the day of its release.”
THIS IS NOT IN RAINBOWS, AND SHOULD INSTEAD BE REMEMBERED PRIMARILY AS A MONUMENTAL BLUNDER BY THE TECH INDUSTRY.
This is all technically true, but bloviating aside, there’s a very simple reason why this is unprecedented, and that is because it doesn’t make any sense. Never before has such a major technology company also operated as publicist for a creative artist. The whole endeavor yearns desperately to be a landmark new innovation for the music industry, perhaps something along the lines of Radiohead’s legitimately earth-moving In Rainbows, which was self-released with variable pricing in 2007 and remains the gold standard against which music industry innovation is measured.
But this is not In Rainbows, and as such should instead be remembered primarily as a monumental blunder by the tech industry. The delivery mechanism amounts to nothing more than spam with forced downloads, and nothing less than a completely indefensible expansion by Apple beyond its operational purview. This company makes hardware and operating systems—even if it’s one to which I’ve more or less entrusted the management logistics of my personal music collection. It has, demonstrably, no competence in the sort of social and cultural thought that should have gone into a well-orchestrated version of this same gimmick, like, say, a free album as a birthday gift. It also certainly has no business forcing files of any sort onto my computer without my permission.
Automated downloads are great for the things you actually want to download, like a favorite podcast or the kind of security updates that might have prevented the massive recent leak of private photos from Apple’s iCloud service. WordPress and Google Chrome keep themselves safe and stable using almost imperceptible background update processes, and the Internet is healthier for it. But to anoint an otherwise inconsequential cultural artifact as worthy of bandwidth, storage space, and mental overhead on behalf of every single iTunes user is tantamount to Apple picking the music for the devices it sells. (It actually tried to do that in 2004 with a U2-branded special edition iPod, which came loaded with the band’s entire back catalog and was billed as “the world’s first digital box set.” The product was eventually killed, presumably after lackluster sales, since to date I’ve still never seen one in the wild.) Consider just the time wasted on finding and deleting it almost 500 million times. Is the company completely oblivious to the idea that users of its technology products come in shapes other than those who would be interested in a pop-rock band popular among older white males?
For the first week, it was literally impossible to delete the U2 album, because it had been registered as a “past purchase” for every user of the iTunes Music Store. This meant that so long as users wanted to automatically download their media purchases—a reasonable assumption, given that they, you know, purchased them—the album would continue to show up again and again. The only alternative was to disable automatic downloading of iTunes purchases, or to log in to the desktop client and “hide” the purchase; this wouldn’t delete it completely, but you wouldn’t see it1. Yesterday Apple added a special tool that could be used to permanently remove it from the purchase history. If nothing else, Songs of Innocence is the first album to command a custom-coded deletion tool and an official accompanying support document issued by one of the largest technology companies in history.
“For the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail,” says Bono, missing the point in a letter on the band’s web site. Nope! Not in the junk mail, but instead in a position of unwarranted prominence on the expensive device I use to organize and execute almost everything of importance in my life, including work, friends, communication, and especially music. If I use an automated backup utility like, say, Apple’s own Time Machine application, the album is now also taking up space in my disaster recovery archive, perhaps crowding out another album, or irreplaceable photos, or something else more worthy (which is to say, anything else whatsoever). There might be an idea worth talking about here if the album had showed up in the Trash instead, preemptively deleted on the correct assumption that I don’t care—which would have been extremely easy to predict algorithmically, given the information Apple probably already has gathered about my musical tastes.
Of course, you can be sure both those same marketing analytics are being reported to U2 as part of this deal, and that we’ll never find out how many of the 500 million recipients deleted the album immediately. To put this in context, No Line on the Horizon, U2′s previous album, has shipped about 1.1 million copies domestically since its release in 2009, which is as many as Lady Gaga’s Born This Way moved in its first week. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album ever, has moved 29 million copies domestically to date.
Forcible dissemination of a trinket that statistics suggest is useless to 498 million of the 500 million people who received it is a simple demonstration of privilege: U2 is among the few bands with the grandfathered-in industry connections to get something so absurd—and have Apple pay a nominal fee for each copy, no less. Apple, in turn, can leverage an uninterested and unwitting audience that is unlikely to do much about the transgression, given that they have no real recourse nor alternative.
IF NOTHING ELSE, SONGS OF INNOCENCE IS THE FIRST ALBUM TO COMMAND A CUSTOM-CODED DELETION TOOL AND AN OFFICIAL ACCOMPANYING SUPPORT DOCUMENT ISSUED BY ONE OF THE LARGEST TECHNOLOGY COMPANIES IN HISTORY.
Meaningful power has by now largely disappeared from the music industry; there’s no other conceivable way for U2 or any other musician to get 500 million copies shipped on day one. The largest tech companies arguably are centers of power in precisely the way record labels no longer are, and as such they always are examined under a microscope. For example, Dropbox sparked a controversy in April by appointing to its board Condoleeza Rice, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State and a longtime defender of warrantless Internet surveillance. Knowing this, do you still have total confidence in the privacy of your Dropbox files? If not, can you also with total confidence grant Apple the ability to write files of its choosing onto your hardware? That is a strictly rhetorical question because, too bad, you already did.
There’s also an admission of failure here. The swift delivery of a removal tool is an admission by Apple that this was a bad idea. U2’s decision to promote by spam acknowledges delusions of grandeur in which it makes more sense to manipulate 15 percent of the world population rather than create art for true fans. It is not especially difficult to procure new music, whether through iTunes or elsewhere, so this rush to remove the one click required to do so seals iTunes’s fate as a sterile technological platform, not the cultural force it aspired to when it launched in 2003. Furthering cultural goals through iTunes now requires the special privilege of deviating from standard operating procedures; to date, this has been granted only to the sole band for whom Apple has ever built customized hardware.
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Steve Jobs famously said. So, Apple, is the inverse also true? Songs of Innocence is not a well-intentioned gift from a dorky uncle with poor taste, it is another example of how Big Brother can intrude on our lives. It demonstrates the need for transparency in software even to those who are not zealously devoted to the ideals of open source.
But now that you mention it, U2′s public image is heavily tied to an aspirational idealism; if any of that were actually true, they’d be appalled by the idea of forcing art down half a billion gullets, would cautiously view it as an omen of an alarming future, perhaps even write a song lamenting it. Then again, maybe chronicling our increasingly concurrent dystopian futures is a job better left to Radiohead.
1Update at 2:15 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this story did not mention the previous workaround of “hiding” the album from past purchases, which was always possible.