10:00am PT by Nic Harcourt
U2: When Art Becomes the Ad (Guest Column)
U2 has always been about messages.
In the band’s early days in Dublin, beginning with the 1980 album Boy and its hit single “I Will Follow," they openly addressed Bono and the Edge’s Christianity, along with commentary on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. As the group got bigger, some 2 billion TV viewers watched in 1985 as U2 delivered their socially conscious lyrics at Live Aid, playing anthemic music with unbound zeal and earnestness. By the beginning of the 1990s, as Communism fell in Eastern Europe, the albums Achtung Baby and Zooropa reflected the hopes of a generation while taking a sarcastic swipe at the commercialism of modern culture that they themselves were a part of.
Make no mistake, U2 are an important part of rock 'n’ roll history.
But what happens when the art becomes the ad? Complete with a $100 million media spend and the subtlety of an Ikea catalog stuffed in your mailbox or phone book chucked at your front door? What’s the message today: Show us the money?
U2 and Apple have some serious history. They first got into business together ten years ago when “Vertigo” served as the soundtrack to early iPod and iTunes commercials. At the time, it was a revolutionary partnership: the world’s biggest rock band teaming up with the cool kids in Silicon Valley to launch a new album and a hip new generation of music delivery devices.
But where that moment signaled birth, what happened last week, as the band debuted their new album Songs of Innocence on the back of Apple’s highly anticipated launch of the iPhone 6 and the revolutionary Apple watch, was quite the opposite. It actually pounded the final nails into a couple of coffins.
First and foremost: It killed the notion that recorded music has any intrinsic dollar value to consumers. Sure, Bono can say — as he did to Time Magazine — that “We were paid, I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” But by giving it away, U2 have devalued that sacrament for every up-and-coming artist who ever hoped to make a living selling their music. According Nielsen SoundScan, U2's most recent album, 2009's No Line on the Horizon, sold just 1.1 million copies, down from 3.3 million for 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.4 million for 2000 album All That You Can't Leave Behind. U2’s biggest-selling album, 1987's The Joshua Tree, sold more than 20 million copies. They knew they weren’t going to make money on album sales; giving it away for free served a very different purpose.
But don’t shoot the messenger. This has been coming for some time. Radiohead paved the way with their pay-what-you-like digital release In Rainbows in 2007. In 2013, Jay Z gave away the first million copies of his album Magna Carta, Holy Grail to Android owners, and Lady Gaga discounted Artpop and shilled Doritos at this year’s South by Southwest. It needs not be said — or maybe it does so we can all see how it feels: It’s just a matter of time before the next Katy Perry album or even the new Arcade Fire record is brought to you by Coke.
With that in mind, the grim reality for download sales in 2014 — why buy when you can rent on Spotify, Beats Music, or any number of streaming services? — makes U2’s much-derided automatic download (to 500 million customers) seem painfully out of touch. You could say the same of Bono's subsequent boast (again, in Time) of a "new digital format" (since revealed to have been a misnomer) that would offer a novel immersive experience to the listener that could not be pirated.
Second, and perhaps a more surprising result of the dog and pony show in Cupertino on Sept. 9: Apple became uncool. A middle-aged millionaire CEO high-fiving middle-aged millionaire rock stars at a product launch isn’t hip, no matter which way you look at it. Tim Cook's fanboy move and the backlash that followed actually took attention away from Apple’s much bigger, stock market-tipping global product launch. And for what? Ten minutes of imagined cred?
What would have been cool: Apple launching a great new band that most of the world hadn’t heard of. That would have been innovative. Instead, the company came across as unimaginative, out of touch and boring. As someone said to me last week, they might as well be selling Buicks.
As for U2, they too have some selling to do: catalog, phones, and many, many concert tickets. And the notion that they remain a band of the people, even when they’re unabashedly out for themselves.
Nic Harcourt is the host of DirecTV's Guitar Center Sessions and KCSN's morning show. Follow him on Twitter at @nicharcourt.