"What [Bono] said was very interesting about debt relief. It's an important cause. But I really wish I had a ticket to his concert tonight."
-- a fan, 2001
U2's Midlife Crisis
February 13, 2005
It will be difficult to miss the presence of U2 Sunday night at the Grammy Awards. There will be Bono singing the Beatles' "Across the Universe" with an all-star cast, and the band cranking out a presumably live version of its thrice-nominated single "Vertigo."
It wasn't always so. A decade ago, U2 couldn't be bothered with the Grammys, or any other kind of promotional event that smacked of salesmanship. In 1993, U2 turned down an offer to perform at the Grammys, and the Edge and Bono didn't even bother to show up for the ceremony when Achtung Baby was nominated for album of the year (eventually losing out to Eric Clapton's Unplugged). The band didn't appear on television talk shows or Super Bowl halftimes to hype their albums, and they steered clear of corporate tie-ins, refusing to license their music for television commercials.
Now, U2 appears on Saturday Night Live, shows up at the opening of former President Bill Clinton's library and rolls through Manhattan in a flatbed truck blasting a song, all in the name of promoting its latest album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope).
Most incongruously, in the weeks before the album was released last November, U2 struck a deal with Apple to star in a commercial for the computer manufacturer's portable music player, the iPod. In addition, Apple released a special-edition iPod that enabled buyers to purchase (for $99.99, after cashing in a $50 coupon) the band's entire catalog, plus bonus tracks. The band, which once prided itself on creating an enigmatic visual presence, thanks primarily to the work of their collaborator Anton Corbijn, had suddenly become an advertising coup for one of the world's most visible corporations.
"Bono said for so long he wasn't going to let the corporate monster swallow him, but he's in the belly of the beast now," says one disappointed fan, Donna McClain, 34, a Los Angeles schoolteacher who has attended 83 U2 shows since 1983. "You watch the Super Bowl, and U2's music is playing. You turn on the TV, and they're an iPod ad. It wasn't what they stood for when they came out. It seemed like their music meant something, it had more heart behind it. Now it's just another product."
It's all about survival in a short-attention-span industry, says Jimmy Iovine, chairman of U2's label, Interscope Geffen A&M Records, and producer of some of the band's landmark '80s recordings. U2's members are in their 40s and the band has been in existence for 25 years, a veritable dinosaur that is about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next month. Yet the majority of the record-buying public is under age 25, most too young to remember U2 classics such as The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Like any band that hits rock 'n' roll middle age, U2 is grappling with the question of how to stay relevant in an industry that caters to youth.
"When we were kids, doing a TV ad, appearing on the Super Bowl halftime or singing at the Grammys would be a bad move for credibility, but not anymore," says Iovine, who adds that the band turned down three $20 million TV ad offers from other corporations before agreeing to the Apple deal because it "fit what they wanted to do aesthetically." He insists that the band received no money for the ad, which essentially served as a commercial for the new album while associating it with a "cool product that's a mainline right to a younger audience."
"The iPod ad's a very important step in the transition of the record industry," Iovine says. "You've got to think like the kids, and this is legit in their heads. Television is a way to reach that audience, because it's harder than ever to get radio play today. Otherwise you're going to be playing to the converted the rest of your life, and losing a percentage of your audience every five years."
With Iovine coaxing them to test mass-marketing strategies they wouldn't have considered before, U2 is enjoying a commercial renaissance at a point when most rock bands are struggling to sell records. The band's first album for Interscope, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2001), has sold 4.2 million copies, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has already moved 2.3 million, according to Soundscan.
Clearly, a younger audience has been tapped by U2, but older fans say the band has sacrificed some of its musical and personal integrity in the process.
Long-simmering resentments boiled over in recent weeks when U2 botched a pre-sale to its fan club for its upcoming world tour, which arrives in Chicago on May 7, 9, 10 and 12 for four sold-out concerts. Longtime fans who paid $40 to access the club found themselves paying $165 plus Ticketmaster service fees for upper-balcony arena seats, while scalpers made off with prime floor seats. After more than a week of complaints, the band apologized and vowed to set things right on future dates.
"The idea that our longtime U2 fans and scalpers competed for U2 tickets through our own Web site is appalling to me," drummer Larry Mullen wrote on the band's official Web site, U2.com. "If your U2.com pre-sale experience has left you disappointed, I hope this will go some way towards reassuring you of our total commitment to our audience." Band members repeatedly declined to talk with the Tribune for this article.
That commitment to their audience has been called into question in recent years by U2 fans and industry observers, including Sam Jennings, the director of Prince's NPG Music Club. "Prince has had plenty of ups and down in his career, just like U2, and he's very appreciative of his hardcore fans," Jennings says. "He took the time to build his own, completely independent online concert ticket service for his most dedicated fans and the rewards have been tremendous. There's no reason why U2 couldn't have done the same thing."
The ticket fiasco was the latest eye-opener for longtime fans who once saw U2 as a beacon of integrity incapable of selling out its integrity or selling short its audience. Even as the band raked in $80 million on tour in 1997 and $67 million in 1992 and sold 5.4 million copies of Achtung Baby (1991) and 2.3 million of Zooropa (1993), Bono stepped up his social activism by campaigning around the world to reduce Third World debt and combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa. But the goodwill gestures are ringing hollow for many fans, says Patty Culliton, 32, of Chicago, who has attended more than 80 U2 concerts.
