Life After Long-Play: U2 in the Age of Corporate Patronage

Monday, March 9th, 2015

The first record release date I ever anticipated was U2’s The Joshua Tree. It was March 9, 1987. I was ten years old and lived 45 minutes away from the nearest record store. After the longest school day ever, my mother drove me to the Arnot Mall in Horseheads, NY. I remember standing in the checkout line at Sam Goody, marveling at the one kid clutching Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet when every other person in line had a cassette tape featuring a black and white photo of Larry, Edge, and Adam looking straight into the camera while Bono piously surveyed the Mojave desert. In a misguided attempt at salvaging mother-son time out of the venture, my mother insisted we go to Friendly’s instead of heading directly to the car where there was a cassette player. We huddled in a booth and poured over the album art and its lyrics. 1987 was a big year for music censorship organizations, but Tipper Gore and the Parent’s Music Resource Center had more or less dubbed U2 The Band You Could Take Home To Meet The Family. The_Joshua_TreeLikewise, James Dobson’s Focus On the Family newsletter only denoted “escapism” in the “objectionable content” header in its reviews of U2’s past releases. It was tense, but after some minor deliberation about “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Mom determined that listening to The Joshua Tree would not diminish my chances of making it past St. Peter,[i] so she paid for Supermelts and a Jim Dandy, we climbed into the Buick and I jammed the cassette into the receiver. We didn’t talk between “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the fadeout at the end of “Mothers of the Disappeared.” You don’t talk over magic.

Buying The Joshua Tree was an event. The process of anticipating a record’s release, purchasing it at the record store, and listening to the record in its entirety was an essential and joyous ritual of my teenage years. There were many recordings that I loved with equal fervor, but I compared all of them to the initial thrill of hearing 45 seconds of ambient suspended chords played on the organ patch of a Kurzweil synthesizer giving way to The Edge’s layered, delay-affected arpeggio pattern, then the rhythm section laying down the absolute 4/4 truth then holy shit Bono shows up like a half-crazed Baptist preacher sing/shouting the lines “I wanna run/I wanna hide.”

I nursed my Joshua Tree cassette for about a year but I had to buy a new one when the tape unspooled inside a Walkman. When a second cassette crapped out, I bought the CD. Then the MP3. The Joshua Tree stayed with me in one format or another while I completed three music degrees and eventually became a professional musician and educator. So it was particularly troubling for me to hear Adam Clayton, one of the co-creators of The Joshua Tree, concede that “records don’t stay around the way they used to” on a recent late night TV appearance.[ii] He’s right, of course: the long-play record is increasingly irrelevant in the music marketplace. In fact, the hoopla associated with U2’s most recent release is one of the clearest indicators of the form’s decline. There is no shortage of articles, blog posts, or reviews either praising or maligning the Songs of Innocence rollout, but I’d like to explore U2’s iTunes dump within the larger context of the band’s career, and how their maneuvering within the music industry indicates a shift in the market from commoditizing recorded music to commoditizing listeners.

THE SONGS OF INNOCENCE RELEASEU2_Songs_of_Innocence_Physical_Cover

Let’s review the facts. Last fall, U2 partnered with Apple on a deal that made Songs of Innocence available at no cost to iTunes users. The album appeared in over 500 million iTunes users’ libraries from September 9 through October 13. According to The Guardian, Apple paid U2 at least $5 million upfront for the exclusivity deal, and will feature their music in an ad campaign worth $100 million. Apple CEO Tim Cook called it “the largest album release of all time.”[iii] About five percent of iTunes users downloaded Songs of Innocence during the exclusivity period.

HATERS GONNA HATE

Not everyone was pleased by this move. Paul Quirk, chairman of the UK-based Entertainment Retailers Association skewered the giveaway, claiming it was “as damaging to the value of music as piracy.” Chris Richards of the Washington Post famously referred to the marketing gimmick as “dystopian junkmail.” iTunes users balked at the compulsory download, which forced Apple to create an app that deletes Songs of Innocence from users’ libraries. The company is cagey about the number of users that eliminated the album.

It’s predictable that music merchandisers would take a dim view of Apple’s “gifting” gimmick. Physical record sales have all but dried up since the days of The Joshua Tree, but a traditional U2 release is still a marginally profitable endeavor for the few brick and mortar stores left over since the exodus of chains like Virgin Megastores and Borders.

For those peeved by the appearance of Songs of Innocence in their music libraries as an infringement of privacy, I’d suggest not clicking the “I agree” button the next time a software update comes along from Apple. That said, it’s understandable that many iTunes users found it boorish that the world’s most monolithic rock band hooked up with the word’s most monolithic tech company, descended deus ex machina-style into our living rooms and “gave” us something we didn’t ask for.

