When U2 first started out as a band, they disliked the recording process so much that there was talk of them never making any records at all. In an interview I read with their long-time manager Paul McGuinness, they were throwing around a theory that they should only ever be a live band. It was a revolutionary concept that didn’t play out, as much for personal and professional reasons. Once the band found a way to enjoy their time in the studio and saw the commercial success that Boy and Unforgettable Fire provided in the early days, they used the profits from each album to create bigger and bigger shows.
I have had the pleasure of seeing many U2 shows over the years, none more so than the recent Joshua Tree 30th anniversary tour where I saw them in London and Paris. Bono, as ever, is most at home in front of a large stadium audience, but as I saw in the superb documentary From The Sky Down, the band always returned to the studio to reinvent themselves in a desire to stay relevant, from one album to the next.
The idea of going on tour to enjoy the energy of a live audience was as much about giving something back to the fans, as it was for Bono to play out his messianic fantasies. And putting the interests of their audience first is something that has served them well. The profits from Joshua Tree, one of the best selling albums of all time, were spent almost entirely on creating the road movie Rattle and Hum. Music critics weren’t fans and the film didn’t make it’s money back, but fans like me loved it. It introduced me to people like Little richard and B.B. King. The album Achtung Baby was a huge commercial success, but the band pumped all the profits into creating ZooTV – probably the largest (and most expensive) stadium set of all time, costing the band almost $250,000 for every one of the 157 dates that it toured. Even on days when the band didn’t play, it cost the band around $125,000 per day. Going to such extreme lengths to give “gifts” like this to their fans has, in my eyes anyway, been the secret to their success and longevity.
Wouldn’t it be great if more businesses thought like this? Not in making extreme losses from spectacular events (obviously), but in the attitude that “live” is better than “processed“? Bono argues that successful people, like companies, are very unique and often a little messed up, which is why they crave that live experience in front of an audience.
“You don’t become a rock star unless you’ve got something missing somewhere, that is obvious to me. If you were of sound mind or a more complete person, you could feel normal without 70,000 people screaming their love for you”. Bono
When I think of my world of marketing, I imagine how great it would be if we all embraced our weirdness and shortcomings, thinking differently more often and being even more obsessed with spending time in front of more audiences.
I love the idea of a band (or a company) who’s only content is their “live” performances. It’s what made people love Snapchat so much initially. Fleeting content that soon disappeared. It’s not realistic, I get that, but that attitude that drives U2 of doing whatever it takes to spend as much time in a live environment in front of your [fans, follows, customers or subscribers], is one that we could all do more of.