Forward-thinking U2 innovating while entertaining

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Since U2 stunned the music world by delivering a surprise album at Apple's iPhone 6 unveiling and making it available to a half-billion iTunes users for free, they've gotten an avalanche of publicity.

But who's listening to it? The answer is still unclear. Apple has not released official download rates for "Songs of Innocence" and U2's manager, Guy Oseary, also said he didn't know how many people had actually downloaded the album.

But that really wasn't the point: The album will live on in users' iCloud, and the band envisions new listeners accessing it for the first time for years to come.

"We're quite happy that 7 percent of the planet has this album, and they can enjoy it at their leisure," Oseary said.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famers' move was hotly debated within the industry as people tried to assess whether it was another stroke of genius from a band that has been a top-selling juggernaut for decades or a ploy by an aging group trying to make a splash in a landscape that has vastly changed since it released its last album in 2009. Even though that album went platinum, its sales were a bit of a disappointment for the band.

Back then, frontman Bono told The Associated Press, "We felt that the 'album' is almost an extinct species, and we (tried to) create a mood and feeling, and a beginning, middle and an end. And I suppose we've made a work that is a bit challenging for people who have grown up on a diet of pop stars."

That diet has gotten even more extreme since then, with album sales continuing to plummet industrywide, singles dominating and streaming services including Spotify and even iTunes helping to diminish the impact of a cohesive art form album.

So what is U2 trying to achieve with its latest Apple alliance? Oseary said the band achieved one goal: keeping the integrity of "Songs" intact by releasing it as an album. As far as U2's larger business goals?

"I don't expect everyone to get everything now," Oseary said. "Maybe in a few years things will start making sense or they won't. But that's not our job. Our job is to make sure the music is in as many hands as possible. This was an incredible opportunity to do that."

U2 joined Jay Z, Beyonce and a growing number of artists who are working out exclusive corporate deals and employing guerrilla ad campaigns rather than moving the album through the typical marketing plan of singles release and slow build to launch date.

Like Jay Z and his Samsung partnership to launch "Magna Carta ... Holy Grail" last year, U2 and Interscope Records get handsomely paid — something that's no longer guaranteed from album sales alone — and the money comes on up front. Apple continues a high-profile relationship with a longtime business and philanthropic partner, plus earns more credit for innovation. Fans get something for free and those who don't want it can just ignore it.

"I applaud each of those artists creating a stir and not just falling into a predictable marketing strategy," longtime producer and Sony Music Entertainment executive Clive Davis said. "I think in the case of Beyoncé and Jay Z, they had successful results triggering so much extra media attention and coverage because they didn't do things in a formulaic kind of manner."

But there may be penalties to pay later if physical retailers refuse to stock the album, as Target did when Beyonce surprise-dropped her self-titled LP exclusively on iTunes last December for a week (it was still a top-seller worldwide). And there are still lots of questions. Will fans now buy a physical copy, released Oct. 14? Will the band lose some of its cool? Even the unflappable Jay Z suffered backlash when the app he and Samsung used to distribute his album to 1 million customers cataloged user information, and there have already been complaints from some who didn't want a U2 album on their cloud — even as a gift.

Rob Beckham, an agent with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment who handles some of country music's biggest stars, thinks any negatives that might emerge have already been offset. All acts suffer a cooling of interest when their careers reach into the decades, he said, and the trick is to find ways to rekindle interest and build new audiences. A win for U2, for sure, but in some ways he feels the excitement over an innovative move will inspire the industry.

"People still have to have a passion for the music," Beckham said. "They have to have a passion to buy it, the passion to steal it or the passion to copy it. To me, the best part of this is they're getting new music into the marketplace. I think the hardest part is going to be at some point if record labels are not able to sell music and make money, then you're going to see a lot fewer artists and a lot less music in the marketplace."

There's no question the album's arrival got the meter moving in a year that's been light on buzzy releases. Reports surfaced earlier that the band would not release an album until 2015 after teasing its imminent arrival earlier this year. Now, it will be one of 2014's most memorable musical moments.

Oseary declined to release financial details of the deal and said he was not privy to Apple's spending on its advertising campaign. The band is focused on next month's deluxe edition release, which will include four unreleased songs and acoustic versions of album tracks, and he said they're not ready to talk about the forthcoming album "Songs of Experience" or speculation that a tour announcement is imminent.

He encouraged everyone to think differently.

"I think it's great for music," he said. "Someone right now may have seen this happen and they may decide they want to do something amazing with artwork or with lyrics or something amazing with a video or photos. We don't know what someone else will innovate, but it's great to see something exciting happen and see big companies launch something with new music."


AP Music Writer Mesfin Fekadu in New York contributed to this report.