U2unes Download: Apple and U2 Announce Next Big Gift to Music

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After exclusively launching U2’s new Songs of Innocence album to 500 million iTunes accounts this past week, Apple is delivering something else in response to customer demand. And true to Apple form, it’s an intuitive, easy-to-use and simple piece of technology—a delete button

A case study in how not to show customer appreciation, the unwanted gift of U2 music to all iTunes customers, whether they were fans of the Irish rockers or not, was hyped as the largest album release ever, and a “shrewd” marketing partnership (to the reported tune of $100 million) to celebrate the roots of the brand’s longstanding tie-in with the band.

It turns out that the U2 album giveaway was a teaser for a bigger gift to come—and not only to music lovers but to musicians and the music industry as a whole. As TIME reveals in an exclusive cover story today, Apple is working with U2 on a bigger “secret project”: a new digital music format designed to delight and excite customers to buy not only individual tracks but whole albums-as-experiences, and in so doing, “save the music industry.”[more]

Bono tells TIME that Apple and the band are developing “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never seen it before.”

If they want to succeed at this next gift to music, they should heed lessons from their latest well-intended but poorly executed promotion. Beyond the debatable cultural relevancy of U2’s new album, it was the forced delivery of the album (or as U2 calls it, “long player“) to all iTunes users that rankled most, removing choice at a time when customers were already concerned about privacy in the wake of iCloud’s security debacle.

Some observers theorized that an ulterior motive of the Songs of Innocence giveaway was to boost iTunes accounts to bolster Apple Pay’s account base. And while millions of dollars were reportedly exchanged in this deal, many have pointed out that the promotion lacks the altruistic component that have come to define Apple and U2’s (RED) roots as philanthropic and musical partners. (And why weren’t Apple’s $3.2 billion Beats music maestros on-stage?)

But as TIME observes in its international edition, Universal Music Group and the band’s “decision to team up with Apple to deliver the new album to every iTunes subscriber, unasked, raised valid questions about consumer choice and personal space in a world that routinely infringes on both.” And even though 38 million (of an iTunes user base of 500 million) checked out the album, Apple failed those customers on an even deeper level by neglecting to craft an experience around the promotion.

The problem: Customers received a freebie, yes, but no experience that gave it any meaning, that delighted or felt valuable in any way. Tim Cook and Bono’s awkward, finger-touching, on-stage charade that this was an impromptu act of generosity also didn’t give users a reason to care, nor did Mark Romanek’s throwback of a commercial (below) that evoked U2’s previous tie-ins with Apple.

Despite what Apple and U2 intended, they failed to consider what more 500 million iTunes users thought or wanted. It’s strange to define a free giveaway as selfish, but it quickly became apparent that the promotion was more about two brands getting in the headlines as disruptors, than actual, meaningful disruption. Hopefully they’ll heed that lesson as they prepare for the new digital music platform.

While U2 will debut that new format with its next album release in 18 months or so, it won’t be exclusive to the band but benefit all musicians, especially lesser-known artists who can’t bank on live performances to pay the bills, because all artists should be compensated for their work. As Billboard notes, it’s a grandiose plan to save music, but “no easy task when free-to-access music is everywhere (no) thanks to piracy and legitimate websites such as YouTube.”

Apple, Universal Music and U2 were no doubt inspired by (and aspired to) the success of Samsung and Jay Z’s collaboration to release the Magna Carta album to a million Samsung users for free through an exclusive app last summer. While they missed the mark on that front, can Apple and U2’s just-announced next “gift” to music-lovers fix it? With Apple’s future firmly tethered to U2, they’d certainly do well to consider how Samsung delivered a cohesive experience that culminated in a free album.

Samsung and Jay Z intertwined their brands by leveraging shared ideas around innovation to craft a cohesive narrative. It helped that Jay Z’s brand is one of evolution, and he’s known for pushing the boundaries of the genre he helped to define, both in terms of music and business. With its bigger phones and smartwatches, Samsung has threatened Apple through constant innovation—a fact its marketers were only too happy to remind consumers of following the unveiling of the iPhone 6.

And while their brands were a natural fit on some level, Samsung deployed a multi-faceted communications campaign strengthening the story, including commercials, web content and in-app content that gave consumers an exclusive look into Jay Z’s album. These communications highlighted themes of evolution and challenging the status-quo—and it all fit seamlessly into Samsung’s larger brand communications. Samsung was already in the midst of a major “next big thing” branding campaign, and here they were partnering with Jay Z to literally deliver the “next big thing” in music to their users, for free.

By failing to craft an experience that engaged users and made the U2 album giveaway meaningful, Apple mismanaged a very pricey opportunity and frustrated customers. Now iTunes users may need a little more finessing and convincing to accept Apple and U2’s “next big” gift to music.

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