- 30 Oct 14
When U2 released their latest album Songs of Innocence, it was the subject of heated controversy. While the arguments aren't over yet, the attention is gradually turning to the music...
It has been a strange few weeks for U2. After five and a half years, their thirteenth fully official, original band album was finally ready to be dispatched into the world. How to do it with maximum effect was a conundrum.
By this stage just about everyone knows what happened The band joined forces with Apple and came up with a plan that would see the first, eleven-track version of the record being given away free to iTunes users. In a sense it is a measure of just how pivotal U2 are in modern music that the subsequent reaction was so intense – and frequently hostile.
When Prince joined forces with the UK Mail on Sunday – a bastion of Toryism – to give away his Planet Earth CD in 2007, he was widely applauded. Did anyone on the political left demur? Not that I can recall, unless you’re talking about record shops and rival newspapers. Nor was there much of a negative ripple when Jay Z gave away a million copies of his magnum opus, Magna Carta Holy Grail, via a link-up with Samsung. It was all in a week’s work. Get on with it.
The truth is that, historically, the idea of a band or an artist giving something to the public for nothing would have been seen in an enormously positive light. Back in there ‘80s, U2 invited fans to tape an RTÉ 2fm broadcast of a U2 Live Show. Hot Press reproduced free artwork in the magazine for what was in effect an official bootleg. Everyone thought it was a brilliant gesture on the part of the band.
Fast forward to the present: by comparison, it seemed odd in the extreme, the extent to which U2 were vilified for their initiative in hooking up with iTunes.
Some close musician friends of mine are adamant that it was not the right thing for U2 to do, on a number of different levels. The first criticism is that, at a time when artists, musicians and writers are battling to establish a basis on which their work might be accorded its proper value in an increasingly digitised media and entertainment landscape, the decision by the biggest band in the world to allow their music to be given free to their customers by Apple sent out a really unhelpful message.
The second major criticism relates to the way in which the gift was delivered. It shouldn’t, critics argued, have been plonked into the iTunes accounts of users. Some people wouldn’t want it; why should they have to go to the trouble of deleting it? And in the long run, in fairness to all concerned, the band offered a mea culpa for the way in which the whole thing had been handled.
It would be wrong to trivialise any of this. But reading many of the arguments, it struck me that there was a huge dollop of hypocrisy in a lot of what was said by the band’s loudest critics.
I am not a fan of Apple’s business practices, any more than I am of Amazon’s. But, whether you’re in the music or the publishing business, the likelihood is that you will end up rubbing shoulders with one mega multi-national or another. And, in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Apple has the distinction of having created a platform which actually generates real, substantial income for artists through the sale of their creative output on iTunes, in precisely the way that traditional record sales used to.
The truth, I believe, is that there are very few acts who would have responded to an enquiry from Apple about giving their music as a free gift to every iTune user with anything other than the question: well, how much will you pay? And if the rewards offered were sufficient, most bands would have signed on the dotted line.
Similarly, to bring the issue closer to home, if Apple or Amazon approached Hot Press and offered to deliver a copy of the magazine – digital in Apple’s case, physical in Amazon’s – to their entire customer base, and to pay for the privilege, then it would be crazy to say anything other than: “Let’s see if we can do a deal.” We are all driven by a desire to reach as many people as possible with our work. We want to be heard and read. And I can guarantee that the same applies to the vast majority of the keyboard warriors who used the opportunity to roundly abuse U2.
None of this is to ignore the fact that it was essentially a promotional exercise for U2; or that it delivered a significant financial return. The band’s motivation was not purely altruistic. But for every one of the conscientious objectors there are a thousand hypocrites, who are incapable of answering honestly the simplest question: would I have even thought of refusing, if Apple had offered me a decent chunk of change to send my blog witterings to everyone on their customer list?
On a wider political level, our own Eamonn McCann is a conscientious objector in relation to U2. In this issue of Hot Press, he writes about the band and various aspects of their recent financial dealings. Eamonn is one of the journalistic greats. He writes brilliantly in his Hot Press columns every fortnight. I know from personal experience also that he is a hugely generous character, whose own motivation has nothing whatsoever to do with money. And he has a fantastic sense of humour: his columns may be serious but he never takes himself too seriously. So he is in a far better position to criticise than most.
I won’t attempt to précis his comments here – you can read them for yourself – but at the heart of his critique is the view that U2 are a right-wing crew who have betrayed the true rebel spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
The funny thing is that I think the converse is probably true: that U2 are more concerned about social justice than the vast majority of rock bands. Think back to the genesis of rock music: can we seriously say that any of the Million Dollar Quartet was interested in social justice? Elvis? No. Jerry Lee Lewis? No. Carl Perkins? Not that I’m aware of. Johnny Cash? Maybe: his identification with prisoners in San Quentin reflected a genuinely egalitarian, blue collar worldview. But in the long run he was a friend and a fellow spirit of U2, so he can hardly quoted as a shining exemplar of a different way of looking at the world.
