Free Music Rage

Last week, Apple pissed off quite a few music fans by automatically adding the new U2 album Songs Of Innocence to the libraries of 500 million iTunes users. In the face of a mounting backlash, the tech giant launched a help page Monday with instructions on how to remove the album. Writing this weekend, Peter Cohen spoke for those who didn’t get the outrage:

[T]he inordinate amount of actual anger directed at Apple and U2 over this is so disproportional to the actual event, I’ve started to wonder about the mental state of some of those complaining. It’s really been off the charts. If you fall into that camp, let me speak very plainly: I have no sympathy for you. I have trouble thinking of a more self-indulgent, “first world problem” than saying “I hate this free new album I’ve been given.” For the past few days I’ve seen screeds posted on blogs and remarks on social media attacking Apple and U2 for invading privacy, for their NSA-like invasion of the sanctity of people’s music collections, claims of fascism, and a host of other utterly imagined insults. The resulting outrage has been disproportionate and more than a little sad.

Dan Wineman couldn’t disagree more:

Music collections are deeply personal, and to young people, they can be surprisingly wrapped up in identity. Back when CDs and cassettes were the thing, my friends and I would collect and proudly house them in elaborate alphabetized racks. Every cramped freshman dorm room had several cubic feet devoted to this purpose. You wouldn’t visit a friend for the first time without spending at least a few minutes arms folded, waist bent, scanning tiny lettering on 25 or 50 or a couple hundred plastic spines. It was smalltalk; it was a courtship display. Wait a sec, you’re into Genesis?! Oh, just the early stuff. Cool, cool.

We’ve surrendered the physical trappings, but the connotations remain. And I think Apple didn’t see this because — no matter how deeply they insist music runs in their DNA — from the perspective of the iTunes Store, “library” means licensed content the user is currently authorized to stream or download. But due to various design decisions Apple’s made over the years, that’s not what it means to anyone else. I’d wager that to a majority of iTunes users, “library” means my personally curated collection of stuff that I enjoy and feel comfortable associating with my identity. Messing with that is, to be frank, nothing short of a violation.

Meanwhile, Vijith Assar is struck by the sheer novelty of Apple’s move:

[H]ere’s a very simple reason why this is unprecedented, and that is because it doesn’t make any sense. Never before has such a major technology company also operated as publicist for a creative artist. The whole endeavor yearns desperately to be a landmark new innovation for the music industry, perhaps something along the lines of Radiohead’s legitimately earth-moving In Rainbows, which was self-released with variable pricing in 2007 and remains the gold standard against which music industry innovation is measured.

But this is not In Rainbows, and as such should instead be remembered primarily as a monumental blunder by the tech industry. The delivery mechanism amounts to nothing more than spam with forced downloads, and nothing less than a completely indefensible expansion by Apple beyond its operational purview. This company makes hardware and operating systems – even if it’s one to which I’ve more or less entrusted the management logistics of my personal music collection. It has, demonstrably, no competence in the sort of social and cultural thought that should have gone into a well-orchestrated version of this same gimmick, like, say, a free album as a birthday gift. It also certainly has no business forcing files of any sort onto my computer without my permission.

Marco Arment adds, “The right way for Apple to do a big U2 promotional deal like this would have been to simply make the album free on the iTunes Store for a while and promote the hell out of that”:

Instead, Apple set everyone’s account to have “purchased” this album, which auto-downloaded it to all of their devices, possibly filling up the stingy base-level storage that Apple still hasn’t raised and exacerbates by iOS’ poor and confusing storage-management facilities. And when people see a random album they didn’t buy suddenly showing up in their “purchases” and library, it makes them wonder where it came from, why it’s there, whether they were charged for it, and whether they were hacked or had their credit card stolen.