“U2’s The Edge smashes his guitar while encased in an iPhone frame in Apple’s new commercial promoting the band’s album, ‘Songs of Innocence.’ Frame grab by author”
This article examines Apple’s decision to push U2’s album “Songs of Innocence” to all of its users through the iCloud. I consider this strategy of music distribution as an inversion of the notion of “on demand culture,” instead suggesting it functions more as “culture demanding on itself” through an intrusion into the everyday practice and devices of music listeners. This brief article calls for a better understanding of how individuals and corporations negotiate questions of taste culture and distribution amidst “ubiquitous access” to content and to devices.
On 9 September 2014, Apple unveiled a string of new products at one of their customary keynote events: a bigger iPhone! Wearable technology! The company also brought rock band U2 on stage to perform new single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” before frontman Bono and CEO Tim Cook engaged in some stagey banter to announce that U2’s new album, “Songs of Innocence,” was being released for free to all roughly 500 million Apple users. Not only was it being given away, it was being given to—over the course of the day, users discovered that the album had been “pushed” to their mobile devices through iCloud. As The Daily Mail explained, the album appeared in the Music app on Apple devices, but was not physically stored on the device until it had been downloaded.[i]
This was, from Apple’s point of view, a crowning moment of digital distribution. Radiohead famously released their 2007 album “In Rainbows” through their website, allowing users to pay whatever they wanted—even nothing—to download the album. In December 2013, Beyonce released a self-titled album without any pre-release warning through Apple’s iTunes (fans still had to pay for the download).[ii] “Songs of Innocence” seems to up the ante, using cloud technology to push content to any and all users in a move of ubiquitous, forced circulation. The band experimented in this kind of release earlier this year, letting users download their single “Invisible” for free for 24 hours from the iTunes store, with the stipulation that Bank of America would donate $1 for every download to the organization (RED), which helps fight AIDS worldwide (and which Bono cofounded in 2006).[iii] U2 is further partnering with Apple to help release music on a file format that will be “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated,”[iv] bringing the commodity of the song further under control of the artist—and the corporations they partner with.
Cook called it “the biggest album release of all time,” and he should know: The New York Times reported that Apple “paid the band and Universal an unspecified fee as a blanket royalty and committed to a marketing campaign for the band worth up to $100 million.”[v] Certainly, the economics behind this release are even savvier on U2’s end: After their 360˚ tour shattered the Rolling Stones’ 2007 record with a total gross of over $735 million and ticket sales north of 7.2 million, the band is clearly maneuvering to take advantage of a struggling music industry and a thriving touring industry.[vi]
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin have called U2’s stage shows “celebrations of media and the act of mediation,”[vii] a point that deserves to be nuanced slightly. The band’s Zoo TV tour incorporated video cameras and towering television screens in part to comment on the omnipresence of mediation in everyday life. Rock became both intimately complicit in and resistant to this fabric of mediation—the band’s position on the political power of transmission was thoroughly ambivalent.[viii] Perhaps we can consider “Songs of Innocence” as the pinnacle of U2’s consideration—through their stage shows and performances if not their music—of the place of transmission, broadcast, and spectacle as part of everyday life. That spectacle now exists less in television and more in the relations between individuals and corporations mediated through digital communication technologies. As Bono said through the band’s official website, “Part of the DNA of this band has always been the desire to get our music to as many people as possible. In the next 24 hours, over a half a billion people are going to have Songs of Innocence … What a mind blowing, head scratching, 21st century situation.”[ix]
Somewhat strangely, Bono has also called the band’s 13th studio album “a very personal album.”[x] Indeed, as Rolling Stone notes in its glowing review of the album, “For the first time, after decades of looking abroad for inspiration… [U2] have taken the long way ‘round to metamorphosis: turning back and inward, for the first time on a whole record, to their lives and learning as boys on the way to uncertain manhood (and their band) in Dublin.”[xi] That’s another way of saying “Songs of Innocence” is likely to appeal, foremost, to longtime fans of the band who have a sense of where this music comes from, as opposed to an album like their 2001 anthem-rock, radio-ready “All That You Can’t Leave Behind.”
