Remember when Apple decided that what your music collection was really missing was a set of U2 songs? U2 music that Metro Mag would ultimately describe as “a pallid set of songs”?

In 2014, Apple decided to give everybody with an iTunes account — some 500 million people — a free copy of the U2 album Songs of Innocence. They say it’s the thought that counts, but given the company was quickly forced to release a tool to remove the unwanted gift, evidently music fans disagreed.

Now we have an insight into how this deeply weird collaboration came about, thanks to U2’s lead singer Bono, who has published a section of his upcoming autobiography in The Guardian. Though it would be more keeping to form if it was forced onto everyone’s Apple Books account — y’know, for old time’s sake.

Anyway, he takes the blame for what happened, including the fallout.

“I take full responsibility,” Bono wrote. “Not Guy O, not Edge, not Adam, not Larry, not Tim Cook, not Eddy Cue. 

“I’d thought if we could just put our music within reach of people, they might choose to reach out toward it. Not quite. As one social media wisecracker put it, ‘Woke up this morning to find Bono in my kitchen, drinking my coffee, wearing my dressing gown, reading my paper.’ Or, less kind, ‘The free U2 album is overpriced.’ Mea culpa.”

Bono and the iPod

The seed for this moment of hubris was planted a decade earlier, when Bono and Edge, along with their manager Paul McGuinness and Jimmy Iovine (who would later become an Apple employee via the Beats acquisition) met with Steve Jobs to discuss U2 being part of the famous iPod silhouette adverts.

Jobs was interested, but sceptical Apple — in the days before it was rolling, Scrooge McDuck style, in piles of money — had the budget for such a collaboration. “‘Actually, Steve,’ I said. ‘We don’t want cash. We just want to be in the iPod commercial.’” 

For the low, low price of free, Jobs could hardly say no, and signed up on the spot, pending consultation with the creative team. Then McGuinness, possibly aware that this isn’t how negotiations should work, asked if there was a chance of stock — even a symbolic amount — in return for the ad. Jobs was not budging, calling that a “dealbreaker.”

Then Bono suggested the black and red U2-themed iPod instead.

“Steve looked nonplussed.” Bono writes. “Apple, he said, is about white hardware. ‘You wouldn’t want a black one.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I can show you what it would look like, but you will not like it.’”

Reader, they did like it, and the rest was history.

“Paul would always rue losing the stock argument – not that Steve was ever going to discuss it – but, in truth, we were fortunate to ride the Apple wave through that period,” Bono reflects. 

“The fantastically kinetic commercial brought the band to a younger audience and thousands of people bought the U2 iPod just because it wasn’t white. Apple was on a ride to infinity and beyond; we were just lucky to hitch a lift.”

Give it away, give it away, give it away now

The next collaboration didn’t go anywhere near as well.

“You want to give this music away free?” Bono quotes Tim Cook as asking. “But the whole point of what we’re trying to do at Apple is to not give away music free. The point is to make sure musicians get paid.”

“No,” Bono replied, “I don’t think we give it away free. I think you pay us for it, and then you give it away free, as a gift to people. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

Tim Cook was apparently deeply sceptical, pointing out that Apple wasn’t a subscription service like Netflix (well, not then anyway), but Bono persisted. 

“I think we should give it away to everybody,” he recalls saying. “I mean, it’s their choice whether they want to listen to it.” 

Bono figured there “might be some pushback” but he couldn’t see it being all that serious. “What was the worst that could happen? It would be like junk mail. Wouldn’t it? Like taking our bottle of milk and leaving it on the doorstep of every house in the neighbourhood.”

That was not the case. “On 9 September 2014, we didn’t just put our bottle of milk at the door but in every fridge in every house in town,” he writes. “In some cases we poured it on to the good people’s cornflakes. And some people like to pour their own milk. And others are lactose intolerant.”

The mistake was apparent very quickly, and Bono doesn’t believe it was just down to giving music fans the opportunity to be snarky about a hugely successful band — which of course, they love. “Quite quickly we realised we’d bumped into a serious discussion about the access of big tech to our lives.”

Tim Cook was apparently cool with it, despite the backlash, accepting that not all experiments are winners. And that’s something that Bono remains hugely impressed with. 

“If you need any more clues as to why Steve Jobs picked Tim Cook to take on the leadership of Apple, this is one,” he writes. “Probably instinctively conservative, he was ready to try something different to solve a problem. When it went wrong, he was ready to take responsibility.”

You can read the whole extract, including Bono’s thoughts about his Live Aid mullet, at The Guardian.