Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Apple & U2 Partnership Not Quite The Sweetest Thing

I've got to be honest, I've never really got into U2. Of course musical taste is in the ear of the beholder but I've never understood the fuss about their safety-first, middle-of-the-road, radio friendly rock. "One" may be one of the most beautiful tracks ever written but it's hard to identify any other output of any musical significance since 1991's Achtung Baby. It's all a little beige. I suspect I am not alone in that view.

Interesting then, that U2 should find themselves at the centre of a storm this week which has seriously polarised opinion. As part of the much-hyped launch of Apple's iPhone 6 (the reverence with which these launches are covered in mainstream media is another story altogether) and their new Watch product, U2 not only performed at the event but the following day, 500 million iPhone owners around the world found the Irish band's latest album had "mysteriously" appeared on their devices.

U2 are not the first band to make their material available to download free of charge (Radiohead launched In Rainbows via their official site as far back as 2007) but they are certainly (and possibly not surprisingly) the first to assume that everyone wants their music in their iTunes library. The reaction tells us a lot about how we - the consumer - think. In an age where content downloading, sharing and even ripping is commonplace, you'd think that a free album would go down well with the masses. Not so.

Whilst some users made that very point (with others just suggesting turning off the "automatic download" option on their iTunes) the reaction on Twitter for the most part was outrage that Apple (or U2, the government or even the Illuminati in some instances) can just decide what content should appear on our devices. It demonstrates both the personal attachment that people have to their devices and what their choice of handset and the content of their music library says about them as individuals.

So, the upshot this morning is that Apple have launched a tool specifically designed to allow users to remove the offending content from their libraries. As a commercial exercise it's hard to work out whether it has been a success or not. Apple reportedly paid U2 & Universal Music $100m for the right to download the new album to 500 million iTunes libraries yet "only" 33 million of those gifted the album have actually downloaded it at the time of writing - which, if the album was for sale through traditional channels - would constitute triple-diamond status in US metrics, but given that it is free of charge and instantly available, actually reflects adoption of less than 7% (and possibly the unwanted official title of the world's most-deleted album).

All of this feels like a poor return for Apple for all the negative sentiment its generated. There is no doubt that their new products will be hugely successful but the smartphone market is a hugely competitive one (iPhone has about 30% in the UK) and alienating parts of its customer base is not a good idea. Perhaps some will be enticed to explore U2's back catalogue and there will be some payback through those channels but looking at the stunt holistically, it would appear to have backfired.

So why did they do it? Possibly two reasons: U2 and Apple's conflated ego couldn't countenance the possibility that customers couldn't not want their new album and secondly, simply because they could. It's stretching credibility to describe the stunt in Orwellian terms but it does raise huge questions - especially in light of the recent leak of explicit celebrity videos/photos - about cloud security, the trust we place (and the access we allow and information we share) with companies like Apple and the extent to which they are then able to try to dictate what we consume.

No real harm has been done either by Apple or U2 but it feels like it might have come at the right time, before our brave new technological world really took things too far. We all need to be a little bit more thoughtful about what we presume our customers might want and we - as those customers - need to understand how quickly the world is moving and that we need to be more careful about the permissions we allow those companies. It might also be worth considering that just because something is technologically possible, it doesn't mean it's de facto a good thing to do.

For those of us who just haven't downloaded the album, it's due to appear in a new Apple marketing campaign so perhaps there really is no escape!