There's no question that music distribution is changing. August saw the lowest weekly album sales ever recorded by Nielsen SoundScan; Robin Thicke's latest album sold a mere 530 copies in the UK during its first week (and only 54 copies in Australia); physical CD sales, already long-suffering, are down 19.2% year over year. As the industry shifts to streaming, artists and labels alike are struggling to find viable revenue models in this new landscape.

Given this dismal state of affairs, it's hardly surprising that artists are looking to brands for money-making Hail Marys. We saw a brilliant example of this collaboration with Jay Z and Samsung last year; Kanye West has even gone so far as to suggest it was responsible for the Apple-Beats deal (and, as hyperbolic as that sounds, he has a point. More on that later).

But, of course, not all of these marketing stunts are winners. The latest instance of tech-meets-tunes, Apple's partnership with U2, garnered a much less glowing response than Samsung's innovative deal with Jay Z. From angry tweets to snarky articles, the seemingly harmless marketing ploy struck a nerve with Apple fans, to the point where the company had to release a tool for removing Songs of Innocence from iTunes.

Just why was this deal such a disaster? On the surface, it seems like a win-win: U2 makes heaps of money while Tim Cook and Co. solidify their status as our benevolent corporate overlords. What could go wrong? Everyone likes U2. Right?

Even if that were true (it's not), the nature of star power has changed. There are no Elvises in the Internet Age; when a band hits the mainstream, it loses its cool factor. Nico Lang from the Daily Dot puts it perfectly: "The moment a group aims to be the one act everyone likes, they become the one 'no one likes,' or at least the one the Internet most likes to dogpile on." It's that last phrase that sets the modern era apart from previous generations—social media sends negativity into a tailspin and no amount of positive press can turn it around. U2 saw a 41% drop in social sentiment as a result of the Apple stunt, which means the move didn't do either party any favors. It turned U2 into the pumpkin spice latte of music and exposed Apple's vulnerability when it comes to determining what's actually cool.

Which gets us back to Kanye West. He says: "There would have been no Beats deal without the Samsung deal. It showed the No. 1 company the importance of connecting with culture.” And while I'm not sure I agree with his conclusions about the Beats acquisition, I do think he's right to point to Jay Z and Samsung as a cultural wake-up call. (Apple's other wake-up call likely came from Mrs. Carter: Beyoncé's uber-successful surprise album release on iTunes.)

Once upon a time, Apple was at the bleeding edge of culture. Remember those iPod commercials? They catapulted bands like Feist and Chairlift into the spotlight, prompting Mashable to call it the 'Apple Effect' and BuzzFeed to write, "Every time an ipod [sic] is created, an indie band gets their wings." In a seemingly effortless alignment of culture and technology, Apple ushered in the digital era of music and gave it a signature sound. It's that innovative history that makes the U2/Apple collab scream "trying too hard": not only does U2 not read 'hip', a forced iTunes download is unfortunately reminiscent of Apple's musical heyday. As Bobby Owsinski wrote in Forbes, "The company and band could have looked a lot hipper by providing a free 90 day Beats Music account that included a proprietary playlist of the album, and used the iTunes download as a secondary offering."

That's what Samsung did right in its $5 million deal with Jay Z, and it's what makes Beyoncé's stunt different from U2's: they gave users a choice. Exclusivity is great for both music platforms and big-name artists (don't try this at home, indie kids), but access without opting in doesn't generate demand. I can see why Apple may have looked at Beyoncé's surprise release and thought, "See? People still buy albums! Let's recreate the buzz!" But they miscalculated users' motivations. By sticking with an outdated music model and picking a band that's lost its edge, Apple squandered a chance to put themselves back at the forefront of culture. 

Can Beats turn Apple around? Only time will tell, but I can't imagine Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre gave this move their seal of approval. And a lesson to bands (and brands): not every collaboration is a perfect match. Think about your identity and audience before taking the plunge, lest you too become "the new Nickelback."

Photo: Alexander Hundegger / Flickr