The Free U2 Album The Internet Didn't Want

In celebration of U2’s headlining 2017’s Bonnaroo festival, BTRtoday presents a series on how our editor-in-chief learned to stop worrying and love U2. Read part one here. Want to see Bono and the boys at Bonnaroo? BTRtoday is giving away tickets. Click here for info.

Is Songs of Innocence still in your iTunes folder?

When U2 released Songs of Innocence in 2014, they went big, distributing it free of charge to 500 million iTunes accounts. The band intended the album as a gift to the world. The internet loudly called the gift unwanted. Three years on, the outrage seems even more bizarre than it did at the time.

On social media, youngsters asked “what’s a U2,” oblivious to how, in 15 years, teens will wonder what a Drake is. Some photoshop comedian created a vintage advertisement selling Sony walkmen with a free “War” cassette. Apple quickly released a tool that let people easily find and delete the album. Bono even offered a kind of apology for the album’s rollout.

The highwater mark of outrage was probably the Wired article “Apple’s Devious U2 Album Giveaway is Even Worse Than Spam.” The use of the word devious in the headline sets the tone for the story, which accuses Apple and U2 of creating a “ delivery mechanism that’s “nothing more than spam with forced download” that amounts to a “completely indefensible expansion by Apple beyond its operational purview.” Overall, the author’s concerns seem exclusively abstract—the only palpable downsides seem to be that you might have to accidentally hear U2 sometimes or that the file may take up storage you’d prefer to devote to something else.

I thought the outrage was dumb at the time. I wondered if it bothered these purists that “Duck Hunt” and “Super Mario Brothers” was included with NES? Were they upset when Minesweeper came with Windows? The album wasn’t bad—it was pretty good, in fact. Despite complaints, I found it fairly easy to find the files in order to delete them. Escaping Katy Perry’s music in public places proved far more difficult.

It was ironic that people taking to the internet to complain about U2 invading their online music libraries. The internet brought U2 to their music library in the first place.

The internet fosters cultural bubbles that make it possible for people to marinate in pop culture 24/7 but still never encountering U2, one of the most pop culture products in the world. But more importantly, the internet made file trading and streaming possible. It give billions of people free access to endless hours of music.

Obviously, getting free stuff rules. But free comes at a cost. Every song you’ve streamed, bit torrented or youtubed has led to U2’s presence in your music library. When we as a culture started expected all music in the world to be free, have stripped music of its monetary value. Now the biggest band in the world can’t rely on selling records or being played on the radio. So they’re forced to innovate, which puts them up in your playlists.

But don’t worry. The internet will prevent U2 from ever happening again. The weird little band they were in the early ‘80s would never find traction today. They’d never win a televised singing contest. They’re hard to twitter or Instagram about. They don’t have the niche appeal necessary to find an audience on the web. Their second album was a disappointment—fans would have moved and, poof, no more U2.

From the vantage point of a mere three years later, though, the outrage seems even more weird considering the rise of streaming services. No one cares about MP3s anymore–the copyright expired last week without any monied entity considering it valuable enough to pay to renew. Music is streamed, not stored, in 2017.

That is until you’re on a drive on a lonely road, far from the internet transmission signals of our city. Deep into the quiet parts of the country, the forests, deserts and farmlands, the internet music stream will thin to a static-y trickle before drying up altogether. You’ll be left with silence or whatever’s left in your long-neglected iTunes library. I’d imagine an album full of meticulously recorded sounds you’ve never heard before might be welcome.