Pop-up U2 album takes iTunes users by surprise

On Sept. 9, U2 surprised the world by releasing its 13th studio album Songs of Innocence directly to every iTunes customer's library for free. The LP just appeared like magic, no download necessary. According to a Billboard interview with U2 manager Guy Oseary, the album reached over 500 million people—that's 7 percent of the world's population—in a matter of seconds. It will continue to be available for free to anyone who joins iTunes between now and Oct. 13. On this date, a deluxe version with four bonus tracks will go on sale.

The rock vets' latest release is the audio equivalent of coming-of-age literature. Named after William Blake's illustrated collection of poems about childhood, the album hearkens back to the band's boyhood days in Dublin. It's an ambitious concept, doing for music what James Joyce did for the literary culture with his short story collection Dubliners.

Songs of Innocence is not some haphazard collection of B-sides. This album is five years in the making; if it's overproduced, it wears the extra pop gloss well. It's no Achtung Baby, but it is filled with gems regardless. There’s the lead single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” a youthful, punky, big-sound tribute to The Ramones.

“California (There is No End to Love)” luxuriates in sunny, synth-riddled, Beach Boys-inspired pop vibes, while “Cedarwood Road” marries driving guitar riffs with lyrical nostalgia. Even with CD sales forever on the decline, U2's latest offering could have made buckets of money in iTunes sales. So why give it away?

While the album itself is surely a treat to U2 fans aching for new material, its delivery system might be troubling to some people. With platforms like Spotify, Pandora and YouTube consistently taking more and more sizable chunks out of the music industry, it was financially savvy to sell directly to Apple.

The company reportedly paid the band $100 million to use “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” to promote the much-hyped iPhone 6. Plus, with an overnight resurgence in publicity―hey, remember those old Irish guys who did “Sunday Bloody Sunday?” Catalog sales already on the rise, it's safe to say that this little media stunt was a massive success for U2.

And why wouldn't it be? Everybody likes free stuff. Still, there is something deeply disturbing about opening up your iTunes and finding something unexpected: something you didn't pay for, download or even know about. It's not the gift that’s unsettling but the way in which it was given is. Hopefully, other bands find ways of rewarding their fans without invading their personal (computer) space.