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[T]here are so few artists owning up to what it's like to have both fears and faith. -- Bono

Column: Off The Record ... Vol. 20-784

OTR off the record 2019 1200px

I became a member of U2’s “official” fan club the same year I got my driver’s license. Fast forward a few decades, and I’m almost at the point where I’ll be a member of the American Association of Retired Persons, otherwise known as AARP, as well as a member of U2’s fan club. That type of band longevity is rare in the music business for sure. However, so is loyalty to a fan club.

I have opined about U2’s official fan club on ATU2 for over 20 years, and one thing I hope readers understand is I love being a member of U2’s fan club. The old Propaganda days when you’d get the magazine in the mail (which was never quarterly, despite it advertising as such) were such a treat. You’d get a lead article about what the band’s been up to, the more in-depth band member interview, a grapevine section where you could connect with other like-minded fans, a page (or three) of fanzine advertisements, album recommendations by the band members and more. It was special because that information was not disseminated elsewhere. You could only get it as a member of the fan club.

The Propaganda days were also a net loss for the band. It cost more to produce and mail the magazines than the band took in for subscription fees. By chalking it up as a marketing expense, the loyal brand ambassadors of U2 were kept in the know with exclusives and felt more of a connection to their favorite band.

As those Propaganda days faded thanks to the shift to an online fan club, the spirit of what U2’s official fan club’s mission seems to have also faded. A corporation now holds the key to the fan community where customer service is mass produced via generic emails and customer service call wait times could be upwards of one hour. That corporation now also charges upwards of three times the cost of membership, compared with the Propaganda cost, with very little to show for it. The subscriber gifts are hit-or-miss as not everyone likes vinyl or has wall space to showcase large serigraphs. If there’s a tour year, the old staple of “be the first in line to buy your concert tickets” is always the main draw, just like in the Propaganda days.

I am now less than 10 days away from being required to renew my subscription to the very fan club that I adore, and I’m questioning if the legacy is worth my $40 subscription fee. In the past 12 months, there have only been three (that’s right – three) subscriber special articles on the site. One was on Jan. 15, 2019, another on Dec. 14, 2019, and the most recent posted on Jan. 22, 2020. In comparison, there were 23 in 2018. Those three subscriber articles were not a special in-depth interview with a band member, rather a three minute video interview with Brian Eno, two minutes from a concert where the band extoled their thanks to Anton Corbijn, and a music playlist by Dave Fanning. Those three “exclusives” really do not equate to a $40 fee, do they?

The folks at Live Nation / Ticketmaster / Fanfire have not done U2 any favors with the abysmal customer service as it pertains to delays with gift delivery, ensuring your address on file is the one your gift is being sent to, or even ensuring that your renewed subscription gift is the one that will be sent. I have been consistently having this issue since 2014 and have the emails to prove it. I also have been told by Live Nation customer service that it’s the band’s fault about the gift issues because the band is responsible for the delays. My experience shows that the very company that the band has entrusted one of their most valuable assets – their fan base – to is more apt to blame their artist and the fan community than to accept responsibility for poor planning or customer service.

The band shifted memberships that were supposed to end in November back in 2016 to the end of January in 2017 to ensure that the 2017 gift would be sent. That gift was not announced until May 3, 2017! Fast forward three years and we’re in the same boat. It’s now toward the end of January 2020, no gift has been announced and Live Nation is still advertising the 2019 gift for renewals. Hasn’t anyone learned from the past experiences paid subscribers have had? We are front-line brand ambassadors for U2, and the corporation that U2 has signed to has no desire to change the status quo.

Now before I get a “FOAD” from Larry Mullen, I am writing this column out of love and a desire to not have the fan club’s front line Zootopia crew of Max, Mich and Bigwave put before another group of frustrated paid members of U2’s fan club in the forums or socials with issue after issue about something that, quite frankly, could have an amenable solution. I also do not wish to see another round of Live Nation's customer service agents publicly blaming the fan club or the band for the issues.

The fan club, since going corporate, is bound by levels of approvals. The fan club website is owned by Live Nation Entertainment, and as such is subject to the legalities of Live Nation. The red tape to get anything on U2.com, sent out in the mail on the fan club's behalf, or communicated to the fans via the fan club does not do the band any favors. I get more information on the band’s official social media outlets than I do on U2.com. Anything that appears on U2.com becomes an official statement from the band, and in turn may also impact the corporation they have contracted with. Their management company, Maverick, is also part of Live Nation. The band’s freedom during the Propaganda days just is not there.

As most will attest, the fan sites do a far better job of content creation than U2.com because the fan sites are not limited by the levels of approvals prior to publication. I am consistently reminded from fans who no longer subscribe to the fan club they don’t see the $40 value in keeping their membership going, let alone the $50 to restart an expired subscription. So many of the gifts end up on eBay anyway, so if they really want the gift, they’ll find it there.

The case to subscribe to the band’s official fan club is a hard one to make, especially in a non-tour year. It pains me to write that, but it’s the truth. Without that “subscriber special” content that connects me directly with the band in some way, whether it’s a print article or a 10 minute video interview/conversation, then I’m not a member of U2’s fan club. Instead, I’m a member of Live Nation’s financial tally sheet where I’m nothing more a piece of Big Data that contributed to their revenue stream. Going corporate has ruined that connection I felt being a part of the “official” fan club. Not to mention, it could be argued that the band has already established a relationship with anyone who has subscribed to a fan club, so their focus needs to be on building the fan community across other areas. Cast a wide net, right?

The band’s propensity to give exclusive content to other paid subscription services instead of their official fan club shows that. Soon, they’ll have exclusive content on SiriusXM, which will cost upwards of $20.99 a month for those in North America. In the past, they have provided exclusive content to Apple Music subscribers. Spotify, Google Play and other subscription-based services provide more than the paid content on U2.com.

Truth be told, my $40 could be better spent by donating it to one of the various charities the band supports. Is my legacy status with the fan club worth more than providing 200 HIV medication treatments if I donated it to the Global Fund? Would I feel any less connected to U2?

As one of the champions for the official U2 fan club, it pains me to come to the realization that the fan club feels like an afterthought and is nothing more than a revenue generating line item on a spread sheet. I wish the corporation would loosen the reigns and allow the band more freedom and access to their own paying fan club community. The insincerity of auto-generated emails that state, “Thanks for your email! A Fan Club Support rep should get back to you within 12 hours. Please don’t reply to this email as it won’t get forwarded to a representative. Be assured that we will answer your original email ASAP! Thanks for being a fan!” do nothing to make me feel a connection -- especially when there has been no further contact from a support rep.

At the end of the day, let’s describe the band’s official fan club as what it is: the only way the band can ensure fans get tickets for their shows at the price the band would like us to pay. When tickets go on sale after fan club presale, it’s anyone’s guess what Live Nation will want to charge. We’ve seen that consistently over the past three tours. Once again, in a non-tour year, what benefit does it give someone to re-subscribe? Legacy status for day one of presales in the future at this present time.

My wish for the team at U2.com and Live Nation: please take seriously the ways fans wish to connect with the band, especially during down times. For example, I should be finding out that Adam’s got a watch up for auction to support the Australian Wildfire victims on the band’s website and not via Twitter. The band should be reaching out with a check-in to keep the fans appraised of what’s going on the same way other artists do, such as Robbie Williams’ Vloggie series. After all, we’re subscribing for U2 content, so give us U2 content from Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry exclusive to the fan club! Make my $40 renewal worth the investment.

‘Til next time…

©@U2/Lawrence, 2020

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