As for the Who-Does-Bono-Think-He-Is camp, I mean…he’s fucking Bono. The guy’s been successfully inserting himself into public discourse for over three decades. For the most part, his role as a benevolent, shades-donning figurehead devoted to no-brainer social advocacy is a welcome foil to the more stalwart but oh-so-boring technocrats out there doing the real work. So what’s with the churlish and phony surprise that one of the music industry’s most ubiquitous showmen would exploit his celebrity and business connections to secure the largest megaphone he can?

U2’s RESPONSE TO CRITICS

U2 made the late night TV rounds offering a series of comical “apologies” that lacked even the remotest hint of contrition. Bono lead the campaign during an appearance on the Graham Norton Show:

“You know, it turns out some people don’t believe in Father Christmas. They see Father Christmas in their lounge on Christmas morning and they want to give Father Christmas a good kicking [stands to emphasize] a good kicking…There’s a lot of people who were, you know, uninterested in U2 who are now, you know, mad at U2. Which, as far as we’re concerned, is an improvement in the relationship.”[iv]

It’s safe to assume that the undisclosed number of iTunes users who deleted the record would disagree with Bono’s sentiments. The band was clearly unprepared for a backlash against the album release and staged a rather awkward Q&A on their website in which Bono’s poetic bluster was in full effect:

“Oops, I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing: [a] drop of megalomania, touch of generosity, dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”[v]

U2’s detractors have plenty of ammunition here. Bono comes off smug and dismissive about complaints over the band’s methodology. His mission seems to be goading U2’s critics while rallying the faithful, an old political strategy designed to maximize valuable media attention. The barrage of public appearances also allowed the band to shill their upcoming concert tour. And, since U2’s most recent outing brought in around $738 million, “defending” their partnership with Apple was just one of the talking points on the band’s late night agenda.

GETTING A LITTLE NOISY

Ok, so the critics had their fun. And, even though U2 was knocked down a peg or two, I’d bet big that they’ll set attendance records for their “Innocence and Experience” tour this summer. But for music industry analysts, there is still some information worth mining. Clear away the clownishness and misdirection, and U2’s recent batch of interviews reveal their views on some fundamental challenges facing performing artists today: (1) Getting heard in a hyper-democratized media landscape, and (2) The shrinking percentage of recorded music in artists’ revenue streams

The Apple kerfuffle forced U2 to address these challenges in a very public forum. In an interview with Jools Holland, Bono said: “We’re experimenting. Everyone’s trying to figure it out. The model’s broken and we’re just trying to make up some new ones.”[vi]

Presumably, the “model” that Bono is referring to is the record industry that U2 broke into in the late 70’s and dominated in the 80’s. That model necessitated an infrastructure of recording facilities, a record label with an established A&R component, media connections, and distribution capacity; plus reproduction facilities, radio stations to play the songs, MTV to play the videos, and record stores to sell the music. Oh, and consumers who actually bought music.

During the industry’s heyday, the major labels functioned as a sort of gait keeper for new releases. The flow of information was controlled by a relatively small group of industry leaders who invested heavily on marquee acts while leaving mid-level performers to their own devices. For example, from 1987-89, Sony/Columbia devoted substantially more money into the promotion of George Michael’s Faith than they did for Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Both records were well received by critics, and both artists were proven entities with a devoted fan base. But, while Cohen fans had to apply some effort to locate records and information about the artist, George Michael’s perfectly stubbled cheeks and/or denim clad, well…cheeks were plastered on what seemed to be every other billboard from New York to Los Angeles.

For better or for worse, major labels don’t wield the influence they used to, but that means even established artists are struggling to communicate their message outside of their direct fan base. In a 2009 interview with Australia’s Herald Sun, The Edge outlined the limitations of a traditional CD release:

“…to puncture public consciousness right now for any music release is hard. So you’ve either gotta have some kind of platform, some massive thing strapped to your song, or it’s just gotta be such an absolute out-and-out smash hit that it does all the work for you…We feel a little frustrated that we’re constrained by this CD format when there are all these powerful opportunities to allow the work to get out there…But it comes down to some very fundamental questions of what’s best for the music, and we have record deals, we have publishing deals, we have to think about those agreements, and also how we’re gonna get paid…I can only assume that very shortly there’ll be some very exciting new things to do in terms of the way music can be distributed using the internet and we’ll be right on it when they present themselves.”[vii]

Fulfilling long-term record deals or publishing obligations represent the few remaining financial incentives that U2 has to produce new music. By U2 standards, each of their traditional releases since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind yielded disappointing numbers. 2009’s No Line on the Horizon sold five million copies internationally. That’s about as good as anyone could expect given current market conditions, but this is U2 we’re talking about. No Line on the Horizon was the band’s worst selling record since 1981’s October, less than a fifth of the The Joshua Tree’s overall sales. By partnering with Apple, U2 was able to deliver their music to millions of consumers who would otherwise ignore the new record. It’s possible that this exposure will create fans who will purchase titles from U2’s back catalogue and buy tickets for the band’s tour dates, but it will take years to determine the ultimate effectiveness of their strategy.

