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Apple's free U2 album scored fans despite complaints

Not everyone was happy with Apple's gift, but the free album has snagged a total of 26 million downloads, the company tells Billboard.

Apple's free U2 album grabbed lots of downloads. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Apple upset a number of iTunes users last month when it pushed out a free U2 album with no easy way to get rid of it. But according to Apple the album proved popular among a healthy number of people.

The U2 album, "Songs of Innocence," has snagged 26 million downloads since it was released as a free download to Apple's 500 million iTunes users, Apple's senior VP of Internet software and services, Eddy Cue, told Billboard Magazine.

Released to cap off Apple's iPhone 6 launch event on September 9, "Songs of Innocence" popped up on the computers, iPhones and iPads of many users via their iCloud accounts. A number of people were perplexed and annoyed that the album magically showed up without their consent. But the album itself was stored in the cloud and not actually downloaded to their local device. If their iTunes or iOS options were set to display items from iCloud, then that meant the album appeared whether they wanted it or not.

To be able to play the album without access to iCloud, you'd have to download it. So Apple's 26 million figure refers to the number of times the album was actually downloaded from iCloud to a computer or iOS device.

Further, more than 81 million Apple users experienced the album, Cue said. That term "experienced" sounds vague, but Cue explained that it includes people who played or streamed songs from the album via iTunes, iTunes Radio or Beats Music.

"To help put this into perspective," Cue told Billboard, "prior to this, 14 million customers had purchased music from U2 since the opening of the iTunes Store in 2003."

Analyzing Apple's numbers for the album, Time Magazine calculated that about 5 percent of all iTunes users who found the album in the cloud downloaded it. Around 16 percent of the people who accessed the album played at least a single song, Time added.

Time also questioned Cue's use of the term "experienced" and said that no information was available as to whether played a song all the way to the end.

The quality or appeal of the album wasn't necessarily what upset people. They were ticked off because Apple essentially forced the album on them, albeit in the cloud, with no easy return policy. Some people simply didn't want to see the album appear in their iTunes accounts or on their devices. But short of turning off all music stored in the cloud, there was no easy way to remove just the U2 album, though you could hide it.

As a concession to people who didn't want the album even showing up, Apple eventually cooked up a way to remove it from one's account. Should you change your mind and decide you want to give the album another shot, you can still download it for free until October 13. After that date, it will be available only for purchase.

Apple didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for comment. But U2 commented on the matter in the following statement sent to Billboard.

Apple is a tech company fighting to get musicians paid. The idea that they wanted to make a gift to the very people that actually purchase music is both beautiful and poetic, and for that we are very grateful.