Apple: U2 Album We Forced on Users Was “Biggest Album Release in Music History”

No one can deny Apple, Inc. (AAPL) has a pretty broad reach.  Having in March blown past 500 million iPhones sold to date, Apple’s estimated user base of active devices is rumored to be around 400-450 million handsets (up from 325-250 million estimated in January).  Apple also has a number of lingering iPod users (likely in the tens of millions), and likely a couple hundred million iPad users.  Add all this up and you get over half a billion people globally that connect to Apple’s iTunes store.

With that massive base Apple recently conducted a bold — or according to some users, offensive — experiment in viral marketing.  It announced that it would be offering a new U2 album for free to all its iTunes users. And by “offering for free”, it meant “loading it into their iTunes libraries regardless of whether they wanted it or not”.

And while the album was free to users, it wasn’t free to Apple.  At the iPhone 6/6+ launch event, Apple CEO Tim Cook presented the Irish rock band U2, which performed a new song for the audience.  After the song, Tim Cook told the band’s lead singer, Bono, that he could release his album “in five seconds” if it were free.  Bono hammed back:
But first you would have to pay for it because we’re not going in for the free music around here.

Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook share a happy laugh on stage at the iPhone 6 launch event.
[Image Source: Bloomberg/Getty Images]
And pay it did.  In addition to promising $100M USD (according to Billboard) to market the board both in real life and in the digital space, it also offered the band an undisclosed lump sum in royalties and paid for the studio costs for the album.  It was almost as if Apple has money to burn (oh wait, it does).

Rob Mitchum of Pitchfork summarized this audacious ploy, commenting:
By updating the old Columbia House Record Club scam to the digital age, U2 and their Cupertino buddies have created a new avenue of opt-out cultural transmission, removing even the miniscule effort it takes to go to a website and click “Download.
(Columbia House orchestrated a controversial negative option billing scheme that once reached over 10 million people who were required to “opt out” of items they didn’t want to purchase.)

The resulting album, Songs of Innocence, shares its name with a #1 best-selling (in Belgium) indie rock album by Belgian Flemish singer Jasper Steverlinck, which boasted David Bowie as one of its producers.  Of course the real inspiration of the title is readily apparent:  Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a collection of 19 poems and corresponding illustrations published in 1789 by English poet William Blake.  Blake is sort of a big deal and it turns out the title of book — his first published collection of poetry — has been used by nearly a dozen other artists as an album title over the years.

So did customers get a good album?  Metacritic’s compiled ratings indicate this the lowest rated U2 album to date with a mediocre 65 percent score amongst professional reviews (that’s the same score Avril Lavigne’s recent s/t album got, if that gives you some idea).

Suffice it to say some loved the album unconditionally, others were moved to the point of rage against their favorite gadget company.  The backlash led Apple to eventually begrudgingly release a one-click tool to removed the “gift album” from users’ iTunes libraries.

With all that noise perhaps the hundred million dollar question (er, literally) is whether the tactic worked.  Apple thinks it did.  In an interview with Billboard magazine this week, Apple VP Eddy Cue bragged that the giveaway proved to be “the biggest album release in music history”.

Songs of Innocence may be the most listened to free album of all time. [Image Source: Apple]
The Apple exec stated that 81 million people “experienced” the album (as in, listened to at least one track on iTunes, iTunes Radio, or Beats apps).  That indicates only 1 in 6 customers accepted Apple’s “generosity” in any form.  And only 26 million downloaded the entire album set — roughly 1 in 20 customers.

But that’s still a massive amount of partakers, particularly in today’s saturated music market.  It appears what U2’s Songs of Innocence lacks in content and creativity, it makes up for in size.  Bono gushes:

Apple is a tech company fighting to get musicians paid. The idea that they wanted to make a gift to the very people that actually purchase music is both beautiful and poetic, and for that we are very grateful.
The new U2 album is — quite literally — the “too big to fail” posterchild of promotional record giveaways, passing The Daily Mail‘s distribution of roughly 3 million free Prince albums in 2007 and rap artist Jay-Z whose album Magna Carta Holy Grail which saw 1 million copies distributed for free as a promotion by Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) for buyers of a problem-plagued app for the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy Note II smartphones.

Prince participated in a similar 2007 giveaway. [Image Source: AFP/Getty Images]
Indeed, the album appears to have set a record for most “buyers” in its first month of avaiability.

That said, in lifetime sales it still has a ways to match the best-selling album of the last decade, Adele’s 21, which sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide.  And it would truly need a miracle to pass the late Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller album, which is estimated to have sold anywhere from 51 to 65 million albums worlwide.

For U2 this is just the beginning.  The band says it has a long-term deal with Apple and will next working at “transforming the way music is listened to.”  We’re not sure what that means, but we have a feeling we’ll find out all too soon.

As for the album, the true test of how “good” it really is or isn’t will come when it goes on sale for a price that isn’t “free”.  That will happen on Oct. 13.  Will those who uninstalled Apple’s “generosity” come to regret it in time?  Perhaps, but we’re guessing they’ll survive with or without U2.

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