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U2 Giveaway Shows We’ve Entered the Age of Digital Consent

After breathlessly introducing the iPhone 6, the iPhone 6 Plus, and the Apple Watch, Apple CEO Tim Cook “negotiated” with U2 lead singer Bono to give every iTunes customer a free copy of the band’s new album, “Songs of Innocence.” (See “How to Get (or Delete) Your Free U2 Album,” 10 September 2014.)

A slam-dunk move, right? U2 makes a lot of money, Apple’s customers get a free album, and Apple scores points with both customers and the music industry. Yes, but…

Apple didn’t just offer the album as a free download, but instead added it to every iTunes user’s account. For users with automatic downloads enabled, that meant that the album may have been automatically placed on their devices (reports vary). Similarly, iTunes Match subscribers found it in their cloud libraries, and for everyone else, the album appeared in purchase histories, ready for download.

Initially, this approach caused confusion about how to obtain the album, prompting my article. That was followed by a surprising amount of backlash. iTunes customers took to social media to ask why a U2 album had suddenly appeared in their music libraries (apparently, not everyone watches Apple keynotes), to complain how much they hate U2, and even to ask who U2 is (come on, folks, you know about Wikipedia by now).

My initial reaction was laughter. How spoiled, how privileged, to be complaining about a free album from one of the world’s most popular musical acts of the last 30 years? Even I, ambivalent about U2, was curious to give the album a listen. I was also struck by the irony of how we’d moved on from concern over people sharing music illegally to complaining about being given music for free.

But after more thought, I started to understand the complainers’ point. You can feel oddly violated when receiving something of value for free, if it’s done wrong.

Digital Intimacy — I like Scotch whisky. But imagine that one day, while I’m home alone, I leave the house to check the mailbox. I come back in to find a bottle of Lagavulin 16 — a not inexpensive Scotch — on my kitchen table.

Replace the Scotch with your treat of choice. Would you feel elated? Curious? Maybe a bit creeped out?

Now let’s say it was something you did not ask for and do not want — perhaps a truly horrific Christmas sweater with a chorus line of fluorescent pink dancing reindeer. Whatever elation you might have felt when finding a treat is probably replaced by fear. What is this thing? Who’s been in my house?

Let’s take out the mystery factor. A stranger knocks on your door and offers you the sweater for free, no strings attached. Are you likely to be appreciative of the addition to your wardrobe, or annoyed at the intrusion?

This might seem like a silly analogy, but our devices are our digital homes. They contain our deepest secrets: private messages, email, photos, passwords, browsing history. Even the apps we choose to install say much about us. Look into someone’s phone, and you’ll see her hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears, whims, and secrets. Like any home, most of us paid dearly for them, and most of us are paying a mortgage of sorts. Like any home, we furnish them to match our tastes, choosing custom wallpaper for the home screen and cases to protect the finish.

That’s no accident. Apple has long designed its devices to be intimate. The company’s description of the Apple Watch is explicit about this: “And since Apple Watch sits on your wrist, your alerts aren’t just immediate. They’re intimate.” For now, you can’t get much more intimate than an iPhone in your pocket or a MacBook on your lap. These devices are in a way extensions of our selves.

You may be giggling, but you’re a savvy TidBITS reader. You knew about the free album, so a sudden, unexpected gift wasn’t a surprise. But put yourself in the shoes of the average Apple customer. Technology is not your hobby, so you don’t keep up with the latest tech news. Suddenly, a mysterious album appears in the Music app. You might even think someone hacked into your iTunes account, and given recent events, that wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption (for background, see “iCloud Flaw Not Source of Celebrity Photo Theft,” 2 September 2014).

But even if you knew what was happening, I can see why you might not appreciate it. For one thing, it raises the question of who owns your device. Is it truly your iPhone, or are you merely leasing it from Apple, which is free to act like a capricious landlord installing an ugly couch unasked? It was bad enough when Apple forced the 666 MB iOS 7 download on even those iOS 6 users who had no interest in upgrading (see “Unwanted iOS 7 Occupying Space on iOS 6 Devices,” 14 October 2013). But at least that was within Apple’s sphere of influence. The latest album from U2 is not.

What Apple should have realized, especially given the company’s long history with music, is that music is special, and is core to many people’s identities.

The Identity of Music — People have undoubtedly been arguing about music since some biped long ago figured out that banging rocks together makes an interesting noise. That’s because music is a personal reflection of taste.

Music isn’t just noise coming from an instrument or a speaker, it’s a part of our very being. Classical, punk, country, metal, hip-hop, and others aren’t just genres of music, they each have an ethos, an underlying philosophy that espouses or at least correlates with a particular lifestyle. For instance, I live in Tennessee, a part of the world that holds dear the country music way of life, which rejects essentially everything U2 represents.

What does U2 represent? To its fans, U2 stands for quality pop-rock with a social conscience. But to its detractors, it may stand for something else. A pierced and tattooed punk might call U2 “corporate sellouts.” To a country music fan in his pickup, U2 may instead be “preachy, liberal, big-city music.”

Regardless of your feelings about U2, my point is that our choices in music reflect both what we stand for and what we reject. There’s even infighting among fans of sub-genres. A thrash metal fan might argue bitterly with a death metal fan. Even in the big tent of pop, modern idols like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have their own personal fanboy armies who inveigh against the music of competitors. (It’s akin to how the fanboys go on about Apple and Google, or Apple and Microsoft.)

With our music collections being a sort of mirror-filled museum of our personalities, it’s no wonder that some people are up in arms about Apple pushing on them an album from a band that stands for things they flat out reject.

Ultimately, it’s still very much a first-world problem that’s easy to laugh off, but Apple could have done this in a better way.

Could This Have Been Avoided? What’s the difference between spam and an email list you opt into, like your weekly dose of TidBITS? Consent.

Instead of ham-fistedly adding “Songs of Innocence” to every user’s iTunes account, Apple should have merely made it free in the iTunes Store for a limited time and promoted the dickens out of it.

Why did Apple choose to force the album on every iTunes user? I can only guess, but let’s follow the money. U2 stands to gain both directly — Apple paid the band upwards of $100 million according to the New York Times — and from exposure to 500 million iTunes customers. Apple has said that 33 million iTunes customers have “experienced” the U2 album. That’s less than 7 percent of the installed base, which is pretty good for a marketing campaign, and well above the 25 million sales that the band’s top-selling album, 1987’s “The Joshua Tree,” racked up. Voluntary downloads would likely have been far lower, so it’s possible U2 required distribution to all iTunes customers to justify the $100 million fee. Plus, the mere fact that many younger iTunes users hadn’t even heard of U2 shows the possible promotional value of the giveaway, although giving music away for free certainly hasn’t helped all the indie acts that can’t swing exclusives with Apple.

For Apple, the giveaway was an opportunity to make a huge promotional splash, associate the company even more with the reflected cool of rock stars, and maybe pick up some more iTunes accounts with the limited-time nature of the offer. Apple certainly hasn’t been shy about telling the world about its largesse. Remember too that Apple has a position to protect with the iTunes Store, and if it can dangle even the hint of such massive promotion in front of other bands and record labels, that has to be worth something in future negotiations.

Regardless, I think Apple learned that pushing the album on everyone was the wrong choice, given that the company quickly released a special tool to scrub the offending album from users’ accounts.

As a one-off event, it’s easy to chuckle about the complaints. But it should be taken by Apple and other tech companies as an important lesson: while many won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, others will be angry about it marking up the kitchen floor.

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