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.