For those of you with an interest in innovative app marketing techniques, branding (and brand tarnish), digital media distribution, or public relations and privacy, consumer juggernaut Apple has made a fairly rare faux pas with one of its recent promotions, which can provide valuable lessons to all app marketers.
Calling it “a big moment in music history,” and one that Apple’s customers are a part of, the company recently partnered with musical dynasty U2 to give away its new album, “Songs of Innocence,” to more than 500 million iTunes customers in 119 countries around the world.
“Never before have so many people owned one album, let alone on the day of its release,” Apple notes, revealing the importance of the project for the company in its site’s URL hierarchy (www.apple.com/U2) that puts the U2 initiative front and center — no “www.apple.com/music/bands/rock/free-albums/U2” or other more “practical” directory structure that indicates that this is the start of an extensive pattern.
“The collaboration between Apple and U2 began 10 years ago,” explains Apple. “We have partnered on TV commercials, the first special edition iPod, and (PRODUCT)RED. And [now] we’re bringing you U2’s latest album in a way no one else can.”
“At Apple, music has always been a big part of who we are and what we do,” the company concludes. “This is the biggest album release in music history and one more way we’re moving music forward.”
“Songs of Innocence” is available exclusively on iTunes, and is free through October 13. According to Apple, the album has its roots in both the band’s early and lifelong influences, including the Ramones, Bob Dylan, and The Clash. The tracks are also colored by the band’s formative years in Dublin and their transformative pilgrimage to California, noting that it is “a collection of songwriting and music made possible only by shared time and life experiences.”
Apple and U2 seem to be extending this concept of “sharing” by making a gift of this album to everyone — potentially earning legions of new fans and paying customers, while thwarting those content pirates that would have likely uploaded the album to various sites for free distribution anyways.
“In a world where music is illegally downloaded left and right and albums are often leaked well before their release dates, one would think a free album would be a welcome surprise. But this doesn’t seem to be the case,” Maeve Dunigan wrote for The Diamondback. “Many iTunes users felt a bit angry upon coming to the realization that iTunes had simply stuck this album in their library without their consent. The well-intentioned ‘gift’ was suddenly a nuisance and a violation of privacy.”
“Nuisance” and “a violation of privacy,” are not terms that the band, known for its social benevolence, welcomes being associated with — and the controversy over the album’s distribution has not escaped the band’s members — with U2’s lead singer, Bono, telling Chicago’s WXRT that “a lot of blood, sweat and tears just went into your junk mail.”
“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,” Variety reports Bono as stating. “The most personal album we’ve written could be shared with half a billion people — by hitting send.”
In an interview with Dave Fanning on popular Irish radio station 2FM, Bono expressed his hope that the band’s music and marketing would be a boon to Apple and its iTunes program, which faces competition from streaming services such as Spotify.
“[Apple has] 885 million iTunes accounts,” Bono told Fanning, “and we’re going to help them get that number to a billion.”
The artist also blamed a technological blip for the album being downloaded from the cloud on to the phones of unsuspecting consumers — noting that Apple regrets the incident, and points out that they quickly provided a removal mechanism. The star performer, however, seemed to dismiss the public outrage being expressed in some quarters as being much to do about nothing:
“The same people who used to write on toilet walls when we were kids are now in the blogosphere,” Bono opines. “The blogosphere is enough to put you off of democracy. But no, let people have their say. Why not? They’re the haters, we’re the lovers, we’re never going to agree.”
This seems like an arrogant attitude for someone at the center of one of the music industry’s biggest PR blunders in some time. And as for “having her say,” while Dunigan says that the idea of iTunes giving a gift to its users is nice, she notes that in theory, this giveaway should have gone off without a hitch.
“U2, with its extremely large and dedicated fan base, is one of a handful of bands that could actually get close to getting away with this stunt,” Dunigan explains. “If U2 had simply made the album free and not forced it into each and every library, there would be far less controversy and the album probably would have been better received.”
That sounds more like reasonable discourse than “hating,” but Bono and the band understandably had their feathers ruffled over the fact that many people did not want what the band put “a lot of blood, sweat and tears” into — even when given it for free.
Pulling the Plug
It may also have been embarrassing for Apple executives to have to give the go-ahead to the decidedly bland (and perhaps hastily constructed) SOI Removal page, which allows visitors to remove Songs of Innocence from their iTunes library and purchases.
“Once the album has been removed from your account, it will no longer be available for you to redownload as a previous purchase,” the SOI Removal page cautions. “If you later decide you want the album, you will need to get it again.”
“It’s usually considered rude to turn down or get rid of a gift, or even to ask for something else instead,” Dunigan concludes. “But with hit songs on iTunes selling for $1.29, it’s likely that if iTunes wanted to reward its users, most of them would have preferred a gift card.”
Despite the controversy, the publicity is priceless, and the practice exposed U2’s music to hundreds of millions of potential fans that may have never heard them before. Regardless, other performers seem reluctant to repeat the stunt.
According to DigitalSpy.com, performer Beyoncé would not consider a strategy similar to that of U2 — giving her new album away for free on iTunes — even though she partnered with Apple for a surprise release of her fifth album last year. Her marketing manager, Jim Sabey, says that he never likes to see anything given away for free — an attitude that many producers and rights owners can relate to.
“There’s a misconception that recorded music sales are not an important piece of the mix of any artist business,” Sabey says. “They’re still really important.”
Although the revenue mix for all creative sectors is in flux, alienating audiences is not a great solution for slumping sales, and is an unwanted side effect that might have been mitigated by careful planning.
“The damage here isn’t that a bunch of people need to figure out how to delete an album that they got for free and are now whining about,” explains former Tumblr exec Marco Arment. “It’s that Apple did something inconsiderate, tone-deaf, and kinda creepy for the sake of a relatively unimportant marketing campaign, and they seemingly didn’t think it would be a problem.”
The lessons for app marketers are profound, and highlight the dangers of misjudging your audience — and perversely, show that sometimes you can’t even give away a quality product for free — especially to those with no interest in having it. While most content producers and app marketers will never face this level of controversy over their distribution practices, the warning is something to take to heart.