In 2004, U2 became one of the first rock bands ever to launch a new record via TV commercial as their then-new single “Vertigo” also introduced the iPod “U2 Special Edition.” In recent days, the band and Apple have taken their relationship to another level, joining forces to provide free, automatic downloads of U2’s long-time-coming Songs of Innocence LP to iTunes subscribers. And, reporter Catherine Mayer/Cupertino writes in the September 29th issue of Time, there is a method to this seeming madness.
Of course, U2 is far from original in giving their music away. Prince, Radiohead and others have already tread that once hallowed ground. Yet, no one has ever taken this approach so grandly and boldly with more money paid in advance and more potential future rewards hanging in the balance. Consider the following: In 2013, music industry revenue continued its 13-year slide to its lowest levels since 1985, a time where newly minted CDs began nudging vinyl records for supremacy. And, in an era and to a generation where “free” music is the expectation (via pirating, YouTube, etc.) thia alarming sales trend is only expected to continue. Simultaneously, concert revenue is rising; and the numbers are staggering. In fact, U2 stands at the top of the list of the highest-grossing concert tours of all time: $772 million over 110 shows for 2009-11, with an elbow-to-elbow 66,110 attending each concert.
No one is confirming how much Apple is paying U2 for this and future collaborations but it is rumored that the digital giant pledged more than $100 million to market Songs alone. Why does it make sense? For U2 (or any band today) music drives concert ticket sales. For U2 and Apple, the promotion of the first single “Miracle” has caused a major spike in the band’s 30-year catalogue, with music from days past leading download sales charts across the world. An acoustic version of Songs of Innocence is also coming soon while a companion album, Songs of Experience, is also in the works.
But, perhaps most interesting are reported plans for U2 and Apple to create, as Bono describes it in the Time piece, “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you’ve never see it before.” Perhaps it will mark a turning point for positioning music once again as a valuable experience rather than entitled commodity. It appears Bono and U2 are headed that way with Apple – hopefully with rather than without you.