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U2 vs. Foo Fighters: Battle of the Corporate Album Campaigns

on November 13, 2014, 3:30pm

Nod Your Head is a recurring column from CoS News Editor Chris Coplan allowing a space to expand on topics that he encounters beyond the quick news post. In this edition, he looks at the promotional campaigns for the latest albums from U2 and Foo Fighters and how they impact the entire music industry. 

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nodyourhead U2 vs. Foo Fighters: Battle of the Corporate Album CampaignsI’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking long and hard about the album cycle. The music industry today is sort of like the African savanna: lots of different animals trying lots of different techniques to survive, and maybe eventually thrive. For the most part, it’s all rather harmonious, like The Lion King, with most of the “band-imals” just trying to stay on their toes long enough to deal with the ways their habitat shifts.

Lately, the jungle has been home to a confrontation between two of the most booming and boisterous apex predators: U2 and Foo Fighters. No, Bono and Dave Grohl aren’t at each other’s throats — at worst, there’s been a silly fart joke courtesy of Taylor Hawkins. Instead, both have championed two very different techniques with regards to releasing and promoting albums. Whoever finds the most success will have a very big impact on the lowly little gazelles.

Let’s start with U2’s Songs of Innocence. The world didn’t even know the album existed until it surfaced mysteriously back in September as part of the rollout for the new iPhone 6. Regardless of your feelings on the band, the album, or the campaign itself, what matters is that one of the biggest rock acts in the world signed a deal with one of the most lucrative corporations in the world in order to release their album for free.

Then there’s the Foo Fighters, who have taken a much more deliberate, drawn-out approach for Sonic Highways. The album was announced earlier this summer, yet the first single, “Something from Nothing”, didn’t surface until October as part of its accompanying HBO series. Since then, each succeeding episode has produced a new track from the album, making this entire campaign one tantalizingly tantric process in contrast to U2’s quick fix. The whole medium is as much a ploy as the Apple deal, only dressed in the guise of something more art-orientated.

The question is: Which one is more effective?

Well, it all depends on a number of things, like whether you want the album right now or whether you enjoy the long, slow build. Does corporate sponsorship bother you, or do you think that the music can co-exist with or even transcend it? What constitutes a gimmick? Is spectacle itself what keeps album sales from plummeting entirely?

There’s good and bad to both campaigns, and only by looking at each of those can we understand what I think is the industry’s core truth: there’s no single answer, and some success can be found in the space between these deeply stratified marketing ploys.

The Good: U2 Enhance the “Surprise Factor”

U2 Songs of Innocence artwork

Another surprise release similar to U2’s was last year’s self-titled effort by Beyoncé. Where Bey had the power of the holidays behind her, U2 had one of Apple’s ginormous, media-consuming rollout events as backup. Both were truly immersive events, the kind that crosses the lines of music fandom into meme-like proportions. As great as it is to shock music fans (who at this point can be jaded), they shocked the whole wide world — something very few artists can do.

These big, world-altering media spectacles shake people out of apathy and remind us that music can still sweep us off our feet. Hate the music or love it, there’s something exhilarating about an album release landing in the world’s face like a big Mayweather right hook. Everybody unites in the gossiping and the joke-making, and whether people are lending praise or critique, we’re all under U2’s spell together.

The Internet has connected lots of people, but lately it feels like we’ve mostly been using it to pass around terrible memes or asinine ideas about the spread of Ebola. At least U2 banded us around a positive force: music. This terrible, cynical world needs more excuses to come together over something worthwhile, and one of the few times we can do that is when music crashes into our bubble like a foul ball in 5th grade gym class. Bands are going to have to deal with the fact that the best way to break through people’s inherent bullshit detectors is to catch them off guard. If they don’t see you coming, they can’t put up walls. They may even have to deal with being genuinely touched.

The Bad: U2 Crush Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Rebel Spirit

I won’t pretend to understand Bono; between the glasses and the on-again, off-again love affair with hats, the man is a maverick my mind just can’t comprehend. U2’s campaign is another reason I don’t get the bespectacled rock god. For better or worse, the Apple deal was ballsy. If it failed, the band risked becoming a laughing stock. If it succeeded, they’d be hailed as marketing geniuses. The verdict’s still mostly out, but the fact remains that it took a kind of punk bravado to say, “We’re in bed with Apple, folks. Deal. With. It.”

Then, just as the Internet monster got its claws in U2, Bono went and apologized. That felt like a misstep. If you’re going to push boundaries and blaze trails, you can’t turn around and apologize for it. True progress is made by those brave enough to kick down walls without fearing the consequences. There will always be consequences; you do it anyway if it’s important enough. To apologize is to completely spit in the face of your progressive tendencies and to leave yourself looking like a chump just because Pink Floyd waved their fingers at you.

Reeling from the fallout, Bono returned to the spotlight to declare that the whole thing was actually one of the band’s most genius moves to date. If it’s a bad thing to do in politics, flip-flopping with such abandon is 100 times worse in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the action of a man who is more accustomed to kissing ass than pushing culture forward. Even if Bono did search his soul and come to this conclusion on his own, it’s hard to believe him. Heck, the next wave of backlash could have him scurrying back under his shell. In fact, almost any stance he has on the campaign from here on out will automatically be rendered invalid, which nullifies any and all momentum behind it. Rock gods don’t toe the line; they throw a TV out the window and declare themselves a Golden God.

