U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ iTunes Release Was About Relevance, Not Altruism

By
Share:

In 2014, it takes Apple and U2 to pull off a musical monoculture that rivals both Beyoncé’s 2013 sneak attack and Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want In Rainbows launch. The tech giants and the world-dominating rockers continued their decade-long business collaboration in a big way yesterday during the launch of Apple Watch, Apple Pay, and two different versions of the iPhone 6. Unbeknownst to the masses, Apple released U2’s unannounced but highly anticipated new album, Songs of Innocence, straight into the music library of every iTunes user worldwide. “This will be the largest album release in history. Over a half-billion people own it. Right now,” Apple CEO Tim Cook announced, before Bono and co. closed out the presentation at Apple’s Cupertino, California campus with the album’s opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone).”

(Search U2 in your iTunes library, it’ll pop up in the Cloud ready for download or stream; if you can’t find it, it’s available here for free and via Beats Music, Apple’s latest acquisition, until October 13.)

Despite giving the album away, U2’s struggle is still the same one that faces every big artist who streams their music on Spotify: the battle to make listeners approach their art with an open mind. There’s a reason why Apple will reportedly spend more than $100 million promoting Songs of Innocence. “Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible,” Bono wrote in a letter on U2’s site. “People who haven’t heard our music, or weren’t remotely interested, might play us for the first time because we’re in their library. And 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.”

What U2 wanted was a stunt, not a post-capitalist album release. And they could have pulled off an even bigger one had they not played second fiddle to some watch that’s supposed to change the world. U2 didn’t do this out of some heartfelt millennial belief that art should be free. “We were paid [by Apple],” Bono told TIME yesterday. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” This is some Jay Z Samsung business stuntin’ with a distinct aim (we’ll get to that later), regardless of any seemingly altruistic aims to bring art to the people. According to Bono’s aforementioned letter, U2 will release their Songs of Innocence follow-up — the appropriately named Songs of Experience (both a nod to poet William Blake’s collection of the same name) — via Apple as well, in addition to collaborating with the tech co. on “innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed” over the next couple years.

Jimmy Iovine, Bono, Steve Jobs, and The Edge at the launch of their Product Red line of iPods in 2004.

It’s scary to think that foisting one’s music into millions of iTunes libraries is what it takes to provoke a monocultural level of interest among today’s listening public, but it’s better than the alternative (Kanye-style controversy, looping in Pharrell for Top 40 gold, or both). From U2’s perspective, I can’t tell which is more daunting: scheming up ways to meet their own ridiculous commercial standards, or creatively crafting something you recognize has to be to big to fail. They publicly expressed disappointment when their most recent album, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, sold about half of what 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb did — five million copies worldwide, No. 1 in 30 countries. This time around, U2 gave away 100 times that many copies. Songs of Innocence will still debut at No. 1 when physical copies of the album go on sale October 14, but honestly, none of it really matters when you’re this culturally ubiquitous and wealthy (“The charts are broken,” Bono told TIME). Few would be surprised if they broke their own record for the highest-grossing concert tour in history.

This comes down to U2 seeking relevance — dare I say it, “coolness” — from Apple. This should give you insight into how much time has passed since U2 have been cutting-edge artists, though they’re certainly trying with Songs of Innocence by recruiting Lykke Li as a guest vocalist and “hip” mainstream producers Danger Mouse, Ryan Tedder, and Paul Epworth (in addition to alternative staple Flood). “To be relevant is a lot harder than to be successful,” Bono told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, adding that the album’s working title should have been Insecurity.

In a move few seem to remember now, U2 tried to get in on the Super Bowl conversation by releasing a new single, “Invisible” (which does not appear on Songs of Innocence), during the game as a free download with a charity aspect. In the process, the band raised more than $3 million for Bono’s charity RED, thanks to sponsor Bank of America, who donated $1 for every download. But they also managed to shoehorn themselves into a conversation they had nothing to do with, at a time when they were in the news for their Best Original Song Oscar nomination for “Ordinary Love.” They want in on the critically lauded zeitgeist in a way that rock bands, and particularly legacy acts, almost never can be in this era.

What the critics make of Songs of Innocence is mostly unimportant at this initial stage, far more than when Beyoncé released her “visual album” last year for the high price of $16. (To this day, she has kept it off services like Spotify.) Early buzz, including dispatches shared among fans on social media, was key when it came to giving Knowles the biggest opening sales week of her career. How Songs of Innocence plays into U2’s discography will be debated for years to come, but right now, the medium is the message — even more than it was for Radiohead in 2007. U2 figured out their best shot at relevance in 2014: they demanded the masses pay attention, not by making a brilliant album — it’s beautiful and personal yet not terribly memorable — but by inviting everyone to the party.