U2 and iTunes: Being big isn’t always the best

U2 has always wanted scale. But it’s always been in a fight for itself about how to reach millions of people and what it wants to say to them once it has their attention.

Lyrically, their scope has always been big. If your second album has a song about the Polish solidarity movement, you’ve distinguished yourselves from the “I wanna hold your hand” school.

In the book U2 by U2, Bono says of The Unforgettable Fire, the band’s fourth album, “all we had to do was to keep doing what we were doing and we would become the biggest band since Led Zeppelin.” And though Bono said the were “reapplying for the job of the best band in the world” in 2000, they’ve often substituted “big” for “best.”

At some point though, trying to go big isn’t always the best.

Say whatever you like about the album itself, but U2 forcing its album on iTunes users evokes desperation. It seems to say “If you had the choice, we know you wouldn’t take it. So we’re not giving you the choice.”

Mike Fourcher at Vouchification says push distribution is the future and he’s not wrong, per se. But it’s only the future if a brand is OK with being ignored. He puts a fine point on it here:

This, in digital form, is basically the power newspapers used to have when they landed on everyone’s doorstep. You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there, and you could see them.

“You didn’t have to read the ads, but they were there” is the operative phrase.

U2 via iTunes is what happens when a brand is less interested in engaged users and more interested in empty impressions. “They own it but haven’t listened to it” is such a long way away from how U2 started and what they used to mean. U2 was a band that with Zoo TV offered a pointed commentary on the role media plays in shaping image. Now they’ve let the mechanisms subsume them. The conversation in their art is beside the point.

Or, to put it another way, they’ve put all their money on being big, not the best.

5 comments for “U2 and iTunes: Being big isn’t always the best

  1. September 16, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    Great point. And here’s why U2 doesn’t care if you like the album or not: It might get you to discover other albums, then decide you like them and then maybe go to a U2 concert, where they really make money.

    It’s like Apple paid them to do their concert marketing.

    • Scott Smith
      September 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      I don’t think most people are even getting to the point where they make a decision on the album or not. At this point, if I’m not already a fan then then my image of this band is “Oh that’s the band that tried to trick me into listening to its new album. It must suck and they probably do, too.”

      This tactic does have short-term benefits. It will probably benefit their upcoming tour. But then they have to do it all over again. It’s a trick you can only pull once. So it doesn’t benefit them in the long term. It doesn’t turn a potential fan into a fan into an advocate.

      This album is basically the equivalent of banner ads that get served on the bottom of a webpage. Most humans won’t see it, just machines.

      • September 16, 2014 at 1:00 pm

        Disagree. This is WAY more compelling than banner advertising, and it has a delight factor. I’m betting it is way more interesting to most people than the group that’s been crabbing all week.

        • Scott Smith
          September 16, 2014 at 1:25 pm

          I do not think the word delight means what you think it means: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-09-11/-who-is-u2-ask-itunes-users-miffed-at-apple-s-album-giveaway.html

          Bono actually refers to the album as junk mail in that piece. So sad.

        • Adam Music
          September 16, 2014 at 1:28 pm

          The difference between the newspaper that lands on your doorstep and the U2 album that lands on your iPod is this: The newspaper never looked to see if your doorstep had one too many potted plants and decided it would annihilate your begonias to make space for itself. One complaint I saw this week was from someone whose phone was nearly full wondering what content Apple deleted in order to make room for U2. Now I don’t know if that’s true or not that files were deleted for high-volume users, but the perception is one of invasionary tactics in that instance.

          Maybe some sort of opt-in service would be better received by iTunes users.

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