Picture the two. One is a bland, middle-aged act, coasting on former success but still wildly profitable among old white men with spreading waistlines. The other is rock band U2. On the face of it, Bono and his bandmates represent an ideal soulmate for Apple. Both institutions are entering a flatulent, post-hit period and probably regard one another as the epitome of cool.
But dig a little deeper into the free giveaway of U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, and you start to realise that, as with all relationships, there’s a donkey and a racehorse. And the donkey’s not who you might think it is.
What’s happened since Apple gifted every man, woman and child on the planet with a copy of the album via their iTunes accounts is that, understandably, some people kicked up a fuss. Because although you can delete, or never in the first place download, the stadium rock snoozefest from your iTunes library, it remains visible as a past “purchase,” waiting to be re-downloaded.
Cue uproar from anyone with passable taste in music demanding a solution from Apple to wipe the Irish chancers from their iPods and laptops for good. Post-Steve Jobs, Apple is a more reactive company, so it duly complied, releasing a fix that has been unkindly referred to as the “U2 killer” and the “Bono-banisher.” Alright, I made those two up.
But here’s where it gets interesting, in terms of who has lost out over this ugly public relations blunder. You’d imagine, wouldn’t you, that it’s U2. After all, the headlines all name the band. It’s U2, sliming its way into your music collections. Don’t we all just hate that sanctimonious, sunglassed simpleton?
And yet, as my former colleague James Cook, a reporter for Business Insider and an expert on tech and pop culture, explains: “[Apple CEO] Tim Cook’s unveiling of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch was meant to be a triumphant event, a clear signal that he was in charge of Apple, and that the company continues to produce innovative, exciting products. Instead, Apple is shown to be out of touch with its users, awkwardly introducing U2 on stage as if they’re still remotely relevant to popular culture.”
Ouch. He continues: “[Tim] Cook is desperate to secure the limelight and adoration that his predecessor, Steve Jobs, enjoyed until his death in 2011. But the involvement of U2 in the iPhone 6 launch event has shown him to be easily swayed and seemingly oblivious of what Apple customers actually care about.”
Post-Steve Jobs, Apple is different. In fact, it’s going through something of a mid-life crisis, working out what’s next on the horizon. The company’s watch is a stop-gap: proof that Apple can still release solid products, but hardly transformative in the way its iPod, iPhone or iPad have been. Proof of its middle-aged confusion is the Deepak Chopra-esque language in its ads and at its keynotes.
Where Jobs used to speak convincingly about the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, now Apple’s disembodied narrators bang on about “difference” and “sameness” and the transformative power of the individual in voiceovers that sound as though they were lifted from the pages of an Oprah’s Book Club special pick.
Meanwhile, the mega-rich rock stars that grace its stage are laughing all the way to the Blarney stone. “U2 don’t care about ‘online outrage’ over their new album,” says James Cook. “Their new album hasn’t even gone on sale yet. Bono used Apple’s event, and nearly a billion Apple customers, to drag his band back into the limelight. Sales of the album when it is properly released in October will show that their fans simply don’t care about iCloud purchases or hidden iTunes files.”
Those fans will also, no doubt, continue to buy tickets for the band’s gigantic, sell-out tours, which is where Bono and pals make their real money, not in album sales. (Though industry gossip is clear: Apple paid a fortune for the album.)
Apple still hasn’t found what it’s looking for: a decent music partner that doesn’t annoy or bore the hell out of every tastemaker in the world. It’s amazing really. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, must have the worst musical taste of any gay man on the planet. What this latest stunt shows is that it has even less idea than it did when it invited Chris Martin to a keynote of what its customers consider current.