Insights / branding

The Mistake at the Center of the U2-iTunes Album Download Debacle

Apple launch events are much-hyped and have an air of grandiosity to them – so who better to help the company announce the iPhone 6 in September than equally grandiose rockers U2?

But the big news that came next was met less than enthusiastically by fans: U2’s latest album, Songs of Innocence, automatically downloaded itself to millions of iTunes users’ libraries, at no charge.

In the era of internet piracy, one might think that an offering of free music from a major act like U2 would be a hit with consumers.

Not so. The internet lit up with complaints about the unsolicited download, with a distinctive “Don’t Tread on Me” theme. The outrage was shortly followed by a surge of articles describing how to delete the unwanted album from one’s device, and Apple shortly released a tool specifically designed to do just that.

It wasn’t just the fact that not every iTunes user is a fan of U2. Surely, the band and its managers had anticipated that. And the quality of the new album wasn’t at the center of debate, either.

What consumers objected to was the intrusion on their music libraries and their listening experience.

The mistake here: U2 and Apple disregarded just how personal, and even sacred, a person’s music collection is. The automatic download didn’t come across as a gift, but as a violation of privacy – presumptive, audacious, and even rude.

At first the band and Apple issued a general “If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it” non-apology, but in a video interview posted to U2’s Facebook page in mid-October, Bono responded to the accusation of rudeness:

“Oops, I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea … might have gotten carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess, we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.

Marketers, did you just feel a twinge of recognition?

Getting noisy enough to stand out from the crowd is just part of the advertising game – as is pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a campaign with no guarantee of its ultimate success.

The little twist of lemon is that, from a numbers perspective, this bold move wasn’t such a bad idea: Apple’s VP of internet software told Billboard magazine that Songs of Innocence had been downloaded 26 million times, and 81 million users had been exposed to it through one of Apple’s many music channels.

Backlash or no backlash, Bono got his wish. What’s more, including his apology in a Fan Q&A video on Facebook, rather than a canned press statement or soundbite, came across as a genuine “mea culpa.”

That kind of humility, especially from a mega-personality like Bono, goes a long way in resolving an image crisis like this one.

Likewise, brands that take risks on something outrageous may very well see that gamble pay off after the dust settles. Just don’t be surprised if that also means getting a little dirty or scuffed up in the process.