Forward-thinking U2 scores pub after releasing album free on iTunes

Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, greets Bono, from the band U2, after they preformed at the end of the Apple event in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 9.  (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, greets Bono, from the band U2, after they preformed at the end of the Apple event in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 9. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

By Chris Talbott
Associated Press

Since U2 stunned the music world by delivering a surprise album at Apple’s iPhone 6 unveiling and making it available to a half-billion iTunes users for free, they’ve gotten an avalanche of publicity.

But who’s listening to it? The answer is still unclear. Apple has not released official download rates for “Songs of Innocence” and U2’s manager, Guy Oseary, also said he didn’t know how many people had actually downloaded the album.

But that really wasn’t the point: The album will live on in users’ iCloud, and the band envisions new listeners accessing it for the first time for years to come.

“We’re quite happy that 7 percent of the planet has this album, and they can enjoy it at their leisure,” Oseary said.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ move was hotly debated within the industry as people tried to assess whether it was another stroke of genius from a band that has been a top-selling juggernaut for decades or a ploy by an aging group trying to make a splash in a landscape that has vastly changed since it released its last album in 2009. Even though that album went platinum, its sales were a bit of a disappointment for the band.

Back then, frontman Bono told The Associated Press, “We felt that the ‘album’ is almost an extinct species, and we (tried to) create a mood and feeling, and a beginning, middle and an end. And I suppose we’ve made a work that is a bit challenging for people who have grown up on a diet of pop stars.”

That diet has gotten even more extreme since then, with album sales continuing to plummet industrywide, singles dominating and streaming services including Spotify and even iTunes helping to diminish the impact of a cohesive art form album.

So what is U2 trying to achieve with its latest Apple alliance? Oseary said the band achieved one goal: keeping the integrity of “Songs” intact by releasing it as an album. As far as U2’s larger business goals?

“I don’t expect everyone to get everything now,” Oseary said. “Maybe in a few years things will start making sense or they won’t. But that’s not our job. Our job is to make sure the music is in as many hands as possible. This was an incredible opportunity to do that.”

U2 joined Jay Z, Beyonce and a growing number of artists who are working out exclusive corporate deals and employing guerrilla ad campaigns rather than moving the album through the typical marketing plan of singles release and slow build to launch date.

Like Jay Z and his Samsung partnership to launch “Magna Carta … Holy Grail” last year, U2 and Interscope Records get handsomely paid — something that’s no longer guaranteed from album sales alone — and the money comes on up front. Apple continues a high-profile relationship with a longtime business and philanthropic partner, plus earns more credit for innovation. Fans get something for free and those who don’t want it can just ignore it.

“I applaud each of those artists creating a stir and not just falling into a predictable marketing strategy,” longtime producer and Sony Music Entertainment executive Clive Davis said. “I think in the case of Beyoncé and Jay Z, they had successful results triggering so much extra media attention and coverage because they didn’t do things in a formulaic kind of manner.”

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