Did you follow the Apple announcement last week?

Needless to say, I’ll be replacing my broken-screened iPhone 5 with an ultra-slim 6 some time in the next two weeks. And how about the Apple Watch! Gotta have one of those, right? Starting at $349, maybe not. I’m waiting to hear the first Apple Watch joke, something along the lines of “It works like the iPhone; if you’re on AT&T, it drops a few minutes out of every hour…” *rimshot!*

But maybe the most interesting announcement was when Tim Cook trotted out seminal ’80s rock band U2 and proceeded to give away the band’s new album, Songs of Innocence, to anyone with an iTunes account. I figured something like this would happen eventually, but who would have thought that U2 would become the poster child for this model? But the fact is, U2 didn’t just give away its new album. The Wall Street Journal had the skinny behind the album promotion. From the article:

“We’re not going in for the free music around here,” Bono joked on stage. Apple didn’t pay a traditional wholesale price for each of the 500 million albums. Instead the company paid Universal and U2 an undisclosed lump sum for the exclusive window to distribute the album. Universal plans to piggyback on the big push for Songs of Innocence to promote the band’s 12 older albums, a critical factor for a veteran rock band.”

The article went on to say the album’s first single would be used “as a central element of a global, 30-day television advertising campaign for its new iPhones and Apple Watch. The campaign is believed to be worth around $100 million, according to a person familiar with the talks.”

Of course most people won’t know the financial backstory and will assume U2 just gave it away, further enforcing the idea that recorded music has become (or is) essentially worthless. Especially when it just “shows up in your iTunes library” like magic.

We’re only a year or so away from an era when all the monster pop acts — Shania, Katy Perry, Gaga, Jay Z (i.e., the VMA acts) — give away downloads of their new albums as a matter of course, just to get the music out there before they go on tour, just like U2 has done. I’m not sure where that leaves the little guys (and labels) who still count on revenue from album sales.

And at what point does the RIAA quit going after people who illegally download music, figuring what’s the point when some bands are giving it away and it’s all available online via Spotify anyway?


As for the quality of the new U2 record, someone online equated U2 to Coldplay last week when all this was going down, and goddamn if that comparison isn’t apt. The new U2 album indeed has the same listless, floating-yet-blank, forgettable quality as a Coldplay record. 

After listening to it a couple times, I played it for my wife as we drove out to my father’s house for his birthday. After three or four songs, Teresa said, “I’ve heard enough. It’s boring.” I switched over to the band’s classic 1987 album The Joshua Tree and in no time we were both singing along to “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as the open fields flew past along Highway 75.   

You have to wonder if Bono and Co. ever listen to their older stuff and ask themselves when the spark went out? Can you believe there was a time when U2 was considered subversive? I still remember when I first heard tracks off War on Z-92, spun by none other that Slats Gannon, who knew he was playing something new and different.

In 1983, most people were rocking to “Mr. Roboto,” Flashdance, Duran Duran and Prince. I was on a steady diet of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, as were most teen-aged nerds and dirt heads who lived in the outer banks we call Ft. Calhoun. Songs like “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” not only rocked but had something the music in that era lacked — underlying political meaning. Certainly more so than, say, Loverboy’s “Hot Girls in Love.” U2 music sounded important.

Furthermore, I experienced the genius of U2’s live album Under a Blood Red Sky while driving around in my 1978 Ford Fiesta with my first real girlfriend, who eventually stole my Under a Blood Red Sky T-shirt and never gave it back. What I’m saying here is that I wasn’t just experiencing the music, I was experiencing LIFE. 

Can a veteran artist like U2 today produce music as vital as when they first made their mark? The question ignores the basic premiss that “new” almost always trumps “familiar.” And that’s become a problem in this “Free Music Era” when kids can get their hands on anything they want in seconds and are more apt to be attracted to a shiny new object than the dull second or third release by the band that was hot two years ago. 

I have no doubt a lot of great music has been dismissed outright by the new generation without ever being heard because the performers are “yesterday’s news.” You’re lucky if you get one hit record these days (especially if you’re an indie band). Follow-ups can be a bitch. “New Arcade Fire? No thanks, I already own Funeral.”

Do kids even listen to entire albums these days? Smart ones do. I wonder how many of those smart kids listened to Songs of Innocence before they deleted the literally worthless album from their iPhones.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com

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