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Column: off the record..., vol. 14-631

@U2, August 10, 2014
By: Sherry Lawrence


off the record, from @U2

Who would have thought “Weird” Al Yankovic would achieve a career milestone before U2? I’m sure no betting parlor had odds that he would join the ranks of only two other musicians – Madonna and Michael Jackson – who have had a Top 40 hit on the Billboard singles chart every decade since the ’80s, which Andy Greene mentions in his article on Yankovic in the Aug. 14 issue of Rolling Stone. Certainly his strategy of releasing eight videos in eight days mixed with the successful use of social media to make each go viral was key to getting his latest album to the top spot on Billboard’s album charts, a first for a comedy album in over 50 years.

Even though it’s tough to compare U2’s musical relevance to Yankovic’s as his hook is to provide commentary on today’s pop culture through satire, it certainly should make those looking to market U2’s new release take notice. Unorthodox, unexpected strategies are what seem to be working lately. In fact, YouTube is where you need to be if you’re in the 13-18 age demographic. A survey conducted by Variety found that the top five most popular celebrities were YouTube sensations most of us have never heard of: Smosh, Fine Bros., PewDiePie, KSI and Ryan Higa. The highest-ranking mainstream celebrity was the late Paul Walker, coming in at No. 6.

Variety’s Susanne Ault writes, “Looking at survey comments and feedback, teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.”

I am still intrigued by the “are U2 relevant” conversation because relevance can be argued in so many ways. Today’s teens recognize Bono not as a musician but as an activist. If Jimmy Fallon sent Adam Clayton out on the streets of New York to ask people what they thought of Bono, and then what they thought of Adam Clayton, I’m sure the respondents would be hard-pressed to recognize him, just as people didn’t recognize Ryan Lewis of Macklemore & Lewis.

Over the years, it feels like U2’s relationship with their fans has shifted from being intimate and authentic to more corporate and distanced. This does not bode too well if they are looking to capture a younger audience. Sure, the band members seem to be a bit more open to the social media selfie, but official use of their social media platforms is still quiet. Heck, their own fan club website is still plugging Propaganda articles from 1989 as the latest news.

Perhaps it’s all quiet because a major overhaul is about to happen. Live Nation has just sold off its Musictoday division to Delivery Agent. Fans will recognize Musictoday as the band’s online merchandise store. Musictoday fulfilled all fan club subscription gift orders as well. Offering “monetization solutions for top recording artists,” Delivery Agent’s global partners span all media platforms including aerial and satellite television as well as Internet service providers. It’s not like U2 will need to do a lot of legwork to get their brand messaging out to the masses. The question becomes how U2 will get people who see the message to buy their wares. Is relevance based on quality, volume, content, meme-ability or a bit of everything?

The beauty of Achtung Baby and ZooTV was how U2 turned ’90s modern media on its head, satirically showcasing its foibles and power, while at the same time using their music to send a message about the darker truths found in life. Many have successfully argued the band’s relevance was at quite a high. Given the positioning of new media over 20 years later, are they looking to turn social media on its head the way they used modern media decades ago? Will the music be strong enough and will the band be able to poke fun at their current position of “old guys who are once again a bit too serious about the problems in the world” and look to meme themselves? Can they take the successes of artists like Yankovic and the many YouTube “sensations” and mold it into the U2 brand in this way? I guess we’ll all know in a few months.

And finally … Google Play is exclusively offering the Desmond Tutu documentary Children Of The Light as a 99-cent rental. After watching it, you will understand why U2 partner with him whenever they can.

’Til next time…

©@U2/Lawrence, 2014

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