MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
I have no interest in, or enthusiasm for, the music of U2; but I remain endlessly fascinated by the business of U2.
Before you try and race ahead of me, this is not about their ‘jazz’ approach to taxation. That’s a whole other debate and probably one I should seek legal advice on before writing.
U2 became the biggest band in the world by slogging away. There’s a, possibly apocryphal, story that manager Paul McGuinness would forensically analyse their ticket sales on every US tour as they were building in the early 1980s, pinpointing the cities with the lowest attendance numbers and doubling down on them on the next tour, forcing them to capitulate. It absolutely worked. There are many things to dislike about U2, but they had a hell of a work ethic.
Tied up in this endless pressing of their shoulders to the wheel was the bold proclamation that they never wanted to be a nostalgia turn, that every tour was heavily and carefully built around a new album rather than coasting along by lazily playing the hits. The path they chose was very different to the one The Rolling Stones have spent the past five decades on.
Something, however, has shifted.
Late last year, Bono published his memoirs and conducted a series of talks/performances in grand theatres around North America and Europe, with a New York residency booked in for April and May this year where he will delve into his past.
Their next album, the appositely titled Songs Of Surrender, is due next month and on it they ‘reimagine’ 40 of their old songs. This is not a Swiftian power play to take control of their masters. The few tracks they have released already suggest this could be a boldly satirical comment on the futility of nostalgia, running a box cutter over the canvas of memory. Or they could just be… a bit rubbish, the sound of a band running out of energy and enthusiasm.
The news of their Las Vegas residency, announced during an eye-wateringly expensive TV ad shown during the Super Bowl and based around 1991’s Achtung Baby album, comes off the back of their last tour in 2017/2019 where they played 1987’s The Joshua Tree in order. (They came up with some threadbare argument back then that the album had found a new cultural and political relevance or something. They even said this with straight faces. Such chutzpah.)
This time, however, founding member Larry Mullen Jr will not drum with the band as he’s recovering from surgery. One can only imagine that the unavailability of John ‘Stumpy’ Pepys, Eric ‘Stumpy Joe’ Childs, Mick Shrimpton and Scott ‘Skippy’ Scuffleton was a cause for consternation. One can also imagine Jimmie Nicol sitting by his phone willing it to ring.
All of this means that, after decades of fighting it and trying to dance around it, U2 have finally given in to what I am going to term The Nostalgia Yield.
This is a yielding in both senses of the word. The first definition is that of yielding a bountiful harvest of a) attention and b) cash. The second definition lies in acceding to wider arguments, demands or pressures. In this case, yielding to the prevailing notion that your best years are far behind you.
U2 are a band who certainly do not need the money and are in a luxurious position whereby they don’t have to do things purely for the money. But they, to reapply a phrase first levelled at Mick Jagger when the Stones became a nostalgia juggernaut, have never seen a dollar bill they didn’t like. Being in a position to not need the money means that, when you do grab the money, there’s a huge amount of it to grab.
We can see the exact same thing happening with Madonna. In 2019 and 2020, the last time she toured, she was playing purposefully small venues – well, small for Madonna – and leaning heavily on her shrug of an album, Madame X.
At the start of this year, she announced her Celebration tour of pretty much every major city in North America and Europe, stressing that it was going to be about the hits across four decades. Presumably she means the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, thereby heading off at the pass any notion that she’s going to lump in songs from a new album. If that is the case, this will be the first tour she’s done that is not tied to a new album.
The video she posted online announcing the tour was at pains to point out that it would very much be about, as Amy Schumer delicately put it, her “greatest motherfuckin’ hits”.
Acts can try and fight it, try and feel like they are still relevant, deluding themselves that the world still wants new music from them (spoiler: it almost always doesn’t). But there comes a point where the corporation that is a hugely successful act must understand that putting out new music is an exercise in diminishing returns – both commercially and creatively – and accept that they are now part of the nostalgia circuit.
U2 may not have been as explicit as Madonna, but they are firmly in the tractor beam of The Nostalgia Yield. The signs of this all becoming an inevitability were there long before they went back to aggressively shake the Joshua Money Tree on tour six years ago.
If we want to put an exact timestamp on it, we can say it started on 9 September 2014. Doing a deal with Apple to catapult a copy of Songs Of Innocence into every iTunes account in the world was the precise moment U2 admitted they could no longer compete, in recorded music terms at least, as The Biggest Band In The World™. They could spin this as much as they wanted about it being the U2 album that had the biggest reach ever, getting to hundreds of millions of listeners as opposed to the tens of millions of sales The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby racked up. But they, and we, knew the truth.
It quickly proved a rude awakening for U2 and Apple that, no, the best things in life are not always free and stood as proof, amid the rising volume of cries for a technical solution to zap it from iTunes libraries around the world, that you literally couldn’t give a new U2 album away.
Think of the knock their collective ego took in that moment – that what they believed was a digital bouquet was actually received by listeners like a digital beating. They knew they could not punch above their weight in the ‘normal’ charts, but thought that an act of altruism would be welcomed by all. A free U2 album in 2014 felt as relevant and as vital as a free Glenn Miller wax cylinder.
‘Sister’ album Songs Of Experience followed in 2017. It was not given away on iTunes. To date, it’s the last album of new songs they have put out. The thrill of the new for U2 is now massively divorced from the thrill of the new for everyone else.
“No matter what they or their apologists insist, they are now a full nostalgia machine. Never before has a major band jackknifed so violently and suddenly into outright nostalgia.”
No matter what they or their apologists insist, they are now a full nostalgia machine. Never before has a major band jackknifed so violently and suddenly into outright nostalgia.
It is long overdue. To be brutally honest, no young person in a band today wants to be U2. They are a cultural anachronism. It’s only U2 themselves who are the last ones to realise this.
Actually, there is one young person in a band who does want to be U2. But there’s something oddly familiar about that singer in Inhaler…
Normally I would never recommend that anyone draw their influences from U2, but in this instance a lot more acts out there need to stop thinking they are immune from The Nostalgia Yield.
There is, of course, no shame in being creatively felled by it. Musicians get tired. Life takes over. Humility might even enter the picture.
The path of least resistance does not always have to be the worst option for creative people.
Eventually they all have to make peace with the fact that the last time they found themselves in regular touching distance of the zeitgeist was long before they found themselves in regular touching distance of the hair dye.
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