I love surprises. When I was younger, I dreamed my family would throw some elaborate surprise party and I’d walk down my stairs and Hanson would be sitting at our dining room table with an ice cream cake, singing “Happy Birthday” in perfect harmony. It never happened, but I’ve come to terms with that. The Hanson brothers were really busy during the late ‘90s, and with the way I like to make an entrance, the ice cream cake would’ve probably melted by the time I finally got down the stairs.
But there are some surprises even I don’t like. Parking tickets. Acne. When my super forgets to turn the hot water on and we only have cold water to shower in so I have to wash my hair in the sink. When I wake up with a U2 album on my iPhone.
Unless you use carrier pigeon to communicate, you probably woke up in a similar situation last month. Songs of Innocence, U2’s 13th studio album, was released in conjunction with Apple’s keynote event and automatically delivered to anyone who subscribes to iTunes. There was no opting out. Apple had to create an entire website just to help angered customers remove the album from their music library.
I would’ve normally let this all slide because it didn’t ruin my life. It was just confusing. Then this week, during a Facebook Q+A with their fans, Bono decided to apologize for the marketing stunt. His apology was worse than the act itself. “Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people’s playlists ever again? It’s really rude,” one fan wrote. This was Bono’s response:
“Oops…I’m sorry about that. Artists are prone to that thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion, and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess, we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”
A drop of this, a touch of that, a dash of this—we’re two tablespoons away from having the recipe for Grandma’s humblebrag stew. In his desperate attempt to sound poignant, Bono basically boasted about how good of a person he is and how entitled he feels because he works so hard on his music. Now we can safely add “apologies” to the list of Things Bono Doesn’t Do Like a Normal Human Being right after “wear sunglasses” and “wave.”
Still, it’s Bono. We should have expected that his apology would include a little narcissism.
That’s not what even what I hate about his apology. What I hate is this part: “…and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years might not be heard.” Hey Bono, you’re the lead singer of U2. U fucking 2. You’ve sold more than 150 million records worldwide and won 22 Grammy Awards. Your songs are going to be heard whether you force them on people or not.
For Bono to group himself in with artists worrying about being heard shows an incredible lack of self-awareness. For a lot of artists, not being heard is a painful reality.
That fear he talks about is a real fear for most musicians. For Bono to group himself in with artists worrying about being heard shows an incredible lack of self-awareness. For a lot of artists, not being heard is a painful reality. The internet has made the barrier of entry so low that everyone can make music and share it with the world, and this means competition is at an all-time high. With so much noise out there, there are a lot of talented new artists who won’t ever get heard, no matter how hard they try.
The gap between struggling artists and superstars is wider than ever. The three major labels still have their superstars. There are still the musicians who are making money every time they sneeze, and then there are those who spend more money than they make to pursue music professionally. There are those who can partner with Apple to release music, and there are those who still personally send out emails to bloggers to try to get some attention.
With sales so low, major labels aren’t spending time and money on developing artists. There is no marketing budget for an up-and-coming act unless they’ve got a viral hit that can be exploited to death. Labels’ efforts go toward milking the cash cows, and that makes it extremely difficult for artists still trying to carve out their own lane and build an audience.
Business is business. We understand why Apple wanted to partner with U2 and why U2 wanted to partner with Apple, but it’s all a reflection of a bigger problem in the music industry. Popular legacy artists get absurd advantages and starving artists have more trouble getting heard. Everyone wants big results, but the time and effort aren’t there anymore—everything needs to be immediate. The rich get richer, and the gap between a surviving professional musician and Bono widens.
So Bono, we appreciate that you’re sorry for forcing your album on us, but we’re not sure if you’re sorry for any of the right reasons. If you’re really worried that people won’t hear your music, try to put yourself in the shoes of the millions of aspiring artists who actually won’t ever be heard. You came along during a time when there was money to be made in the music industry and when major players were willing to give artists a chance to grow. Things are different these days, and when you complain about your concerns as a member of one of the biggest bands in the world, you sound not only like a megalomaniac—you sound completely out of touch with the state of the music industry in 2014.