"[I]n the early '80s . . . there was this rather ridiculous idea . . . that if it was big, it was bad. Which of course rules out Elvis."
U2 Sees iPod TV Spots As Synergy, Not Sellout
November 18, 2004
Uno, dos, tres, CATORCE! The TV quakes as a euphoric punk holler, stabbing guitar and muscle-bound rhythms roar over convulsive images of rock stars in silhouette.
The iPod ad touting U2's "Vertigo" isn't your father's Oldsmobile commercial, but it is a commercial, and that's stirring debate among rock 'n' roll old-schoolers and within the band's vigilant following.
The band's partnership with Apple, which also yielded a signature iPod model and a digital box set of 400-plus tracks available only at iTunes, has many saluting U2 for co-opting a shifting marketplace and others crying cop-out.
The cross-branding "came out of an idea Bono had of selling iPods with the U2 catalog on them," bassist Adam Clayton says. "That was a progressive, savvy idea. Endorsing the download culture seemed to be a no-brainer. If Apple had asked us to endorse it in a different way, that might have felt like a compromise, but the synergy was so obvious."
Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. nixes most requests to license songs for films or videogames.
"I'm careful about where the music goes," he says. "It's about integrity, so I'm quite protective. And I'm very sensitive to the idea of standing beside a product."
The Apple deal is more about revolution than commerce, he says, declaring that the digital era and iTunes in particular are "good for everyone. They figured a way where everybody gets paid, and bands survive. They are going to save our asses and your music. The record business failed to find a way to have music downloaded legitimately. Apple succeeded."
In U2 online forums, opinions heavily favor the ad.
One fan posts, "As long as it spreads awareness, gets that killer riff out there to the mass public and isn't pushing a pickup, I'm happy."
A detractor complains, "I'm not thrilled about the idea of U2 making ads for iPods or any other company. I like to keep U2 under Larry's description of 'the biggest cult band in the world.' "
Bono emphatically states, "No money changed hands. There were about three people in the universe who shouted sellout. Selling out is when you do something you don't want to for cash. We really wanted to do this. What could be cooler than having our own iPod and exploring new digital formats?"
The pact had practical benefits. Pop radio isn't quick to embrace noisy rock tunes, and declining sales led to belt-tightening that precludes labels from bankrolling expensive album launches. The iPod TV spots provided invaluable exposure. "Apple seemed like the most natural collaboration and something our fans would not be embarrassed about," Edge says. "Nobody wants to see their favorite band attached to something uncool. This is about looking into the future. It's a stepping stone to where the business is heading."
Edge's cyber zeal may appear unseemly considering U2's new album leaked online nearly two weeks ago. As for the early disc stolen last summer, "that never went anywhere and probably became a souvenir. Either that, or there are warehouses full of copies in Eastern Europe and Russia waiting for the release date."
Don't be surprised if U2 pops up in another TV ad. "Car companies have offered us fortunes," Bono says. "We turned them down, not because it's against our religion. We weren't being self-righteous or high-minded. If there were a cool commercial that didn't ruin our song and make you wince, maybe we'd consider it."
He cites Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" in Nike's World Cup campaign as a brilliant pairing of music and merchandise.
"I have no problem with that," Bono says. "People say, 'But work for a corporation?' What's Universal (U2's label) or MTV? U2 is a gang of four but also a corporation. When we started out, taking care of business was seen as not very cool, but we thought of it as the height of uncool not to. With the gift comes the desire to bodyguard it."
© USA Today, 2004.