Six days after its release, Apple announced that 33 million people have listened to the album.[xii] Also six days after its release, Apple published a “Remove Album” button to allow users irate with an album clogging space on their mobile devices and iTunes libraries to permanently wipe it.[xiii]
There are certainly taste cultures at play in the backlash, with users tweeting disgust that an album for a band they don’t care for had been forcible placed in their iCloud. Invoking an analogy between album collections and mp3 collections, these users complained that U2’s presence disrupts a carefully constructed manifestation of their personalities. As Jonathan Sterne has argued, mp3 libraries are in part about “massive exchange” and “massive accumulation” – they are spaces for users to show the glut of their musical ownership and the range and depth of their taste.[xiv]
Beyond questions of curatorship, there is also the problem of “forced circulation,” or companies pushing content into users’ libraries. Apple has historically controlled what can be done with its mp3s, placing limitations on copying, editing, and redistributing them through certain kinds of digital rights management coding that reinforce their status as corporate-sanctioned commodities as opposed to user-manipulable digital files.[xv]
The debate about “Songs of Innocence” is largely about the mp3 as a form of file storage rather than as an album in and of itself. It is a rather public instance where Jonathan Sterne’s notion that mp3s are “experienced as music, not as file formats”[xvi] is roundly complicated. Sterne’s work on the mp3 is incredibly generative, not least of which because of his exploration of the mp3’s curious status as a cultural object that is not a physical object. Its transient status allows it to maneuver the spaces of casual listening—or, rather, the spaces of everyday life.[xvii]
This idea of everyday access was indeed part of Apple’s 9 September event. Among the most discussed features of their unveiled AppleWatch has been Digital Tough, which includes “the ability to send your heartbeat” to a friend.[xviii] Wearable technologies have been predicated on both quantifying pace, steps taken, and other attributes of physical movement and rest, and also socially sharing some of these features to friends through applications. In that regard the AppleWatch’s heartbeat feature is not particularly startling, but it does speak to the company’s ongoing pursuit of access to the body.
“Songs of Innocence” is being measured in terms of listens, not in downloads. The “ear,” not the device, becomes the barometer of success. Between Apple Pay, Apple Watch, and “Songs of Innocence,” the tech company has gone on the aggressive pushing economic and biological information, as well as data files to and through its users/consumers. Certainly, we can imagine these kinds of information working together, informing different kinds of knowledge and everyday practice both for the corporation and the users.
To my mind, “Songs of Innocence” is a sly inversion of what Chuck Tryon calls “on demand culture.”[xix] Tryon frames his analysis of digital distribution around issues of cinema and video access, but his call to examine the “ubiquitous and immediate access”[xx] of digital delivery also works the other way. Apple’s album push seems also to be an instance of Culture Demanding On Itself. It is not merely that users can go to the iTunes Store and download the album for free, it is that Apple has made the album part of every user’s iCloud.
This complicates how culture belongs partly to what Raymond Williams (1958) called the “court of human appeal” and, more importantly, how culture is part of both industrial formations and social relationships.[xxi] To think about the materiality and artifactual value of the mp3 is to show how it transcends its lack of materiality and, moreover, how its experience matters culturally in 21st century lived experience. The small file size allows and encourages massive exchange, and Apple has exploited that to an interesting and unprecedented degree with “Songs of Innocence.”
My main thrust in writing this short piece, then, is to suggest Apple’s forced distribution of an mp3 constitutes an instance of Culture Demanding On Itself. If culture is in part what humans make of it beyond and alongside the industries that produce its materials, then what are we to make of “Songs of Innocence,” or Apple, or U2? In lieu of forecasting its implications—as it is very much a hotly contested exception to the norms of music distribution—I would rather ask: Can culture actually demand anything? Or is it the corporation placing the demand on its users to download and listen to its “gift”? Even thornier—is “Songs of Innocence” a more explicit moment of recognizing the interrelations of corporations and culture?
Apple’s distribution stunt speaks to the complexities of what “ubiquitous and immediate access” means for digital media consumption. While this is often valorized when framed as users accessing content, the rhetoric inverts when talking about devices accessing users, especially in ways users do not anticipate or desire. This is a digital file insisting on its presence, “demanding” to be downloaded and listened to. Its spreadability comes not from users hyperlinking and sharing through social media outlets—as in Jenkins et. al.’s model[xxii]—but of a corporation and a musical group working together to disseminate an object to half a billion users across even more devices.
Odd though it may be that a band’s foray into a personal, semi-autobiographical album engages the political economy of Apple’s corporate engine so bluntly, it serves as an important way to consider the relationship between ubiquitous access and the formation of cultural value. For Culture to Demand On Itself would then allow it to insist on its value. To insert itself as an mp3 file into millions of portable, Cloud-synched devices is to insert itself into an everyday life predicated on perpetual engagement with digital communication technologies. Perhaps this is less a Culture Demanding On Itself than a Culture Insisting on Itself, with the operations of cloud technology bringing increasingly more to bear on how institutions and individuals negotiate modes of production, distribution, and consumption.
