Music Industry

So What Did We Learn from U2’s Surprise Album Announcement/Apple Deal/Giveaway? Ten Things–At Least.

When Tim Cook pressed that metaphorical button that sent U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, to 500 million iTunes subscribers, a major part of the traditional music industry crumbled. Half a billion people in 119 countries instantly gained access to an album created by the biggest band in the world.

I’m still trying to digest all the implications of that.  It’s something that extends beyond merely releasing an album. This is a marketing coup that has the potential to be a game-changer. A big one.

First, let’s not focus on whether the album is any good or if U2 still matters. That’s besides the point for the purposes of this discussion.  Let’s talk it through.

1.  CDs do not matter anymore. Now that U2 has demonstrated that they’re willing to leave physical product–even temporarily–it shows that physical media is that much closer to death. However, albums may still have some life left in them. Even though so many people prefer to buy their music a la carte, U2 has shown that maybe the hoopla around the release of a full album can still attract attention. Forbes wonders the same thing.

[UM, HOLD UP: A physical release for the album is coming next month. See the newsletter text below.]

2. Charts don’t matter anymore. Because of the way Songs of Innocence was released in an exclusive “push” manner–i.e. you got the album in iTunes whether you wanted it or not–it’s ineligible for including on any charts or any album sales awards. But who needs those metrics when half a billion people now have your record? Even if a fraction of them decide they like it and are converted or repatriated into U2 fans who will buy concert tickets and other releases in the catalogue, it’s worth it.

3. The management of both U2 and Apple are incredibly powerful and can influence events across every single level of the music industry. U2 just couldn’t create an album and give it away for free. Deals had to be cut with their label, which in turn will have to deal with the shit storm raised by their remaining retail partners. How would you feel if you ran a chain of record stores? Pissed, that’s how–and majorly so. And U2 is willing to take lumps from other online retailers. If I’m Jeff Bezos over at Amazon, I’m apoplectic. If I’m running Google Play Music, I’ve taken the shotgun down from above the fireplace. And is any streaming service other than Beats going to get the album? If not, Spotify, Rdio, Songza and everyone else will be shrieking mad.

4. Are there any more questions as to why Apple bought Beats? Only Jimmy Iovine could have pulled off this masterstroke of negotiation. Relationships in business can be worth hundreds of millions. And props to new U2 manager Guy Osery. He had a guiding hand in this concept. Here’s Paul McGuinness’ take on the situation, too.

5a.  This album wasn’t “free.”  Someone had to pay because many people needed to be paid.  Remember Jay Z’s deal with Samsung late last year? The deal was that everyone got a copy of his new album when they bought one of their new phones. To make this happen, Samsung had to buy a million copies of the record.  So what was the arrangement between U2, Apple and Universal? Money must have exchanged hands, although hardly at the standard iTunes price of $10 per album. Apple got a steep, steep discount in exchange for the publicity and distribution this arrangement provided.

5b. The cost of making this album can simply be built into the price of tickets for the next tour under U2’s 360 deal with Live Nation. The last U2 tour grossed $736,000,000; they’ll easily pay for this record with the next tour.

6. U2 did something like this before–and it worked great. Remember 1993 when Zooropa suddenly showed up while the band was still touring behind Achtung Baby? This is like that, except in reverse. Songs of Innocence is the surprise amuse bouche. The real album will be Songs of Experience, which is still in the pipeline. If I’m a betting person, I’d wager that it will be a more conventional release with plenty of physical media to go around. Note that Songs of Innocence will stop being free at 11:59pm PT on Monday, October 13. Who wants to lay money on Songs of Experience coming out Tuesday, October 14?

[SECOND THOUGHTS: Well, maybe not. Perhaps October 13-14 will be reserved for the physical release of Innocence. Again, refer to the newsletter below.]

[THIRD THOUGHTS: Hey, maybe it’ll be a double album with Innocence and Experience released together.]

7. Some people are screaming that U2 had sold their soul to Apple. I disagree. I had a long conversation with Bono about U2’s original business dealings with Apple about 10 years ago. His answer was “Striking a deal with Apple allows us to publicize and spread our music in ways that we could never afford to do. And what artist doesn’t want as many people as possible to hear their music?” He had something similar to say this time:

“From the very beginning U2 have always wanted our music to reach as many people as possible, the clue is in our name I suppose—so today is kind of mind-blowing to us. The most personal album we’ve written could be shared with half a billion people… by hitting send. If only songwriting was that easy.  It’s exciting and humbling to think that people who don’t know U2 or listen to rock music for that matter might check us out. Working with Apple is always a blast. They only want to do things that haven’t been done before—that’s a thrill to be part of.”

It’s estimated that Apple has $100 million to spend for this watch/iPhone 6 and iOS 8 campaign. Who wouldn’t want to piggyback on that?  With U2 starring in a commercial (which features the new single, “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” everyone will soon know that the band is back in business after five years.

9. Back to the notion of relationships: given how U2 jumped ship to BlackBerry for a couple of years, it’s interesting to speculate if they could have come back to Apple were Steve Jobs still alive. The man did know how to carry a grudge.

