U2’s Songs of Innocence: more than corporate noise?

John J. Thompson

John J. Thompson
September 11, 2014

As spiritually beautiful as U2's Songs of Innocence is, John J. Thompson is having a hard time hearing it through the corporate noise.

Kent Vancil
September 11, 2014

U2 is the biggest band on the planet. They have always pushed the envelop be it technology, live shows, religion, culture or genre's. They should sold 500M copies of their album before it releases on 10/13. Apple bought it as a gift to their customers to kick off their new devices. I would rather buy the LP and have a download card where I could choose iTunes or another format.

The internet, not Apple or Napster changed the landscape for music format and brought a whole new generation on board with music new and old. I remember Radiohead gave away their album for donation only a couple years back.

John Thompson
September 11, 2014

The rumor is that Apple paid $30M to U2. That would be 6 cents per album if my math holds. It's not a gift, it's a marketing ploy. You have to use the iTunes store to get it - or have a Beats account. We'll get a chance to buy it next month - with more songs added.

Even before the internet - COMPUTERS changed music. Once they figured out how to turn analog sounds into zeros and ones it was only a matter of time. It's not just music, either. Photos? Video? Movies? it's all just "content" for the computer companies and the bandwidth providers. Even our friendships and conversations and ideas and prayer requests are all fodder for the machine. It seems OK now - but I don't like where this is heading. I fear we have entrusted too much of our lives to these corporations and we will pay a price.

The medium is the message.

It was ironic when U2 lampooned our corporate culture on the Zoo TV tour. It's not ironic anymore and they aren't lampooning it. They're at risk of becoming the very fodder they once mocked. The most frustrating part is that the songs here demonstrate that they are STILL better than this.

Steve DeVries
September 11, 2014

I am flat broke, and going through lots of crazy stuff right now. I am just excited to be getting new music from my favorite band for free. I don't care who paid for it, or what their motives are.

Michael G.
September 12, 2014

While I am less concerned with the methods of delivery (God can use anyone/anything for His purposes, though my opinion of Apple is about on par with yours), your last paragraph nails it for me. I am not sure why Bono has often hinted that U2 would fold if they were (in their own estimation) no longer relevant or the biggest band in the world. This "all or nothing" approach in worldly terms has been the one thorn in my side when it comes to embracing U2 and all that it does and represents. Better to keep going and giving it to those who want to hear your music rather than cease just because the numbers of those doing so are no longer a plurality. I realize U2 are not a ministry but so much of what they do does minister to people. Pulling the plug because of public indifference, perceived or actual, seems silly when the initial reason for doing what they do was to make music in objection to the indifference that existed due to their not being known. I am probably not wording this as well as I intend because it is more an emotional argument for me than a logical one. I guess I would ask Bono (& The Edge, Larry, & Adam, if they feel the same way) what he's doing "it" for anymore.

Adam Shields
September 12, 2014

"flagging itunes store" - not sure where you get that idea. Last year music of all format types fell. And Apple's sales fell a bit too. But Apple increased its share of the total music market selling 46% of all albums. So it is hard to think that the basic idea of the article, that U2 was a way to prop up a dying market, is actually real.

Instead this is more like, the world's most popular music store can actually afford to pay the world's most popular band to create an album to give away to its customers in celebration of its market dominance.

Brant Hansen
September 12, 2014

No snark: I genuinely don't understand this.

Is this somehow "more corporate" than distributing music the ol' fashioned way, like Mariah Carey or Nickelback or Foreigner used to? Sony, MTV, or Tower Records, or Walmart? How so?

And I love John Thompson, from back in the days of True Tunes News. But it struck me, reading the Washington Post critic's rant on this yesterday (this giveaway is "dystopian", etc.) that these music reviewers get THEIR music for free. I'm sure John's gotten hundreds of CD's sent to him over the years.

The Washington Post guy doesn't pay for his music, likely EVER. But when WE get free music well... chaos. Awful. Dystopia. Let us eat cake, I guess.

I don't feel terribly violated by getting access to the cloud to download this. I still have to opt-in. I don't understand the "It's on my computer without my permission"-type complaints. It actually occupies 0 MB on my phone, for example, unless I download it, just like any other album i might not want. So what's the problem, again...?

Too many people invited to the free party?

September 12, 2014

The article reads like a typical bash the corporation - down with capitalism post that's quite popular these days.

My feeling on listening to the album was quite the opposite. I love U2, I admire Apple and was simply quite joyful they both wanted to let me own the album for free.

Whether Apple really paid or not and what they paid is irrelevant. U2 made a business transaction with Apple that both parties were happy with.

Would it be any different if I paid for 500m copies & gave them away?

Did Apple make it a marketing ploy? Maybe, but the only reason it's marketing because most people will react positively to it - which the aim of a good campaign.

In terms of iTunes the album is not automatically on your device, is in no way invading privacy and you have total choice to accept a free gift or not.

Personally don't get why any of this is an issue.

John Thompson
September 12, 2014

Thanks Brant. I do think it's different in one critical way (at least.) Music companies, at least theoretically, are primarily about creating, promoting, and selling music. Apple is a computer company and music is simply fodder for their true products. While there is certainly a lot of music out there these days that is not worth worrying about, U2 has always had a certain gravitas and value for me. My concern is that this stunt has inadvertently cheapened music itself and has reinforced the tech companies long-term mantra that "music should be free." I know Bono has spoken to that in some interviews - which tells me he at least realizes the potential too - but the stunt is still louder and that is what I was reacting to. It feels like the Art Vs. Commerce balance tilted in the wrong direction this week.

