When U2 released their latest record, they did so with the wild bravado of businessmen looking for synergistic capabilities between brands over post-golf Scotches at the clubhouse: of course everyone is going to want it on their phone…for free! And, whether you were one of the people who excitedly listened to your gratis new record in your iCloud, or were one of the ones who cursed the band for their intrusion of same, the move was certainly polarizing. The backlash that ensued now well-known, the marketing campaign thus apologized for, one fact remains unexplored: was it, from a business perspective, successful?
At first listen the album is 11 tracks of stadium-sized, well-polished – if typical – soaring guitars, with a tight rhythm section driving the way underneath; they definitely benefit from the many years spent as a cohesive unit. From the opening sing-a-long choir and rhythmic skipping rim shot of the record, the listener is meant to evoke a homey house party feel amongst friends – look guys, they’re just like us! Then, just as quickly, the sheet is pulled to reveal the full band, too big to be contained by such small spaces. It works too; the drop is a monster. Shortly thereafter, Bono’s voice, all shimmer and sooth, floats across the top of the sonic landscape as he “chase(es) down the days of fear,” with a vocal processing that unfortunately undercuts the content of his words. This interplay of contrasts, between big and small moments, a stadium band playing at occasional smallness, old guys playing at youth by mixing newer sounds amongst their own, is a theme that repeats throughout.
But enough of all this, for this is not actually meant to be a record review (fans of the bands later work will love it, fans who think they sold their souls to the pop gods for another 15 minutes of fame may feel vindicated). Rather, as far as business is concerned, this is a chance to see if their gamble – if one can even call it that, given the amount of upfront money the band received before one musical note was even heard – paid off or not.
At the recent Web Summit tech conference in Dublin, Bono announced to a packed audience that the decision to giveaway U2’s latest record, Songs of Innocence, via a deal with Apple, was “one of the proudest things for us ever.” While some might see as counterintuitive any company strategy that gives the product away for free, Bono cites the overall reach of the album as justification, “we did in three weeks with Songs of Innocence what took us 30 years to do with The Joshua Tree.”
To this point, according to a recent Billboard article, prior to this record, 14 million customers had purchased music by U2 from Apple since the opening of the iTunes Store in 2003. With an estimated 82 million having downloaded the record since its release, the band garnered almost 6 times the listeners nearly overnight, as they had in the previous 11 years.
In addition, they received a USD 100 million in free media exposure from Apple’s global marketing campaign and a Billboard estimated USD 5 million upfront fee, excluding royalties. Not a bad return for a free giveaway.
In response to those who have been vocal about their outrage to the perceived gumption of the bands distribution deal, Bono still chooses to look on the bright side, saying, “We got a lot of people who were uninterested in U2 to be mad with U2. And I would call that an improvement in the relationship.”
For now, however, Bono says they are continuing on with their long partnership with Apple, attempting to bring listeners the next best thing in music, citing potential new formats and interactive visuals that would potentially create “more value than a simple MP3 file.”
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