So why did U2 jump ship? As Bono told me my face:  “BlackBerry offered to give us access to their people and labs, something that Apple would not.” It was a bold experiment–hey BlackBerry was still on top of the world back then–but it obviously didn’t work out for either party.

10a. Is U2 still relevant? A lot of people–especially those under 30–will say no. No Line on the Horizon was a stiff, so U2 had to come up with some kind of comeback plan. There’s no obvious hit single on Songs of Innocence, although the more I hear “The Miracle” (Of Joey Ramone), the more I like it. (The studio version is much better than the live performance U2 gave at the Apple event.) But how many people around the planet at least gave them a chance today when they went for their free album on iTunes? And give them and their people credit for willing to experiment with things no one else would or could.

10b. And do you still need convincing that tech is the new rock’n’roll?

Anyone else have anything to add?

Larry Lootsteen did a track-by-track analysis of the record for this site here.  Here’s Billboard’s review of the album. They also point out that this album missed the deadline for being eligible for anything at the Grammys.  The Wall Street Journal’s analysis can be found here. The Guardian weighs in with their opinion on what this means for Apple.  Finally, here’s the text of a newsletter from


Dear Alan,Wow! The wait is over. Songs of Innocence, U2’s new studio album, is here.Better still, if you’ve got an iTunes account, these eleven new tracks are already waiting for you in your music library.

Simply go to the Music app on your iOS device, or to your iTunes music library on your Mac or PC, and find Songs of Innocence under the artist or album tab. The new album is in iCloud, just tap the track listing to start listening or tap the cloud icon to download.

Here you go.

The new album is set for worldwide release on October 13th but today Apple are giving it to half a billion iTunes Store customers. (Not got an iTunes account ? Create one here and the album will soon show up in your library.)

Recorded in Dublin, London, New York and Los Angeles, Songs of Innocence is produced by Danger Mouse, along with Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder, Declan Gaffney and Flood. Bono has written to fans, introducing the new songs:‘Remember us? Pleased to announce myself, Edge, Adam and Larry have finally given birth to our new baby… “Songs of Innocence”…It’s been a while. We wanted to get it right for you/us. We just finished it last week and thanks to Apple and iTunes it’s with you today…’

The physical release next month is accompanied by a 24-page booklet. A deluxe, gatefold double album, contains an acoustic session of songs from the album and four additional tracks: Lucifer’s Hands, The Crystal Ballroom, The Troubles (Alternative version) and Sleep Like a Baby Tonight (Alternative Perspective Mix by Tchad Blake). The album will also be available as a gatefold, double white-vinyl LP with an exclusive remix of “The Crystal Ballroom”.

Read more here and then add your comments.

The wait is over….

best wishes
The Team.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37874 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

9 thoughts on “So What Did We Learn from U2’s Surprise Album Announcement/Apple Deal/Giveaway? Ten Things–At Least.

  • Alan, was there any truth to the rumour that U2’s falling out with Apple back in 2008 was due to Apple’s insistence on making No Line on the Horizon an iTunes exclusive album?

  • Nice run down – the fact that U2 doesnt appear to care about hit singles or albums anymore is HUGE. It’s about getting the music heard via whatever means available.

  • U2 performed a song called Glastonbury in 2011 and the riff is featured at 2.22 minutes into “Volcano”?

  • There are a lot of people thinking it was a mistake. Kind of agreed.

    – Sure, U2 is turning business upside down, no question about it
    – I have my issues, but is because I think that U2 is no longer about music, is about business (Achtung Baby as a turning point).
    – This time, was U2. Maybe U2 did something worth to listen to, not sure about it since I don’t have ANY apple device (I didn’t listen to “No Line on the Horizon”, I don’t event want to)
    – Would you like to received crappy music from other artists just because Apple wants to? Bieber, Beyonce’, Minaj, Grande, 1D, etc, etc, etc.
    – I personally, don’t want Apple to choose my music, HOWEVER, I’m just a little tiny part of the people that LISTEN music, not just hear it.

    In any case, I gave U2 credit for trying do something different these days that creating music is getting harder by the minute (second?). They are one of the few acts in music that can afford doing this kind of accomplish (if any).

    My 2 cents…

    • You only “receive” the music if you choose to actually download it. You can stream it from the cloud or ignore it. That is hardly Apple choosing your music for you. Did you resent it as much when Jay-Z partnered up with Samsung?

      At this point in their career, U2’s desire I’m sure is to get as many people interested in their new music as possible. What better way than giving it away on the iTunes store for free? Everyone knows the money is made on tour now.

        • As a number of the posters in the thread you linked to mentioned. You get the downloads if you have your device set to automatically download new purchases (an unwise choice at best). I just don’t see how this is SO offensive to non-U2 fans. I bought a software application a number of years ago that came with a bunch of MP3 files. Different styles and artists, a lot of which I had no interest in. I was not in the least bout offended, never mind being down right abusive.

          My guess, at least half the people complaining don’t own an Apple device anyway. I suspect this is really just the down side of social media and its ability to magnify the whining minority.


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