Friday, February 13, 2009

U2's bottom "Line"

In marshaling an epic campaign for "No Line on the Horizon," including a 5 night residency on David Letterman in addition to performances on The Grammys and The Brits, one thing is readily apparent: U2 still wants to sell lots of albums. How quaint.

It's understandable that U2 should want as many people as possible to hear its imminent record. Recent interviews suggest that the Irish foursome became all-too-aware they were in an artistic holding pattern and that they wanted to reclaim the musical exploration of their 90s work. The band seems genuinely excited about "No Line on the Horizon." Unfortunately, the band and manager Paul McGuinness are still committed to a 20th-century music model that emphasizes music sales as a top priority. Now, U2 may well match Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" by shifting 2 million copies of its album stateside, which is considered a sizable figure these days. But U2 most certainly won't match the sales of albums such as "Achtung Baby" and "The Joshua Tree" in this era of declining album sales.

Fortunately, the band is ideally positioned to make boatloads of cash on the concert circuit, which is where all the revenue is these days. The band's recent deal with Live Nation is worth an estimated $100 million. They can command that sort of deal because, in a fractured pop culture where the overlap between what we all watch, read, and listen to steadily erodes, U2 is one of the last remaining mega bands.

Which brings me back to album sales. Given that U2 will make far more money on the tour circuit that it will through retail sales, why doesn't the band consider just giving its new album away for free, the way Radiohead did? It’s not as if they aren’t going to make a fortune on the road anyway. Given how proud U2 is of the record, they would reach far more ears by giving the album away (like Radiohead, the Irishmen could still release a physical version of the album later on and it would still do well among those who still like to collect CDs ). U2’s concert tickets aren’t cheap and so the band runs the risk of limiting their (sizable) audience to those age 30 and up who can afford to go see them. If the band truly wants to expand its generational reach and ultimate longevity, they’d give away the album to the file-sharing generation and, in the process, attract a much younger group of listeners. (See this new survey about the 14-to-24 generation's attitude about paying for music.)

Even Coldplay gave away “Violet Hill” as a free download. (They accrued hundreds of thousands of email address in the process, possibly setting themselves up to go it alone, Radiohead or Marillion style, once their deal with EMI expires.) U2, on the other hand, is charging 99 cents for “Get On Your Boots” downloads, trying to wring every last penny from music sales. (
Here's the video for "Get on Your Boots," which resembles a Maurice Binder title sequence for a James Bond movie, complete with "highly decorated" woman at the 1 minute mark.)

The single isn’t even in the current iTunes top 100 songs. U2 is clearly stuck in a moment it can’t get out of.

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