Bono and the Edge react to a new study indicates digital listeners are spinning a lot of U2 on their iOS devices. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty
"It'll be a battle to be match fit for May 14th," Bono confesses, referring to the opening date in Vancouver of U2's impending tour. Asked to describe the state of his health after the bicycle accident in New York last November that left him with multiple injuries, including a facial fracture, the singer says, "My southpaw is a bit tricky, but my right hook is ready to rumble for sure." As for the shows, dubbed the Innocence and Experience tour, with alternating set lists each night, Bono promises, "We've got something beyond incredible planned. And I'm ready to fight for it."
Bono's comments about his recovery and return to the stage came at the end of an e-mail interview this week, with U2 guitarist the Edge, prompted by the release on February 23rd of a survey by the digital-data research firm, Kantar, which found that almost one-fourth of music users on iOS devices listened to at least one U2 song in January 2015 (making them the most-listened to artist during the period of the study). And nearly all of those users, 95 percent, listened to at least one song from last year's Songs of Innocence. Issued last September as a giveaway on iTunes, the album received wide critical praise – it was Rolling Stone's Album of the Year – while its delivery – straight to iOS users' mobile devices, prompted a firestorm against the band, particularly complaints about violations of privacy.
But according to Kantar, which sampled 978 iOS users drawn from a larger panel of more than 2,500, 23 percent of them listened to U2 in January. In comparison, 11 percent listened to at least one song by Taylor Swift. "Haven't got a clue!" Bono admits when asked about Kantar and its methodology. "I guess it's possible they could have randomly selected thousands of individuals with impeccable taste," he cracks, "who are not unduly influenced by the feeding frenzy that the blogosphere seems to become if there's a spot of blood in the water."
He and the Edge went into greater, more serious detail in response to the following questions. Six months after the troubled release of Songs of Innocence, they have not given up on those songs and their future.
With the information from survey, and some time to reflect, what would you have done differently in releasing Songs of Innocence? What could you have done that would have highlighted the music over the technology and the giveaway?
The Edge: Lots of people, including me, don't read the instructions. When you select automatic download on iOS, you're signing up to be pushed free content. It's not exactly small print, it's just a box you tick or don't. I understand how and why people got annoyed. But really, with all that's going on in the world. . .come on. Apple and U2 were genuine about this whole thing. Apple were being generous and we were trying to do something different to get through the noise. There's always a few teething problems when you're in new territory. . .One of which was that people thought we were giving the album away, that we'd suddenly become all about free music, when the opposite is true. We fervently believe all artists should be paid for their work. But we, like every musician, have to look at other models of getting paid. We were in the position where we can take a chance like this and weather the storm. There's some phrase about breaking eggs and omelets that's probably appropriate here.
What have you learned about the digital era – particularly the value people now put on music. And the way they listen to it and care for it – from the iTunes release and now this survey? How will they affect the way you release new music in the future?
The Edge: We're in the dawn of it. The thing it's easy to forget when you live in modern times is that they're modern for about another 30 seconds. . .more so than ever. In a few years we'll look back on this time like we look back on VCRs and rotary phones. When the radio arrived, everyone thought that was the end of sheet music. I think music has become devalued and disposable in the commercial world – but not to music lovers or the people who make it, and not all big tech either. Apple – and U2 – fight hard for artists to be paid. In the future, technology has to be a better servant of music, and not its slave master. We can take advantage of the benefits of technology, and we do, but it's also beholden on those of us who have been so well rewarded by music to figure out a way to preserve the ability for artists to create and thrive.
The results suggest that Songs of Innocence has had a quiet staying power. Were you surprised by that, given the blowback that followed the iTunes giveaway? Specifically the fact that many people did not delete the album and, in fact, came back to it after the furor died down?
Bono: It sounds boring, but our drug of choice at the moment is songwriting, and trying to take U2's to the next level. I know craft can be a dangerous thing. . .but we have been a bit prone to relying on the magic in the room when we play together. A special guitar part, a strong thought or mood. But as you get older you get harder on yourself, looking for eternal melodies, searching for a coherence to the lyric. . .There's a nagging question in your head, which demands an answer you have to find in a song. Why would somebody else be bothered to listen? Leonard Cohen calls it "the tower of song." Which suggests removal from the street, from the life of being a passer-by yourself. These songs took a while, but I know they have staying power. I'm still holding on to some of them quite tightly myself.