Also - it's not the "free" part that bothers me per se. Millions of albums are available for "free" every week through Spotify and Beats and YouTube. I completely understand the evolving model of fans paying for access over ownership. I actually think that is pretty exciting. This isn't about that, though. It's about art - which has an intrinsic value of its own - being reduced to a loss-leader or marketing gimmick in the service of another product. It is also about my frustration with U2's need to be HUGE instead of just excellent. This is certainly not the first example of that - just the most bothersome. They are big enough to use this to their advantage, but the lingering implications might make it more difficult for the next generation of potentially world-changing artists to get any traction. If Apple or Comcast or Doritos or GM become the record companies of the future we will not be well served artistically or spiritually.

The more I listen to Songs of Innocence the more I like it - and the more I feel disappointed that the circus around it might cheapen it. Sure - 500 Million people have access to it. If it turns out that only 5 million bother to listen to it does that make it a failure? It shouldn't - but with $100M stakes it will. I have loved U2 since I was 12 years old - back when none of my friends at school knew who they were or cared. I love the impact they have on the world. I love the passion they have consistently modeled for social justice and Gospel thinking. I'm still rooting for them - but this week disappointed me. I don't think they need Apple or anyone else to prop them up. And if they do - that is a whole other problem. I just wish the story could be about them being the BEST band in the world and not just the biggest. BIG is over-rated. It's also a myth.

Brad Richardson
September 20, 2014

Their ambition has always been a part of who they are. They wanted, and want, to be the biggest rock band in the world and they are unapologetic about it. It's part of what I admire about them...no false pretense. There is no "corporate noise" here. They found a way to get paid as a musician in a day and age when it is increasingly hard to do so. The fact that they did so while still producing great art is a testament to their musical talent and business savvy. Where is it written that the two have to be exclusive?

Jeff Foster
September 21, 2014

Ever since the invention of devices able to record voice and music, there have been new and innovative ways to market it. Remember the latest Archies or Monkees song you had to cut out from the back of your Sugar Puffs or Apple Jacks cereal box? Yeah, I do. I will say this John, if this were the latest album by The Violet Burning, 77s Starflyer, etc I would be rejoicing in this merger and potential audience reached and I think so would you. So what was the problem again with the art? lol

September 21, 2014

"I’ve never had a problem combining the Gospel with rock and roll. But with Apple?" So a collection of U2 songs is the gospel? I've been a U2 fan since Boy first came out and think at their best they have much to say about life & spirituality but some music by some Christians isn't the gospel, perhaps I quibble and am reading to much meaning into this line but it's just some pop music how they deliver their product isn't really very much of a big deal.

John Thompson
September 22, 2014

The more I listen to the new album the more I like it. I am eager to hear the rest of it. So far it seems to be one of the most carefully crafted and intentionally spiritual collections of their career. And the more I like the record the more I am committed to my original concerns about the way it was delivered.

Yes, Jeff, I remember getting free records in cereal boxes. But U2 is hopefully something different than the Monkees or the Archies. I also remember getting a free BeeGees cover of "Sg Peppar's" song at a Dr. Pepper display at a Kroger in Peoria IL when they butchered it for a terrible 70s movie. Hey - a free record was fun, and I was about 6 years old so my discernment wasn't all that great. But even as I later came to appreciate the integrity of much of the BeeGees work, that record always remained a joke. The context in which we encounter art has a significant impact on our valuation of that art. Dr. Pepper used the BeeGees to sell their soda, and the BeeGees took a lot of money to record a Beatles song and to be in a really bad movie. The BeeGees were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time - and from I can tell that stunt almost killed them.

Then again, there are partnerships that work. I discovered some cool music in the "sound pages" of Guitar Player magazine. I loved finding compilation discs in Paste or Mojo. This isn't an all-or-nothing equation. I never meant to insinuate that U2 should only sell their music independently on virgin 180 gram vinyl in order to maintain purity. There are always compromises. This one, though, just felt lopsided. In my opinion - and I'll admit I was surprised to see how many people agreed as the week unfolded - this stunt cheapened U2's music. I've gotten past it and I'm digging the tunes - but the aftertaste is still there.

I also think that it might have had an unintended positive effect by provoking a sort of "MUSIC HAS VALUE!" battle cry from fans who had previously been uninvolved in the ongoing discussion about how music will work in the new creative economy. Ultimately, though, I don't believe this stunt will have elevated U2's brand in any substantial way and may, in fact, serve to illustrate how little younger fans care about that amazing band. I do believe that it has to be considered a disaster for Apple, though. The fact that they had to release a special tool for people to delete the unwanted files from their device is just embarrassing to them AND to U2. The spammyness of it turned out to be a big deal for a lot of people.

And Jeff, if this were the 77s I would be rejoicing that Mike Roe was finally financially secure, but I would still worry about the implications for other musicians. Fair and equitable trade is a part of any business - and when it serves both parties in a creative space it can be great. But if the "biggest band in the world" has to leverage their credibility against a tech company's in order to get people to want to listen to their work I think the ripples might drown the little guys.

When U2 really broke through with Joshua Tree it truly felt as if it was all on their own terms. They were an anomaly. They offered up a completely fresh take on arena-level music and a new way to speak truth to power. If they have to align with Apple (or McDonalds, or Ford, or Alibaba) in order to maintain their status as the "Biggest Band In The World" I'm just suggesting that maybe they need to "dream it all up again" - again.

Jeff Foster
September 22, 2014

I don't know John. I will say this.....it hasn't "cheapened" the music of U2 in any way in my opinion simply because I don't think there was much value to it before this release. The Joshua Tree was a huge exception in their catalog, but they haven't met that bar since or before. Your assertion is based really on how much merit there is to U2s music to begin with, I don't value it that high myself.

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