The truth is that, throughout their career, U2 have, by a long stretch, been more politically active and committed as a band than the vast majority of rock artists. They are notable for the fact that they consistently encouraged people to join Amnesty International. They supported Greenpeace. They wrote about the disappeared in South and Central America.
And Bono in particular took the idea of activism onto a different level by helping to form Make Poverty History and the One organisation and campaigning on the issues of social justice in Africa; on debt forgiveness; on AIDS; on reducing poverty; and on creating a sustainable economy throughout the African continent. The band have contributed over €12 million directly to this cause.
In general, the revolutionary left is hostile to the idea of any form of external intervention in a sovereign territory; and especially of anything that smacks of charity. In addition, Bono rubbed a lot of good people the wrong way when he chose to speak at a G8 summit and to meet the likes of George Bush and the pope. But he has always taken the view that it is better to get to where the power is and to use whatever influence you have to affect decisions at the highest level. In part at least, it is a tactical question: which route will get you closer to a better, more socially just result – and quicker. I don’t think anyone knows the answer for sure.
In a similar spirit, at a local level U2 have put €5 million into Music Generation, an initiative that is recognised as having the potential to revolutionise music education in Ireland, especially in primary schools. Bono also says that, apart from their involvement in One and in Music Generation, their philanthropic work is private; in different ways, he has supported over 30 organisations, from Food Bank for New York City to UNICEF. The fact is that the band do stuff all the time below the radar. I am not saying this makes heroes of them. That it is hard to square the money they have earned with their origins as a rock band in the bruised and battered Dublin of the late 1970s is one of the themes of their new record. (“I woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/ I get so many things I don’t deserve,” Bono sings in ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’). But to suggest that they are a bunch of selfish swine is wrong and unfair.
It is inescapable, even for their friends and admirers, that the band made a highly contentious decision when they moved their publishing arm from Ireland to the Netherlands, to avail of the lower tax rate there. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of it, I think this was a mistake. Apart from anything else, it gave their detractors a stick with which to beat them. But that’s easy for me – and for everyone else – to say, when on a number of levels it really isn’t a black and white issue at all. The fact is that 98% of U2’s income is earned outside Ireland. And the reality is that most people, without a second thought, do the ordinary things that they are entitled to do, to minimise their tax exposure. It is a natural instinct.
Bono addresses this issue in our cover story by saying that it would be contradictory for people in Ireland to object to the move when Ireland’s ability to attract the tech giants to locate their European headquarters here is based on exactly the kind of tax incentive that attracted U2 to Holland. But, of course, people’s reaction is largely an emotional one.
Of far greater relevance, however, is what he says about the work that he has done to encourage companies to base themselves in Ireland. You can, of course, take a view that the IDA is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that the tax incentives and other inducements offered to companies to come here are inherently unjust. But the fact is that Ireland is a tiny country in an open global market economy and if we want to create jobs for our citizens and our workers now, we simply have to compete.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that U2’s contribution in this respect has been enormous. It goes back to the effect that it had on the international perception of Ireland that this was the place which gave birth to the biggest rock band on the planet. But over the past five years, in particular, Bono has been out there, consciously selling on Ireland’s behalf at every opportunity – and he has been hugely instrumental in encouraging the clustering of companies in the tech sector here, which now employs over 110,000 people.
You either look at this stuff cynically or you don’t. I can understand why many do: global capitalism has unleashed dangerous and destructive forces. But you have to be aware of the contradictions too. Is it better that things should be allowed to get far worse? That unemployment levels should hit 30% or 40% here, in the hope that the collapse of everything in Ireland might trigger a bigger collapse elsewhere. Or is it better to do what we can, within our own small patch, to ensure that the greatest possible number of people at least have the option of work?
I am for redistribution of wealth. I am for policies which promote equality in any and every way that is practical. I am for channelling tax revenues to assist the least well off first and foremost. But I can never accept that it is better to let people suffer, because in the long run it might serve a higher political agenda.
There has to be a balance in all of this. Apart from anything else, in Songs of Innocence, U2 have just made an extraordinary record that gets better as it settles. ‘Every Breaking Wave’ and ‘Iris’ are transcendentally beautiful songs, in an album that is finely tuned and exquisitely pitched. It is also a wonderfully human record, touching on memories, feelings and ideas that resonate powerfully with the experience of growing up in Ireland in the era from the 1960s on.
You can’t ignore what goes on around a band. Of course not. But in the end, it is on their music that U2 rely for our affections. On the evidence of Songs of Innocence, as artists they remain an outstanding force. Long may it continue.