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Pretty sexy making your own clothes, I think. -- Bono, on Ali's Edun clothing line, 2005 (Vogue)

Column: off the record ... vol. 18-773



“Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience.” – David Bentley Hart

The past few months have been a whirlwind, and before the Experience + Innocence Tour kicks back into gear in Europe, I want to reflect on the North American journey U2 just took. It's more than just a musical journey. I believe it has reshaped the fan community – especially the fan club – in ways that may have long-lasting implications for the band. It's my hope the wisdom gained will bring back the innocence that made us fall in love with U2 at the start of our fandom in the first place: the music and message.

U2's been walking a tightrope when it comes to balancing the music with the business. Paul McGuinness reminded the band very early on that they must be focused on the business as much as the music. It's the music business after all. Unfortunately for U2, Live Nation and Ticketmaster's handling of the Experience + Innocence Tour ticketing (especially as it pertained to Verified Fan and the fan club ticket allocation) resulted in many U.S. shows that required pipe and drape to cover unsold sections of the arena as well as ticket price reductions. This business strategy has left the fan community concerned that should U2 tour the U.S. again, fans will overpay for tickets if they jump onboard during presales. Tickets as high as $331 were reduced to $171 or lower (some as low as $46). Some members of the fan club who were not accepted in the Verified Fan presale chose to sit this tour out, and others have given up completely because they feel the fan club failed them. As much as Live Nation wants to suggest that the purpose of Verified Fan was to weed out scalpers, it shut out genuine fans who now feel the band doesn’t care about them.

The reality is, the band DOES care very much about them. This is where the business side of U2's organization needs to (borrowing a lyric here) "get out of your own way" and work to connect the band with the fan community better. The interactions I've seen traveling between Tulsa and Uncasville over the past two months showed me the band cares deeply about the fan base. Those in the organization who were there during the McGuinness era worked very hard to mend fences with fans on the road. I saw firsthand how Bono, Edge and Adam spent time with the fans outside the venues. (Long-time fans know that Larry typically doesn't do the preshow stuff – he’s that rare Pokémon, if you will … gotta catch them all!) The quality of those interactions were more personal in nature, with more selfies and handshakes instead of merely signing whatever was put in front of them. Edge told Andy Greene in Rolling Stone that the Experience + Innocence Tour was more for the "committed fan," and I believe he hit the nail on the head with that. The setlist, while it varied only in one area (song 5), was filled with deeper cuts and the unicorn known as "Acrobat." Those who only know U2 from songs on the radio were treated to songs they most likely hadn't heard before, probably allowing them to download the albums after the show because they enjoyed what they heard and saw. (That’s one way to expand the sales of your back catalog!) I struggled knowing that many fans were shut out of this experience, and it pained me to see the empty seats.

The official concert reporting by Live Nation for Billboard and other industry publications will probably say "sold out" and combine the number of tickets for the cities with multiple nights to make the number look impressive, but that's simply because production can control the number of tickets available. It's all par for the course. The casino shows are also interesting because the casinos themselves had tickets to give to their players' club. For example, Uncasville's Mohegan Sun "Momentum members" were given tickets, but by showtime many of those seats were empty. The pull of a U2 concert appeared to not be strong enough to get people to take a break from gambling for a bit. In Connecticut, that might not have happened in Hartford at the XL Center (formerly the Civic Center), which is a larger arena and doesn't have a casino attached to it. Then again, the Connecticut date was announced in March 2018 – four months after the initial announcement of the tour. Very few had presale codes left, and those in New England had already committed to either Boston or New York City for their show of choice.

These late-in-the-game add-ons by Live Nation with additional shows in different cities did not allow fans to make a more informed decision about how they wanted to use their presale code (if accepted by Verified Fan) and spend their travel budget. Some went so far as to call it disrespectful to the fan community by not announcing the full tour city itinerary upfront, especially for a tour that required fans to travel because the band wasn’t stopping in their city (or country). These experiences impact the tone of interactions between fans, the fan club and overall sentiment toward the band. I have done my best to understand that the band does not have full decision-making authority over their business; however, they can influence the way that business is conducted with their followers. I feel they have made great strides to repair some of that, but there's still more that can be done – especially as it pertains to the paid fan club.

The struggle I see moving forward is that fans don't see the value in the paid fan club anymore. The pull of tickets isn't there because Adam hinted there will be no tour dates in 2019 (sorry, Australia). Even if tour dates are available, some fans might wait until closer to the show date if they think ticket prices will come down. If there are presale codes, many may also choose to hold onto their code believing more shows will be added – not just extra nights in some cities, but new cities all together. It's a risk some are willing to take because the original ticket prices are very expensive, as well as the cost of travel. The business aspect of the band has impacted the way people can interact with the music, and until there can be a better balance, I see this trend continuing in the U.S. for years to come. The fan club needs more ways to interact with the band and the music. The member-exclusive articles and videos are nice, but we all know it's the live music that many are looking for: streaming of shows, access to previous tour shows, etc. That is one way to add value to the paid membership, especially in years where there aren't tours. The other is to offer more articles or interviews with the band themselves. Let them have a direct line to their fan club! While it's great that Adam's doing a podcast with a personal trainer, why isn't he able to take 20 minutes out and do something for his band's official fan club?

Getting back to Hart’s quote, "Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience," I feel that the band is in a good position, having gained the wisdom of how this experience went in the U.S., and has an idea of what needs to happen moving forward. For me, these past two months haven’t been about the actual 2.25-hour concert; rather, it's been trying to understand what brought people to the show. For some, it was a bucket list item because they had missed U2 on previous tours. Others were diehard fans who wouldn't miss a tour. Some were dragged to the show by a friend or a loved one who hoped to convert them into a U2 fan. While anyone who bought a face-value ticket to the Experience + Innocence Tour received a copy of Songs Of Experience, few talked about the album itself. From what I gathered, many in the arena know the band from the songs on the radio, which is why U2 is pushing hard to stay on the radio. Once you consider the number of ticket sales the fan club can generate, the next target market is that average radio listener. Future tours depend on these two categories of ticket buyers to remain strong. I hope that Live Nation will do more to strengthen these relationships. This will help folks to connect with the band's music and message better, which will hopefully bring us back to a sense of innocence.

© @U2/Lawrence, 2018

Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.