Magna_Carta_Holy_Grail_coverJAY Z’S BABY STEPS 

The precedent for the U2/Apple deal was set in 2013 with the release of Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail as an app available only to Samsung Galaxy users. The record was released to the general public three days later. Jay Z seems to have faired pretty well on the deal, but Samsung probably sees the experiment as a PR failure. Downloading problems associated with Magna Carta Holy Grail earned the company some negative press, plus the dubious hashtag #SamsungFail trended on Twitter throughout the July fourth weekend. Regardless of the hiccups, the idea obviously appealed to Apple and U2, though the latter arrangement extended the exclusivity period considerably.

To be fair, Apple and Samsung never gave music away. Neither did the artists. The companies purchased the right to make a release available at no cost to their subscribers. Ostensibly, Apple and Samsung hoped to trade in on U2 and Jay Z’s respective audience numbers, drawing new subscribers from the artists’ fan base. This is a reverse of the music industry’s basic assumption that an artist’s catalogue is his or her most valuable commodity. Tech companies understand that millions of people are listening to music, they’re just not paying for it. So why not commoditize the artists’ audience? Go ahead: listen to a pirated, hi-res upload of Magna Carta Holy Grail in its entirety on YouTube, just make sure you do it on a Samsung Galaxy.

Corporate partnerships are nothing new in the music industry. Justin Timberlake is happy to trade a few spots for Budweiser and Mastercard as long as they chip in for tour support. Bob Dylan mugs for Chrysler, Eminem hawks Brisk Ice Tea of all things, and Beyoncé sells Pepsi better than, you know, Pepsi. But exclusivity arrangements for recording artists are different than celebrity endorsements. Exclusive distribution of recorded music to a limited subscriber base is actually akin to the model currently employed by premium cable companies. Netflix, Showtime, and HBO provide subscribers with original content that is not available outside their subscriber base (at least, not legally). This model has produced a renaissance in quality programming ranging from The Sopranos to Orange is the New Black. It’s notable that this programming is intended for viewers who can afford to pay for auxiliary subscription services, i.e. adults. No offense to Iggy Azalea or Bruno Mars, but the people who actually pay for the family’s cable bill are decidedly underserved by the current popular music industry. Premium cable’s viewers understand that income from subscriptions directly bankrolls new content. It’d be easy for premium cable providers to add a musical component to their offerings. Digital is digital, after all. Plus, these companies are in the entertainment business, so they’d pull it off a hell of a lot better than Samsung and Apple’s rather tawdry attempts. If four or five of my favorite artists made their new music available for streaming exclusively on Netflix, I’d happily cough up a few extra clams a month for the privilege. And, just in case any HBO execs are reading this: a new Radiohead record is a lot cheaper to produce than an episode of Game of Thrones.

Yes, there are music subscription services out there like Spotify and Pandora. Yes, they’re great artist discovery mechanisms with their if-you-like-x-then-you’ll-really-like-y algorithms. Problem is, those streaming services pay artists just south of butkus, which serves as a disincentive for the creation of new music. Premium subscriptions to streaming services allow listeners to enjoy their favorite artists without the annoyance of commercials. Big deal. If you really want to listen to “Every Breath You Take” for the eight millionth time without having to hear from a car dealership, buy a fucking Police record.

Without a substantial change in the market, there is very little financial incentive for artists to produce new music. The digital revolution obviated much of the infrastructure that U2 depended on during the formative years of their career. It also changed the philosophy of the general populace about the value of recorded music. The 26 million users that downloaded Songs of Innocence are not necessarily customers. U2 may have been able game the system, but they couldn’t change the game.

Matthew Cochran

[i] I wasn’t so lucky with Prince’s Sign ‘O the Times. Luckily, my very loving if sometimes insanely overprotective parents eased up on the whole music thing, and I was able to enjoy many immoral records throughout my remaining teenage years.

[ii] The Graham Norton Show, “U2 (Almost) Apologize For Giving You Their Album” October 22, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_9YWhyHmPg

[iii] Apple Werbung, “Apple Keynote: iPhone 6 & Apple Watch”, September 11, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OD9ZQ9WylRM

[iv] The Graham Norton Show, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_9YWhyHmPg

[v] Kory Grow, “Bono Apologizes for Forcing U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ on iTunes Users”, Rolling Stone, October 15, 2014, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/bono-apologizes-for-forcing-u2s-songs-of-innocence-on-itunes-users-20141015#ixzz3SG1ilph3

[vi] Steve Green, “Bono Drunk? U2 Interview with Jools Holland 2014”, October 24, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DN-o4hfRX90

[vii] Neala Johnson, “The Band Who Fell to Earth”, Hearald Sun, September 9, 2010, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/u2-the-band-who-fell-to-earth/story-e6frf96f-1225916526194