Dragging U2 onstage to end Apple’s big iPhone 6 event was more than a disappointing denouement to an otherwise solid piece of marketing theater: It was a tacit admission that the recorded music industry is gasping for its last breath.
During his peculiar onstage banter with Bono, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the iTunes-exclusive release of U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, “the largest album release of all time.” He also crowed that dumping the record for free on iTunes’ half-billion users would make music history.
It did, but for all the wrong reasons.
Digital music sales are dying
By giving the album away, Apple hammers another metaphysical nail in the coffin of music sales. Digital music sales declined last year for the first time since the advent of iTunes, which hastened the demise of the compact disc a decade ago.
In the face of competition from streaming services like Spotify, Pandora and the Apple-owned Beats Music, there’s simply no compelling reason to own music anymore, aside from picking up a CD when your favorite indie band rolls through town so you can get an autograph (and they can get some gas money).
Plenty of people — digital hoarders, mostly — will undoubtedly grab their free copies of the new U2 album during the iTunes-exclusive window, but how many will actually play the files they download? If you’ve got the Internet, why would you need them clogging up your smartphone or your Apple Watch?
The future is streaming
Don’t get me wrong: Music isn’t dead. Nobody will ever stop human beings (or elephants, for that matter) from making music.
But selling records or even downloads? That’s basically a thing of the past. Bono’s ragged rock star act, once capable of entrancing a stadium full of U2 fans, looked old and sad in the context of a tech company unveiling its latest, greatest product. All the disorienting swirly lights couldn’t hold a candle to the real star of the show: the Apple Watch.
Cook framed the whole thing as an affirmation of Apple’s commitment to music and creativity, but the performance felt more like a remnant of the record industry’s old-boy network — a favor for a couple of old friends who’ve seen better days.
Some question whether Apple has lost its innovative touch; others wonder if Cook has the genius streak that made Steve Jobs such a hard act to follow. Buying Beats and adding music bigwigs like Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre to the Apple staff might have been a shrewd way of injecting new life into Cupertino’s musical endeavors.
But trotting out aging Irish rockers after you’ve wowed the world with the first glimpse of the glorious Apple Watch? That’s not thinking different. That’s a pity-fuck for a band that’s lost its edge, and an unfortunate bum note for a company that’s rarely perceived as tone-deaf.