Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Songs of Innocence, Words of Nonsense

U2 did some sort of Q&A session on Facebook last week and things got slightly awkward when - to the surprise of no one - they were called out on their decision to force new album Songs of Innocence into every iTunes library on the planet. Here's how it went:
Q: "Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people's playlists ever again? It's really rude."
Bono:  "Oops. Sorry about that...I had this beautiful idea and we got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn't be heard."
As my emboldening suggests, it's the last part of that sentence fragment in which I'm interested today. I'll admit that I did feel a pang of sympathy for U2 when I first heard Bono's apology - after all, I've written songs, and I know better than Bono what it's like to wonder if anyone will ever actually listen to them.

But yesterday, I found myself re-reading that quote, and my sympathy gave way to annoyance. Now I realise that, if Bono really cared about those songs, he chose the worst possible way to release them.

Last December, I interviewed Simon Read from Quiet Marauder. We spoke at length about MEN, the band's 111-track debut album, and Simon expressed some concern that people would only be interested in the record because of its mammoth running time, instead of the songs themselves. Here's what he said:
"Hopefully, people will listen to it and hear that there's a lot of sociology and philosophical theory going on in there. It's not just about seeing how many songs we could throw out."
This is the problem with marketing gimmicks: if you're not careful, they'll overshadow the thing you're trying to market. Bono might have done well to worry about the things that Simon was worried about; sneaking Songs of Innocence onto our iPhones without our consent got U2 a lot of press coverage, but how many of those articles actually mentioned the songs that Bono was so keen to let people hear?

By releasing their album in the way they did, U2 more or less guaranteed that, while many people would hear those 11 tracks, almost nobody would actually care about them. What could have been "U2's nostalgic musical romp down memory lane" or "U2's barnstorming return to form, touching on themes of forgotten youth and lost naivety" is instead "the album that U2 forced down our throats with the help of Tim Cook".

So yeah, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen may well have 'poured their lives' into Song for Someone and that one about Joey Ramone, but their own marketing tactics - i.e. not even bothering with marketing and simply placing the album in people's libraries whether they like it or not - have ensured that the songs aren't the point. People are talking about Apple instead of the songs, and so it seems to me that U2 have rather shot themselves in the foot. "Oops" indeed.

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