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New U2 Relies on Fans, Not Fanfare

Intends To Build On Alternative Base

Billboard, November 16, 1991
By: Thom Duffy

 

In a competitive season of superstar albums launched with extensive mass-media campaigns, the promotion and marketing of U2's Achtung Baby, to be released worldwide by Island Records Nov. 19, will be aimed squarely at the band's longstanding alternative base.

Despite U2's previous multiplatinum sales, No. 1 pop hits, stadium sellouts, and Grammy Awards in the wake of its 1987 album The Joshua Tree, the band's new release will not be heralded with the sort of media blitz planned for other year-end pop blockbusters, such as Hammer's Too Legit To Quit, released Oct. 28 on Capitol Records, or Michael Jackson's return with Dangerous, due Nov. 26 from Epic Records.

"U2 will not come out with that kind of fanfare in terms of outside media," says Island Records GM Andy Allen. "We feel the fan base itself creates that kind of excitement."

Island Records founder and CEO Chris Blackwell echoes the point. "It's been some three years since U2's last album [Rattle and Hum]. That long gap between releases, however, has built anticipation for Achtung Baby. U2 has a huge and committed fan base who won't be disappointed by the new album," says Blackwell. "This is by far the best record U2 have ever made."

Achtung Baby marks the first U2 album since Island's sale in 1989 to PolyGram, which now markets and distributes Island in the U.S. After more than a decade working with WEA Distribution here, U2 manager Paul McGuinness prepared for this album's release by recently visiting the nine branch offices of PolyGram distribution with Blackwell, Allen, and PolyGram Label Group president/CEO Rick Dobbis, and he says he was impressed.

U2 owes two more albums to Island under its current contract, McGuinness says.

PolyGram's sales staff has met with impressive prerelease reaction to Achtung Baby from retail. Initial shipments of the album will top 1.4 million units, says Allen. At U2's request, the album is the first by a superstar act to be sold in both a shrink-wrapped CD jewel box and the longbox-size, nondisposable DigiTrak package, as well as cassette and vinyl configurations. Despite resistance to the jewel-box-only package at some accounts, Island has been surprised to see total CD orders almost equally split between the two configurations, says Allen.

"The interesting thing will be which consumers will choose when presented with a choice," he adds. Island is encouraging jewel box sales with an ongoing 4% discount on that configuration. On initial orders, retail sources say, the label offered 7% off on the jewel-box-only version and 3% off on the DigiTrak version.

Division of Opinion

Russ Solomon, president of 64-unit, West Sacramento, Calif.-based Tower Records, told his store managers to order only the DigiTrak version of the U2 album because he wants to send a message to the labels not to even think about going to a jewel-box-only environment. Similarly, Doug Smith, director of purchasing at 113-unit, Pittsburgh-based National Record Mart, ordered U2 product in the DigiTrak "because we want to make sure that we didn't send the wrong message to the labels."

On the other hand, the 915-unit, Minneapolis-based Musicland Group and 297-unit, N. Canton, Ohio-based Camelot Music preferred the discounted, jewel-box-only version.

"We thought we would give it a try," says Lew Garrett, VP of purchasing for Camelot. "The consumer definitely prefers the jewel box to DigiTrak packaging. So we will buy the jewel box and put it in a keeper, so that it is longbox-size, anyway. It seemed rather silly to pay additional money for a product that the consumer has told us that they don't prefer."

Says Dick Odette, managing director of software purchasing for Musicland, "We are buying that [jewel box] version because of the discount and only because of it...This is a one-time deal and we will keep the album behind the counter. I don't think there is room behind the counter for all the albums in the store."

The new album's first single, "The Fly," released Oct. 9, has been in heavy rotation at MTV, has hit top five on the Album Rock Tracks chart, reached No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and entered the Hot 100 last week, the latter largely on the strength of retail sales of a CD-5.

Island went to several radio formats Nov. 6 with a second single, "Mysterious Ways," which, unlike "The Fly," will be actively promoted at top 40 radio. However, label officials stress that the marketing of Achtung Baby is not driven by pop-single success.

Marketing Plan

The Achtung Baby marketing plan, outlined in a recent interview by U2 manager Paul McGuinness of Principle Management and coordinated by PolyGram marketing VP Jeff Jones, will focus extensively on retail and press promotions, including distribution of posters incorporating 16 striking images from the album cover by photographer Anton Corbijin.

"They will be available to those stores who put up wall displays of the same posters," says McGuinness. "It's a way of discriminating in favor of the better and more interesting retailer." Album flats of each of the 16 different cover images also will be distributed to retailers.

In addition, 14 alternative weekly newspapers in major cities are including a free copy of the poster, along with album advertising, in every issue on sale between Oct. 25 and Nov. 19. McGuinness sees the strong visual element of Achtung Baby as both increasing the value of the album package and helping to raise awareness of the project among fans.

A 25-second television spot and radio ads of 25 and 50 seconds also will promote the album as well as extensive print advertising in trade and consumer magazines.

Harder-Edged Effort

Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno in Dublin and Berlin, the 12-track Achtung Baby is a much harder-edged album than its recent predecessors. Aside from the raw industrial sound of "The Fly," the new direction can be heard in the metallic attack of "Zoo Station," the mix of acoustic and distorted electric guitar on the ballad "One," the low, pulsing piano chords of "So Cruel," the echo-drenched tones of "Until the End of the World," and the bursts of fuzz-tone and percussion on "Mysterious Ways."

It's younger in sound," remarks Allen. "It's more aggressive. Some fans will say this is the U2 I loved with [its 1981 album] October and missed with Rattle and Hum. Yet there are songs that are sensitive and personal and mature."

U2 is due to launch the first leg of its U.S. tour in March with a 30-city swing, playing only a single night in each market, before returning later in 1992 for additional dates.

"I think that will whip everybody into a frenzy in that it will be the hottest ticket in every city," says Allen of the plan for one-night stands.

"There's nothing on this record except bass, guitar, and drums and U2," adds McGuinness. "We haven't rehearsed this record yet but I hope it will be possible to perform it without augmenting the group. That's what's always excited me about rock 'n' roll when I was a kid -- the idea of four guys on stage making an enormous noise."

© Billboard magazine, 1991. All rights reserved.

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