Apple’s plans to work with bands on developing new modes of distribution and new file formats to resist piracy and create greater amounts of control over the regulation of digital content opens up a vein to discuss the relationship between individuals, devices, corporations, and the everyday practice of curating and experiencing music as a reflection of their own being. We need, in other words, to continue to attend to the everydayness of media experience in relation to ubiquitous access and media flows.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Saul D. Kutnicki and Forrest Greenwood for conversations that sparked interest in and considerably nuanced the ideas of this article.
[i] Victoria Wollaston, “Bono be gone! Apple now lets users remove Songs of Innocence in one click following backlash when it automatically U2 album to ALL iTunes user’s libraries,” The Daily Mail Online 15 Sept. 2014 < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2756790/Apple-responds-U2-album-complaints-Tech-giant-lets-users-remove-Songs-Of-Innocence-one-click.html> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[ii] Eric R. Danton, “Beyonce Surprises With New Album Release,” Rolling Stone, 13 Dec. 2013 < http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/beyonce-surprises-with-new-album-release-20131213> Accessed 19 Sept. 2014.
[iii] Kroy Grow, “U2 Offer Free Downlaods of New Track ‘Invisible’ to Help Fight AIDS,” Rolling Stone, 2 February 2014 <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/u2-offer-free-downloads-of-new-track-invisible-to-help-fight-aids-20140202> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[iv] Andrew Flanagan, “Report: Apple and U2 to Debut New Music File Format,” Billboard, 18 Sept. 2014 <http://www.billboard.com/articles/business/6258696/apple-u2-new-music-file-format-time> Accessed 20 Sept. 2014.
[v] Ben Sisario, “For U2 and Apple, a Shrewd Marketing Partnership,” 9 Sept. 2014 <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/10/business/media/u2-appears-at-apple-event-and-songs-of-innocence-appears-free-on-itunes.html?_r=0> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[vi] Ray Waddell, “Billboard Power 100: U2 & Paul McGuinness,” 27 Jan. 2012 <http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/1099191/billboard-power-100-u2-paul-mcguinness> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[vii] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), 43, emphasis mine.
[viii] See further: “U2 – Intro-Zoo Station (ZooTV),” YouTube <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMneYa8gJBY> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[ix] Bono, “Remember Us?” U2.com, 09 Sept. 2014 <http://www.u2.com/news/title/remember-us?> Accessed 20 Sept. 2014.
[x] Rolling Stone, “Exclusive: Bono Reveals Secrets of U2’s Surprise Album ‘Songs of Innocence,’” Rolling Stone, 09 Sept. 2014 <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/u2-surprise-album-songs-of-innocence-apple-itunes-free-20140909> Accessed 09 Sept. 2014.
[xi] David Fricke, “Songs of Innocence,” Rolling Stone, 11 Sept. 2014 <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/u2-songs-of-innocence-20140911> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[xii] Rolling Stone, “Exclusive,” ibid., Updated Section.
[xiii] Jordan Kushins, “Apple Just Made It Easier to Delete That Free U2 Album It Gave You,” Gizmodo, 15 Sept. 2014 < http://gizmodo.com/apple-just-made-it-easier-to-delete-that-free-u2-album-1634933594?utm_campaign=socialflow_gizmodo_facebook&utm_source=gizmodo_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow> Accessed 15 Sept. 2014.
[xiv] Jonathan Sterne, “The mp3 as cultural artifact,” New Media & Society Vol. 8 No. 5 (2006), 825-842.
[xv] For more information see, for example: Macworld Staff, “iTunes Store and DRM-free music: What you need to know,” Macworld, 7 Jan. 2009 <http://www.macworld.com/article/1138000/drm_faq.html> Accessed 20 Sept. 2014.
[xvi] Sterne, ibid., 828.
[xvii] Sterne, ibid., 835.
[xviii] Christina Warren, “Sharing Your Heartbeat Over Apple Watch is the New Sexting,” Mashable, 09 Sept. 2014 < http://mashable.com/2014/09/09/apple-watch-sexting/> Accessed 18 Sept. 2014.
[xix] Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013).
[xx] Tryon, ibid., 4.
[xxi] Raymond Williams, Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (New York: Anchor Books, 1960 ), xvi.
[xxii] Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
James N. Gilmore is a Ph.D. student and Associate Instructor in Indiana University’s Department of Communication and Culture. He received his M.A. from UCLA’s Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media. He is the co-editor of the anthology Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital (Scarecrow Press, 2014). His current work considers the circulation of media in everyday spaces, as well as the relationship between repetition and experience in American popular culture.