"What a shame," she wrote recently at a U2 fan Web site, interference.com. "U2 used to want to be the best band in the world. Now they just want to be the biggest band in the world. And they lost the plot along the way."
In an interview, Culliton stood by her posted comments: "In the past, they could have done just about anything except kill someone and I would have understood their motives, I would have defended them because I always believed their intentions were good," she says. "But not anymore. The blinders are off. We can see the little old man behind the curtain on this tour."
Culliton and dozens of other longtime fans interviewed for this report say that U2's relationship with them began to change during the 1997 tour behind the Pop album. That album sold only 1.5 million copies, by far the band's poorest seller since the early '80s, and the stadium tour that followed cost the band money because its production values were so extreme. At one point in the show, the band descended a staircase from a 40-foot neon lemon -- a moment unintentionally symbolic of Spinal Tap-like cluelessness. After the tour, U2 regrouped, determined not to fade away like so many of their '80s peers.
"The band's been trying to rebuild its American fan base ever since," says Joe Shanahan, the owner of Chicago nightclub Metro and a longtime friend of U2 manager Paul McGuinness. "And they've pulled it off, because they're reaching teenagers and not just people in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have been with them for years."
Bono, a student of rock history, knew that most of his '80s peers had already seen their audiences shrink because they were unable or unwilling to pay the price for staying young. U2 made it their primary mission.
"We're back, we're applying for the job," he declared publicly in 2001. "The job is best band in the world."
The band always aimed high, but with a high-minded purpose. Forged in the post-punk climate of the late '70s in Dublin, the quartet built a huge worldwide following by not only playing soul-searching arena rock, but by evincing a genuine passion for social and spiritual matters that had little to do with corporate-rock affairs of the wallet.
Or so it seemed.
In recent years, their business practices have become more suspect, their attention-seeking more transparent, their principles more readily compromised, and their music less challenging.
For the '97 PopMart tour, the band severed ties with local promoters such as Chicago's Jam Productions that had been working with the band since its first tour in 1980 in favor of Toronto-based Concert Productions International.
The deal, reported to be worth at least $100 million, eventually brought the band under the aegis of concert-industry monolith Clear Channel and its concert arm, TNA Productions, for its last two tours.
The band explained the decision to work with TNA exclusively in terms of efficiency and convenience, but longtime business associates were miffed that they had been cut loose so suddenly after working with the band since it was a club act. Ticket prices for the band's tours also increased, from $25 in the early '90s to $165 for prime seats this year (though standing-room floor tickets nearest the stage are $49.50).
In 1997, the band also enlisted Chicago-based promotions executive Jeff McCluskey to push their music at radio. McCluskey was then the most powerful radio promotions man in the business, and his hiring by U2 indicated that the band was desperate for airplay. "The hard part isn't being successful," Bono said at the time, "it's staying relevant."
To stay relevant, the band has retreated musically by making the two most conservative, radio-directed albums of its career, All That You Can't Leave Behind (2001) and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004). It's no coincidence that the garage-rock-by-numbers "Vertigo" was rising on the pop charts as the single from Atomic Bomb in the same week that bassist Adam Clayton told Time magazine: "If our goal is still to be the biggest band in the world, the new record had to have three or four songs that would bring in new people. Three or four hits."
U2's struggle to stay young is typical of many rock bands who manage to survive into their third decade. "At a certain point, you have to ask yourself are the kids still getting you, and are you still getting them? And when does that stop to matter," says guitarist Peter Buck of R.E.M., a band that ran neck-and-neck with U2 for more than a decade in terms of critical acclaim and approached it in album sales before its profile began to drop.
"We're still making exactly the kind of records we want to make," Buck says. "At a certain point, you realize you could turn into the Rolling Stones and do anything to keep a high profile, but that's never really been a priority for us."
Though R.E.M. still occasionally tours arenas, it doesn't fill them with the regularity of U2, and its presence on commercial radio has all but vanished. But R.E.M. still hasn't licensed its music to any advertisers and it continues to take a hands-on approach to its fan club, reserving the best seats in the house for its longtime followers.
That's in contrast to U2's approach. Arthur Fogel, president of TNA Productions, says he and the band members didn't reserve all the best seats for U2's fan club members. "It would be fundamentally unfair to not have any tickets in a particular category for the general public," he says.
"That's not to suggest subscribers shouldn't get what they want. But it's more complex than that. You are trying to allocate seats, and you have people joining the fan club at different times from all over the world. All kinds of variables come into play. The net result is that the fan club gets the best seats but they don't get all the best seats."
Nor has U2 booked enough seats on its North American tour to satisfy demand.
Each of their North American tour dates is selling out in minutes, with tens of thousands of fans left ticketless, including fan-club members. That's the result of another recent U2 business strategy: They'd prefer to create a "buzz" rather than relive the ignominy of the '97 PopMart tour when Bono's cousin strolled down Bourbon Street in New Orleans giving away tickets to boost attendance at the band's under-attended show at the SuperDome.
"They're going to be leaving cities with a great feeling, that they've whetted the appetite for them and created a demand for more U2 shows," McCluskey says. "Not having everyone get into a show that wants to go is good business."
In his apology on U2.com, Mullen said the band will play more North American shows in the fall and give longtime fans "priority in the queue" to get tickets.
But it may be too late.
Over the last few years, the notion that U2 was a rock band fired by idealism, that it was somehow different from other corporate-rock juggernauts, has eroded. In its place has come the perception that U2 becoming a bigger band doesn't necessarily make it a better one.
© Chicago Tribune, 2005.