In a big surprise at its fall event in 2014, Apple presented a free copy of U2 album 'Songs of Innocence' to everyone with an iTunes account — whether they wanted it or not. AppleInsider looks at how one of the biggest misfires of the Tim Cook era took shape.
The day was September 9, 2014 and one of Apple's most significant Fall events. This was the presentation where Tim Cook and other Apple executives unveiled the iPhone 6 and also made the first announcement of the Apple Watch. After revealing that the Watch wouldn't be out until the following year, Tim Cook said that Apple had one more thing to announce.
It had been rumored in the days leading up to the event that the popular Irish rock band U2 would be participating at the keynote, possibly with a live performance. A separate rumor had the new album coming "pre-loaded" on the new iPhone, much as the U2 special edition iPods from a decade earlier had included a coupon to purchase U2's digital box set.
The New York Times reported the day before the event that "U2 said to play a role at Apple event," but then a spokesperson for the band issued a flat, unambiguous denial.
"They are not releasing their album on the iPhone, and they are not performing at the iPhone launch," the spokesperson told media outlets.
Reports that a recent video shoot in Ireland was in fact an Apple commercial were also denied in relatively unambiguous terms.
Apple and U2: A long history
The idea that Apple and U2 might work together was not particularly surprising. Frontman Bono and Steve Jobs were close friends, and Bono once referred to Jobs as "the hardware software Elvis."
Bono was one of the first major musicians to endorse the idea of an iTunes Music Store, therefore giving it legitimacy at a time when the Store was still considered a big risk. U2 was also featured in Apple commercials, most notably for the iPod in 2004, featuring the song Vertigo:
Shortly before Jobs' death in 2011, Bono defended Jobs' philanthropic record, noting the Apple co-founder's contributions to AIDS research.
Apple and U2 teamed up in 2004 to launch the U2 special edition iPod, the iconic black and red-colored device. In 2006, they teamed up again with (PRODUCT) RED for a special edition iPod nano, which raised money for AIDS research.
Then three years later the band would again star in commercials — but, unexpectedly, for an Apple rival.
In 2009 U2 briefly jumped to BlackBerry. Parent company Research in Motion agreed to sponsor U2's tour that year, and a news report at the time quoted Bono as saying that RIM had agreed to grant the band "access to their labs and their people," in a way that Apple had not.
Bono reportedly said that this access would mean "we can do something really spectacular." It's hard to imagine the band feeling they could make a contribution to, say, the bezels on a phone. Then whatever they thought they could create through BlackBerry, nothing came of it, or at least nothing for the phone company.
U2 returned to the Apple fold, but it was five years before they tried anything you could call spectacular. And then they regretted it.
The day of the event
Despite all of those absolute denials, U2 did indeed appear on stage at that September event, and they did indeed announce a special deal with Apple.
"A decade ago, we began a deep collaboration with one of the best bands of all time, and that band is U2," Tim Cook said on stage, near the end of that day's keynote. "U2 has agreed to perform for you today, and we could not be more excited about this. U2 is among the most respected artists in the world, among the best selling, and they've won more Grammy Awards than any single band in history."
U2 then performed a new song called "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" — and followed it up with a surprise.
After the song Cook, somewhat dubiously, asked "wasn't that the most incredible single you've ever heard?"
When Cook suggested "a whole album of that," Bono replied that the band had, after years in the studio, at last come up with an album "as good as our very best work, as good as the best we've ever done."
After Cook said he felt the same way about Apple's approach to its products, Bono then bestowed the nickname "zen master of hard and software" on him.
Then came the announcement. The album, U2's first in five years, was called "Songs of Innocence," and Bono wanted to get it to "as many people as possible." So they would be doing something unique and never before seen — he would get the album to all of the half-billion iTunes subscribers at that time, that very day, for free.
The album would be free as an exclusive to Apple for over a month, before going on sale through normal channels in October.
The maneuver, which entailed getting one of the most popular musical artists in the world to forgo an opening month of traditional album sales for their first album in years, cost Apple around $100 million, The New York Times reported at the time.
To say this announcement wasn't as well-received as Apple hoped is a major understatement.
The album was "experienced" by 33 million people the first week, Eddy Cue said at the time, but the backlash was almost instantaneous.
Rather than a gift, many Apple customers saw the free album as something of an intrusion of the sacred privacy of their iTunes account. Putting an album in the account of a user — much less all of them — was a step that Apple had never taken before, and it was seen by a lot of users as an affront.
It turns out that not everybody is a fan of U2. And, by 2014, the band was hardly at the peak of their powers, with "Songs of Innocence," music-wise, not getting reviews quite as stellar as some of the band's earlier work.
Apple likely viewed U2 as a safe band, with a broad cross-section of popularity, but at that point in U2's history that wasn't the case any longer. If there ever was a musical monoculture, or artists that are universally beloved, that era was over by the time of the "Songs of Innocence" gambit. Apple, normally savvy when it comes to matters of culture and especially music, had badly miscalculated on that point.
Less than a week after the giveaway, Apple released instructions for how to remove the album.
The following month, Bono apologized for the move.
According to ABC News, the frontman continued: "Artists are prone to that kind of thing. Drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There's a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it."
After the Innocence
Apple, of course, never tried anything like the free U2 album again. And a couple of years later, the company completely upended the model of its music business, with the launch of Apple Music.
Exclusives with artists are a big part of Apple Music's competition with its rivals Spotify and Tidal, and these sometimes lead to controversy, most recently with Nicki Minaj. But a streaming service is very different from a personal iTunes account where an album has potential to appear without permission.
As for U2, it teamed with Apple Music in 2015 on a virtual reality music video for "Song For Someone," with Apple also participating in U2's "Experience Bus" on their tour that year. The band's next album, "Songs of Experience," arrived in late December 2017, and is available on Apple Music. And Apple's charitable partnership with (PRODUCT) RED has continued.
The "Songs of Innocence" incident didn't comprise a technological failure, a security breach, a crime, or any type of scandal that involved anyone being defrauded or hurt. But it was, in Tim Cook's first years as at the helm, a rare moment of Apple severely misreading the mood of its audience.
If you missed all of this or if you now miss having the album to listen to, check out U2's Songs of Innocence on Apple Music.