U2's deal with Apple to automatically place their 13th album Songs of Innocence in every iTunes library on Earth may essentially be history's most high-profile spam campaign, but it's also an unprecedented artistic opportunity to reach half a billion people without any sort of commercial pressure.
"People who haven't heard our music, or weren't remotely interested, might play us for the first time because we're in their library," Bono wrote in a message to fans on U2's official site. "Country fans, hip-hop afficionados from east L.A., electro poppers from Seoul, bhangra fans from New Delhi, highlifers in Accra might JUST be tempted to check us out, even for a moment."
So, given this platform and the most diverse potential audience of their long career, U2 went and gave everyone a record in which Bono and his band mythologize their youth in Ireland and attempt to merge the post-punk aesthetic of their earliest work with the sound of commercial rock radio circa 2011 — think Coldplay, the Black Keys, Mumford & Sons. It's an album of songs stuck halfway between bland compromise and solopsistic self-indulgence, and it's pretty safe to say those electro-poppers and bhangra fans aren't going to be won over.
It's also safe to say that U2 decided to release Songs of Innocence in this way because they knew that if they opted for a traditional roll out, whatever they chose to be their first single would almost definitely flop on the radio and album sales would be well below their standards. This is what happened when they released their previous album, No Line on the Horizon, in 2009, and it's what has happened to pretty much any legacy artist over the past several years. A lot of U2's contemporaries, like Bruce Springsteen, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and the now-disbanded R.E.M., made their peace with this inevitability of the market years ago and simply followed their muse and played big shows for their large cult audiences. U2, however, have been entirely unwilling to let go of their ongoing quest to be the biggest band on the planet, even if their most recent major hit song, "Vertigo," came out a decade ago, and blew up mainly because it was part of an Apple ad campaign.
They opted to release Songs of Innocence suddenly via iTunes to avoid the appearance of failure, and to return to the last promotional strategy that worked for them. This plan was their chance to turn a record with a very narrow commercial appeal into a big event and claim it as the biggest album release of all time, even if the giveaway on iTunes does not count toward sales tracked by Nielsen SoundScan, and exempts it from inclusion on Billboard's charts (at least until Oct. 14, when it gets a more traditional release). The band does stand to get serious Apple money regardless of whether anyone actually wants the music, and they changed their narrative for the time being. So in that sense, it's a huge victory for them.
If you look at this in the context of other surprise releases by superstar artists, it doesn't look like a win at all. Unlike Radiohead's "pay what you like" release of In Rainbows in 2007 or Beyoncé dropping her self-titled album out of nowhere late last year, the rollout of Songs of Innocence is not coming from a position of strength. If you are confident and thriving, you suddenly can drop a record and your fans will rush to buy it, and the enthusiasm around the music will make it an event. U2's strategy is based on the assumption that they'd only get attention if they literally forced themselves into everyone's collection of music. So, understandably, more people are confused why they suddenly have a record by someone called U2 on their phone, than are talking about the songs.
Jay Z pulled a very similar trick by giving away his Magna Carta Holy Grail on Samsung Galaxy devices last year, and while that campaign came from a similar need to create the illusion of sustained massive success, he at least scored a few genuine radio hits in "Holy Grail," "Tom Ford," and "On the Run II." It's pretty unlikely that even the most memorable cuts on Songs of Innocence, like "Every Breaking Wave" and "The Troubles" featuring Lykke Li, will have much of a life outside serving as a signal for casual fans to hit the concession stands and restrooms when the band inevitably goes out on tour next year.
In the context of U2's career, which ranges from the monumental highs of Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree to the PR train wreck of Pop and the cringe-inducing disaster that is No Line on the Horizon, Songs of Innocence is more boring than it is embarrassing. And, like, hey, "not the nadir of their career" is some kind of relief if you're a long-term fan. The embarrassing thing here is not the music so much as them feeling this need to force themselves into relevance, and to seize upon the "surprise album" tactic in a very "well, all the superstars are doing it now, and WE are superstars too" way.
This is very much a record for hardcore U2 fans — it's essentially a memoir of their early days set to music — and, despite what Bono thinks, it wouldn't be a disaster if it were only heard by a people who are actually interested. U2 behaves as though they are "too big to fail," but their notion of what failure entails has become so perverse that they're willing to take quite a personal album and effectively make it little more than junk mail.