Dear world: U2 is probably never going to drop a free album on you again, since you proved so ungrateful for this month's mass giveaway — or force-feeding, many complained — of Songs of Innocence. But the band still isn't done trying to make you care about albums, and Bono thinks he's cracked the conundrum of how to get you to pay up for the next one, assuming their recent largess hasn't left you too paranoid about Trojan horses coming in the form of digital LPs.
They're not just working on their next album. U2 is also working — with Apple — on the next album format, a development in music technology Bono promises is "about 18 months away." Details are sketchy, but the superstar has never sounded more evangelistic than when he's hinting about this new technology in the new Time magazine.
"I think Songs of Experience will be released in a new format," Bono tells the magazine, referring to the working title for their next album. "And I think it's going to get very exciting for the music business." He says they're working with the company Steve Jobs built to bring the masses "an audiovisual interactive format for music that can't be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you're sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens. You can see photography like you've never seen it before."
This sounds incredibly innovative… if you've never heard of interactive album apps, or Apple's own iTunes LP enhanced format. Some music-tech fans with long memories may even be reminded of failed multimedia experiments like CD-I or CD+Graphics, which eventually became formats used almost exclusively for karaoke, not for reinvigorating people's love of lyric sheets and other full-immersion album sensations.
It may well be that Bono's and Tim Cook's vision of how to reinvent the album wheel will be much more sophisticated and attention-grabbing than efforts made by others in recent years. Given how they misread the room on the Songs of Innocence launch, though, there's reason to be skeptical that Bono has the best take on how this will be received, if it's anything short of transformative. The company that brought you the Mac and the artist formerly known as Macphisto clearly aren't out of the honeymoon phase of their relationship. "Get a room, you two!" has been a very common reaction to Apple's reported $100 million investment in marketing U2 alongside its own products. Can the public reaction to this marriage be saved?
Perhaps, if they haven't already, someone should offer Bono a primer on the graveyard of failed multimedia album experiments, before he makes any grander promises. For years, artists and tech-heads alike have been sure that they were the ones to have come up with the experience that would somehow duplicate that new-LP-jacket smell that made us giddy back in the '70s.
On a purely artistic level, Björk made the greatest inroads with the release of her 2011 concept album Biophilia. This "project about nature" came with an iPad app that allowed fans to download interactive content, albeit one song at a time, that explored the art and science of the tunes in truly visionary ways. "The interactiveness goes really to the core of the music, the structure of the song," Björk says. "It's not just something like an accessory," she told NPR at the time. "It is the song." But the project was hardly a runaway commercial success. When Björk started a Kickstarter campaign to fund an Android version of the app, there were so few contributions that she canceled it.
Dozens of artists have released interactive apps simultaneously with new albums. A number of deluxe reissues have been replicated as apps, including, recently, all of Paul McCartney's massive historical boxed sets. Other, mostly smaller acts have used the format to include everything from enhanced lyric booklets to 360-degree views of the band recording in the studio.
"Snow Patrol and Apple aim for the skies," read one of the headlines in 2008 when one of U2's labelmates trumpeted an app that "marked the first time a music artist has made use of the iPhone's extra capabilities." When it sounds like U2 is following in the footsteps of Snow Patrol, something has gone terribly wrong with the universe.
It was 2009 when Apple launched iTunes LP, so named because of all the bonus content designed to replicate the joy of unfolding a gatefold cover for a vinyl album and finding a load of goodies to explore within. Although this "format" still exists on iTunes, you haven't heard much about it in the last five years. Maybe Bono and company will call this new development iTunes LP Plus?
Last winter, Beyoncé did get some of the pop world excited about her self-titled album last fall, not just with the surprise attack of the release, but through a deluxe edition that included a video for every song on the record. That not-so-high-tech gambit doesn't even require a Beyoncé-sized budget, since most videos are made so cheaply in this indie-rock age.
Perhaps Bono means to do all this and more, but if he has an original take on how to technologically enhance the album experience in a deeply engaging way, he's keeping it to himself for now (as he probably should). But when the example he does give Time is that "you can see photography like you've never seen it before," it sounds suspiciously like the chance to see Anton Corbijn's work on a 65-inch screen, with dissolves.
One thing you might want to count in Bono’s favor here is that he has some history with entrepreneurialism, at least as an investor, if not inventor. As the co-founder and managing director of Elevation Partners, he’s put money into all sorts of tech and other concerns. Although these buy-ins aren’t all publicly known, Dropbox tweeted thanks to Bono and the Edge for investing in 2012. Two years prior to that, the website 24/7 Wall St. called Bono “the worst investor in America” because of Elevation’s pre-Apple gamble on Palm products. On the other hand, Bono and Elevation made millions off believing in lasting brands like Facebook and Yelp, so this businessman's crystal ball may not be so cracked after all.
"Not for the first time, U2 is on a grand mission, perhaps its grandest yet," Time writes. "It won't be enough if its next album is great. Bono, Edge, Clayton and Mullen want Songs of Experience to save all of music too." Experience would indicate that whatever this new format is has a better chance of saving karaoke than rock. But the innocent part of us hopes they have something truly magical up their sleeves to pull this magic trick off.
As for what, if anything, U2 learned from the backlash to Apple depositing Songs of Innocence in every iTunes user's cloud, it sounds like they haven't taken it as terribly admonitory or instructive. In the Time story, guitarist The Edge calls the album launch "actually incredibly subversive. It's really punk rock, it's really disruptive." From the tenor of the overall reaction, maybe most music fans would prefer less of a punk-rock approach and more Perry Como or Johnny Mathis, gently asking us to come in.