U2 and Apple: The latest announcement has more to do with medium than music.
by Zack O'Malley Greenburg, Forbes Staff
If for some reason you've still got a collection of cassette tapes, you'll probably find it very difficult to sell, trade, or even give them away. Compact discs are rapidly approaching a similar status. And, if U2′s Apple (AAPL -0.73%) album launch is any indication, so are MP3s.
Last week the band distributed free copies of its latest album, Songs of Innocence, to over half a billion iTunes customers as part of a deal with Apple valued as high as $100 million. Judging by some reactions, however, you'd think Tim Cook's company was offloading bedbug-ridden mattresses instead of new music by one of the most successful bands of our age.
"It's a gift from Apple," said U2 manager Guy Oseary. "If someone doesn't like the gift, they should delete it."
It's fascinating that anybody had to make such an announcement-and, in this writer's opinion, it's much more a symptom of the demise of the digital download than it is an indicator of intense antipathy toward U2.
Remember, iTunes wasn't the only place Songs of Innocence was made available for free last week. Apple also released the album on its newly-acquired Beats Music service, and nobody seems to be complaining about that. Streaming is now the dominant form of consumption for listeners all around the world; other media are increasingly relegated to the realm of inconvenience.
Music consumers are not only letting go of the notion of ownership to which they once clung so closely, they're openly rejecting it. Just as cassette tapes and CDs take up physical space, MP3s take up valuable real estate in hard drives and cloud storage. And that's at the core of the backlash to U2′s launch.
Outrage over the promotion ran so deep that simply unchecking Songs of Innocence from their iTunes accounts wasn't enough for many Apple customers, many of whom seemed to lack the technical expertise needed to expunge a song from their collections. As a result, the company had to offer a special page to help delete U2′s latest effort:
"If you would like U2's Songs of Innocence removed from your iTunes music library and iTunes purchases, you can choose to have it removed. Once the album has been removed from your account, it will no longer be available for you to redownload as a previous purchase. If you later decide you want the album, you will need to get it again. The album is free to everyone until October 13, 2014 and will be available for purchase after that date."
To be sure, the removers make up a vociferous minority of the half-billion recipients of Songs of Innocence, and plenty of listeners-including Rolling Stone-appreciated the gesture.
That's not to say Bono and friends didn't anticipate there would be some haters.
"Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible," he wrote. "Over 500 million people... that's a billion ears. 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."
For many, that still turns out to be an annoying thought.
U2 has already indicated that it's working on a follow-up album, Songs of Experience-for that, Bono and friends might want to think about a streaming-only release.
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