The Good: Foo Fighters Make Rock a Spectacle Again

foo fighers sonic highways U2 vs. Foo Fighters: Battle of the Corporate Album Campaigns

In the ’70s, rock stars slept with hundreds of girls, did mounds of coke, dressed like demons, and spat blood. Nowadays, we have rock stars like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who looks like you’d see him at Whole Foods after a show. Still, if you can’t shake people out of their apathy by either being a badass or blindsiding them with your surprise album, then your rollout has to be so big it practically engulfs the entirety of their pitiful lives. Foo Fighters have done just that.

Sonic Highways is no mere album; it’s an event, a giant pastiche of music and TV and film and regional cultures. It’s three-ring rock ‘n’ roll circus meets college seminar, where Professor Grohl guides us through music history before ripping off his tweed jacket and sticking his head into a white tiger that’s playing Dio solos. If you ignore the album, it’s all over HBO, and vice versa. It’s an inescapable black hole. It also helps that under all that spectacle is a great message: music is a collective experience whether we realize it or not.

People have an innate desire to be wowed. We as a species want to know there’s something bigger than us, and since we can’t prove the existence of God or aliens, we lose ourselves in shared cultural experiences like Sonic Highways. It’s our way of knowing that we’re alive and not alone, and the Foo Fighters have pounced on that brilliantly. Everything about Sonic Highways is simultaneously life-affirming and bewildering, a profound mix of quiet intimacy and lush theatricality. It’s like catnip for the human soul, leaving people spinning with emotion. Perhaps just as much as being bum-rushed by U2, this kind of thing affirms people’s faith in music’s true power.

The Bad: Foo Fighters Make Rock a Spectacle

As powerful as Sonic Highways is, the album itself — the final product of this journey — is just sort of average. That’s a crucial point in the analysis of the Foos’ massive campaign. After months of talking and teasing and releasing a new song every week, Grohl gives us something that’s entertaining but likely a mere blip on the Foos’ storied discography.

You’ve got months of lead-up to an album most of us won’t spend more than a couple weeks with, and all that we’re left with are frustrated fans dealing with their torn-apart expectations. If Sonic Highways were a film, it’d be one that sells halfway well despite criticism, which I think is far more disappointing than a solid dud. At this point, you’re not relying on the music, but the hype you’ve spent thousands (millions?) building up over the last six months. That’s no way to connect with your fans, because hype is like a slowly deflating balloon animal; when the last bit of air finally runs out, there’s nothing left to keep that dog shape in place.

Maybe I’m just suffering from the whole “hype vs. product” back-and-forth that no band or movie or TV show can ever fully escape. But this feels like a more profound loss. I for one can’t help thinking “maybe next time” as I watch the sun slowly fade on Sonic Highways-a-palooza.

The Good: U2 Have Opened The Doors To Rock’s Corporate Future

U2 Apple Album

I have seen the future, and it has nothing to do with hover boards or magic food-creating laser machines à la Star Trek. No, it’s more corporate sponsorship in rock music, and U2 is leading the charge. They’re not alone: check out Taco Bell’s Twitter to see just how many young bands they’ve been enticing with Crunch Wrap Supremes. Or take a stroll through Brooklyn and find Sour Patch Kids’ new haven for touring bands. The signs are everywhere, folks, and they all say, “Yes, our band will take your money if it helps us make popular music.” No judgment; if anything, it’s actually a damn good idea.

If being able to make art that can touch people’s hearts without worrying about bills and debt means tweeting @McDonald’s, then just be happy you’re not digging for coal like your grandpappy. Of course, if you’re going to go for it, and I mean really go for the C.R.E.A.M., U2 is the official standard-bearer. The band’s earned themselves a boatload of money (no specific sum was ever disclosed, but Apple did spend $100 milllion simply marketing the campaign). They’re showing younger bands how to actually do the whole corporate thing: first, find a venue where your music is still the centerpiece, even if it’s ultimately just a cog in a giant corporate machine. Next, if you’re going to be labeled a sellout, might as well make the most money. Lastly, always, always come out as if you’re the star, and not just some added bonus to a new White Castle sandwich. People may have joked about the giant iPhone, but the real headlines all focused on U2.

There was a lot U2 botched on the deal, but up until the whole apologizing bit, it all seemed to be going well. U2, one of the planet’s biggest bands, secured one of the biggest sponsorship deals in recent memory. It’s never going to be a totally beautiful marriage, but to deny it’s coming is to outright deny the signs of a failing music industry and the bounty of opportunities that lie in the common ground between art and commerce.

