But what actually made headlines at that conference was what came next. In the space of thirty seconds, U2 announced their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, then promptly announced that said album would be given away entirely free, then Vulcan-saluted Tim Cook and Apple, then summarily downloaded the album via cloud technology to the libraries of its 500 million iTunes subscribers in 119 countries. You didn’t even have to opt in to purchase the album; for everyone, Bono and Co’s new offering just materialised without their knowledge or consent.
Inevitably, the howls of derision accumulated. Tyler the Creator compared the release to “contracting herpes” while many other committed non-fans of Irish stadium rock denounced the stunt as a wide-scale invasion of privacy in a statement that left Edward Snowden red-raw from severe face-palming.
But are U2 the real story here? They certainly don’t need the publicity. Thirteen albums in, spanning a forty-odd year career, the Irish rockers are still inarguably popular. You only have to take one look at the sales figures for the their last 360* World Tour to determine that, no matter how many cloying photo ops of Bono with popes and presidents, people the world over will still pay top dollar to clap along to ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Nor does the band fear for their legacy. In a way, U2 have never really been off radio station airwaves, even long after they’d abandoned their radical Zoo TV sound for the MOR, Comic Relief-soundtracking material they’ve been chasing until now. Their uplifting anthem-aping disciples, Coldplay and Mumford and Sons, have ensured that we’re all essentially buying All That You Can’t Leave Behind over and over each year. The new album itself, Songs of Innocence, is unsurprisingly disinterested in reinventing the wheel – Bono is very much content with a circle, thank you. Adam and Larry’s contributions are being phased out with each new effort and, though the album’s title and hints made in interviews may point to a return to the lyrical well of the Troubles and their Dublin youths, any touchstones from Boy or October are sadly non-apparent, lost in the white noise of Bono yapping on about California.
So what could it all mean, this supposed ‘biggest album release in music history’ as Apple hypes in the press release? Perhaps it is that Apple – now a bonafide kingmaker in the music industry game after its ludicrously expensive purchase of Beats – and Universal Music Group – U2’s label – are simply trying to solidify their investments in an industry who, at the level of distribution and album sales, is undergoing a real sea-change currently.
Consider the contrasting fortunes of the two Carters: Beyonce and Jay Z, both of whom have impacted upon this surprise release by U2. Bey has legitimately upended the traditional record industry trifecta of record, release, and tour on label-defined terms. The shock release of last December’s Beyonce, represented as an artist reclaiming her own talent and served as proof if needed, proved that Beyonce is her own industry. The recent transcendence of Beyonce’s career is in contrast to her husband’s; Shawn’s last album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was similarly announced suddenly and (like U2) was released in bulk for free to Samsung customers. The cool reception to that album showed that industry gimmicks only really work when you’re negotiating from a position of strength – and undoubtedly, Jay Z’s grip on the throne is wavering. HOV and U2 are the elder statesmen for their genres, belonging to a generation of artists who have now retreated into touring to balance the books. U2’s strategy with Apple eliminates the risk of financial failure by giving content to fans and non-fans alike at the point of reception, bypassing single releases, interviews and buying up radio plays. Bono and Tim Cook are seemingly confident that they are embarking on a new era of ‘Sure Things’ in the music industry.
However, that U2 announcement wasn’t the only news to come out of Apple HQ that day. Buried amongst the wires was the quiet elegy that the iPod Classic would be discontinued. Once heralded as a device that would break the autocracy of record labels and democratize the distribution of music, it subsequently fell victim to the march of technological progress and our culture-wide obsession with futurism and was phased out for shinier and prettier models. Both of these news items felt cannily analogous. The music industry perceives it is honouring the classics, yet it is unwittingly speeding up a wider sense of demise in an uncertain universe.