Wednesday 17 July 2019

Beware of Bono the overbearing evangelist and his free music

Bono and Apple boss Tim Cook do their ET finger touch as the Edge and Larry Mullen applaud.
Bono and Apple boss Tim Cook do their ET finger touch as the Edge and Larry Mullen applaud.
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

If you ever wondered what would happen if the biggest brand in the world got into bed with the biggest ego, then wonder no more.

The foreplay is minimal, the sex is awkward and their friends fret about whether the relationship is a good idea.

U2's surprise appearance at Apple's latest product launch this week, where they announced their new album, 'Songs of Innocence', was being given away to 500m iTunes customers, was a bit wham, bam, thank you Mr Cook.

The band performed their latest single, in front of an audience of jubilant journalists who had just disgraced themselves by ecstatically applauding Apple's latest gadgets.

Then, Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook engaged in a short, stilted conversation so excruciatingly banal it sounded like someone who writes insurance adverts had scripted it.

Cook said he thought U2 were brilliant, Bono said he thought Apple was brilliant and then they sealed their merger with an ET finger-to-finger touch, after a joint attempt at a high-five went disastrously awry.

On that ignominious note, U2's new album was beamed into the iTunes accounts of more than half a billion people in 119 countries.

Cook said it marked the biggest album launch in history, failing to mention that this was largely because the people who now possess it had no choice in the matter.

After all, every album ever released would be a hit if people who hate the music were forced to own it.

Apple has described the release as a free gift to its customers - albeit one that cost that company dearly, with figures of up to $100m (€77m) bandied about as a possible payment to U2 - but it was a gift-horse that many looked square in the mouth.

Some reacted to the inclusion of the album in their music collections with the same level of horror that one would if a pet cat deposited a dead rat on their kitchen floor.

Bono, predicting a bit of a bit of a backlash, sought to pre-empt any criticism, writing on the band's website: "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."

So, does that mean those of us who would prefer that corporations didn't make our music choices for us will have to affix "no junk mail" stickers to our iTunes accounts?

Previously, it was customary for customers to pickpocket from record shops.

Now, the roles have been reversed and albums are being quietly stuffed into your pocket when you're not looking. Those alarmed at this brave new world of corporate patronage have variously been described as histrionic or begrudgers.

This is particularly true in Ireland, where critics of U2 are routinely treated as if they had spat on the tricolour and set it alight.

What's the big deal if an album is added to your iTunes library without your permission? Just shut up moaning and delete the offending record.

This argument fails to appreciate that people tend to feel quite strongly about music. It's an expression of one's individuality, more than just a marketing gimmick.

Bono himself has acknowledged this, saying that for him "music is a sacrament". If this is true, then his deal with Apple turns him into an overbearing evangelist who barges into people's homes to perform forced conversions.

Apple may not think that presuming all of their 500m customers are U2 fans is particularly brazen, but it could be an awful portent of things to come.

Do we now have to brace ourselves for a dystopian future in which warbling boy-bands and talentless twerkers are forcibly uploaded to our playlists without our permission?

At the very least, it's annoying. When Jay Z released the first one million copies of his new album for free via Samsung last year, customers had to install an app and download it themselves.

In that case, Samsung didn't arbitrarily decide to foist an unwanted album on their customers, they had to opt in.

But people should remember that there's no such thing as a free lunch and, in that case, the benevolent gesture by Samsung allowed it to harvest personal information from phones once the app was installed.

So, what does Apple have to gain from its musical munificence? Well, it's hoping that U2's album exclusivity to iTunes customers until October 13 will win them some new subscribers.

For U2, it means its last album's sales, 5m for 'No Line on the Horizon', will be spectacularly eclipsed by its latest release.

It also negates any concern the band may have had about its declining record sales because the free giveaway means that the album won't be included in the Billboard charts until it goes on general release.

Album sales have been on a downward trajectory for some time, with US figures falling by 14.6pc so far this year while digital album sales are also down by nearly 12pc.

The band hope that millions of people who would never have listened to U2 will hear the album and, presumably, that at least some of them will later purchase their other albums or tickets for a tour, the only profitable endeavour for bands these days.

This wish may be unfounded, if figures released by Billboard on Thursday night are to be believed.

It claimed that, 48 hours after its release, the album had only been accessed 200,000 times by Apple customers in the United States.

In response, the band's label, Universal Music Group, derided this figure as "completely inaccurate".

While Billboard and Universal engage in a war of words about the success of the venture, only time will tell if U2 and Apple have blazed a new trail for the 'freemium' release of albums.

In the meantime, Apple customers who don't take kindly to the company manipulating their music collections will just have to suck it up - or contemplate the unthinkable, going Android.

Irish Independent

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