The Bad: U2 Have Opened Pandora’s Box

I’m all for corporate sponsorship, but I think it’s important to offer up the following: once music and business sign that marriage license, there’s no going back. For better or worse, we’ll be living in a world where Pizza Hut follows DMX on the road, or Ray-Bans appear in every Jack White video. Fans and critics and bands need to think long and hard about whether this is where we really want to go. People have already started to freak out about a few sponsorships here and there; imagine what it’ll be like when a band can only tour in a custom Baskin-Robbins-mobile.

As the pioneers of a new corporate age, it’s up to U2 to offer insight into a few key issues surrounding music’s next era. Namely, what limits on sponsorship, if any, will exist in the future? Do we keep it to social media posts and branded video content, or could Best Buy one day dictate the content of James Blake’s music? Aside from money, what else will bands and corporations exchange? What’s the motivation for a company to get involved with a band?

There have got to be issues we’re not seeing on the surface, and those could be the most dangerous. Could we see companies signing a whole roster of young, rising artists? Could bands get traded in corporate deals, like an NFL draft? Just what role do we as consumers and fans have in all of this? Our money’s at stake, so could we influence or even directly control a deal? If U2’s already in this terse little fiscal dance, it’s only a matter of time before other acts are pulled onto the same dance floor.

The Good: Foo Fighters Make It All About The Music

dh-voodooexperience-Foo Fighters-110214-0981

Photo by David Brendan Hall

I stand by what I say about Sonic Highways being mostly average (which is saying a lot for a band who’s done as much for modern rock in the last 20 years as Foos). I’ll still give endless credit to Grohl and co. for keeping the music as the main focus despite the endless hype. Whether you like the album or not, you have to applaud the Foo Fighters’ overall aim of not only exploring the country’s cultural melting pot, but finding a way to add to that mixture.

Solely from a promotional standpoint, that’s a brilliant way to lure people in, and it continued into the Sonic Highways miniseries. Music remained steadily at the show’s core, which is the only reason that something of its scope would be worth buying into. The band did its best to implement a controlled oversaturation, issuing their singles a week at a time. That’s not the ideal way to dole music out in most instances, but it worked here. As each week explored different locations, each song felt new and different, transcending single-dom to stand on its own as a singular piece.

That whole idea was built directly into the project, which is as smart as it is easy to consume. When the album hit iTunes late Friday night, there wasn’t a spectacle, despite the fact that many assumed the LP’s arrival would be signaled by a bang and not a mere tweet. Dropping it quietly doesn’t devalue the LP; it just enhances each song’s sense of individuality. Plus, it keeps the spotlight on the greater, more immersive experience.

The Bad: Foo Fighters Have Turned Experimentation Into Corporate Synergy

The music always served as the core of the Highways campaign, but all of it still feels like an extension of the music-meets-sponsorship dynamic. Sonic Highways was about exploring music’s various cogs and seeing how they work together as a whole. Of course, this wasn’t simply for the sake of the music; it was also to fill the pockets of a big corporate entity. Even if the Foos embarked on the series with the most genuine intentions, it was still part of a deal with HBO.

Just as we have to question how far bands and business will go together, we have to wonder just how much influence HBO had in not only the development of the project, but the album itself. I’m not accusing the Foos of being corporate monkeys, but any artist involved in this kind of situation can’t say that there wasn’t some influence by forces outside the band. It’s just the way it is, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. All I’m trying to point out is that it makes you question whether the Foos chose their collaborators (Eagles’ Joe Walsh, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and Gary Clark, Jr., among others) independently, or whether there was some influence from the network.

There’s a reason they call it synergy, and it’s inevitable when you’re dealing with sponsorship like this. It’s irresponsible to think we don’t have to have the talk because rock music is an unwavering bastion of freedom. It can be, to an extent, but it’s also as corporate as that dude on the L-Train wearing everything Banana Republic. The real job is to maintain that balance, and I’m just not sure Foo Fighters and their supporters are willing to be as upfront about that dynamic as they need to be.

The Bottom Line

songsofhighways01 U2 vs. Foo Fighters: Battle of the Corporate Album Campaigns

The score is even. If I know anything about sports, that means a tie. However, unlike when it happens to the Ravens or the Heat or whatever, that might be the best thing about this debate: no one has it figured out. Let me repeat: no one singer, band, or anyone else has a marketing campaign without at least some holes or dead weight. Some bands have the genius to create an idea that excites people, but lack the necessary follow-through. Inversely, some bands have the passion to do the legwork, but their ideas are too lackluster to make any headway.

So, what does this all mean? The same thing I’ve been saying for the better part of a year: everyone — bands, critics, labels, fans, publicists, and even the guy who sweeps up trash at the label’s office — needs to work together to figure out how to get music into people’s hands while moving money into the appropriate wallets. Every component, from bands being involved with ideas to critics keeping it real with feedback, needs to be in working order. That, or we’ll all just keep leaping from idea to idea until there’s nowhere left to jump.

This is really scary territory, and it’s easy to cling to the past and pretend that it’ll all be OK. It won’t, and it’s going to take brave bands like U2 and Foo Fighters to snap folks back into a harsh, uncertain reality. These ploys aren’t always pretty, and they aren’t always all that meaningful, but at least they’re trying. I’m not sure I can say the same for everybody in the music biz.

I’ll leave you with this:

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