Column: off the record…, vol. 12-510

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off the record, from @U2

On a few past pieces I've mentioned how lamentable I think it is that U2 have given up their position as one of the most tech-savvy acts in popular music. Starting with the Zoo era, whenever new technology opened a door to previously unavailable interaction and involvement with their audience, U2 seemed to be first in line to take advantage of it. They had the first No. 1 song on iTunes and got satellite feeds of Bosnian war victims to present their plight to the ZooTV audiences. They had the rights to music distributed by online means written into their contracts in the early 1990s and the only personalized mass-produced Apple iPod ever made. These days, though, their technological goals seem to be either enormous and unwieldy (the U2 360 tour stage, although it was fantastically enormous and unwieldy) or tiny and slightly amusing (advance downloads of fan club exclusives for members and little red LED lights in Bono's jacket).

Rather than just being bugged by U2's sluggishness, though, I've started thinking more and more about what they could do with the opportunities presented in this day and age where our gadgets look more and more like Star Trek devices and Star Trek movies look more and more like our electronics stores. I use primarily Apple products, so this section will focus on their ecosystem. Apologies to the fans of Android, Windows Phone 7, WebOS, etc.

The music business has taken steps in the direction of what I'd like to see, although not in the mainstream realm that U2 exists in. The idea of iTunes LP always appealed to me in that it could be used as a full-screen, immersive album-listening experience. The screen is taken over by album artwork and the listener is only presented with options related to the album, be it music, lyrics, videos, credits or what have you. For someone who could sit down at the computer and was willing to spend an hour listening, it wasn't a half-bad experience. However, it has two flaws in that it can only be used on a computer, not portable devices, and is not very interactive.

Björk released an app called "Biophilia" that is very interactive but, like most things Björk releases, seems to be slightly out of the purview of the average music listener. The app, which contained an album of the same name, was written as a description of the universe and features many collaborations with visual artists. The user can interact with the physical appearance of the app, which in turn changes the music itself to fit with the new visual structures. Madonna recently released an app that comes a bit closer to what I have in mind than anything else I've seen. It is fairly comprehensive and includes links to videos, tour information, music, her biography, and so forth, although it is just one app for an artist with 12 studio albums. It still feels limited, an introduction to her work rather than a new form of her work.

For all Bono's talk last year about U2's shaky relevance, I still don't really see many other artists out there who could really usher in a vanguard of mass-culture interactive music apps on portable devices. Possibly Radiohead or Lady Gaga … maybe Coldplay or MGMT … but there simply aren't many performers out there who display the fine balance of musical quality and accessibility combined with visual artistic ambition, and I'd put U2 at the top of that small heap. Hell, most artists aren't even capable of releasing PDF booklets to go with their digital albums.

So, what would I do with U2's albums as apps? For starters, I'd make sure they could release their complete catalog at once. All of their mass-released albums available at the same time. This should not be a timid attempt like iTunes LP. U2 should communicate that they're completely willing to embrace this as a new album format that will be available alongside CDs, vinyl and MP3/AAC digital files. Each app should be competitively priced, not more than a couple dollars more than the basic album if purchased as a whole or only a few dollars if purchased independent of the audio files. I know affordability is not the way the band goes these days regarding non-"standard" releases, but this needs to deliver a full album's content in an accessible way. For instance, the standard albums should include all related b-sides and bonus tracks, as well as music videos. The collection albums should include bonus discs, such as the B-Sides discs released with the two Best Of albums. If U2 release a new album in this format, future singles and b-sides related to the album should come as free updates to the app. People need to feel secure that they can treat the apps as central listening experiences, just as they would a CD or an album download, and skimping on content would send the message that this was a money grab or a gimmick, rather than a new form of album release.

Regarding the music itself, it should be available as audio files that can be listened to independently of the app, but are also flexible within the app. As I said above, the app should not cost too much more than the purchase of the album without the app. Customers should also be offered the opportunity to use their own previously purchased music within the app. For example, if I have ripped lossless copies of the tracks on the The Unforgettable Fire remaster to maintain CD quality sound on my high-quality headphones, those should be able to be incorporated into the album track listing of the app. The audiophile should not have to sacrifice what he or she feels is a high-quality audio experience just to participate in the U2 apps. Conversely, if a listener uses standard-grade earbuds or headphones and is fine with 128 or 256 kbps audio files, that customer should not be forced to use files that are of a higher bit rate, which will consume a lot off memory on his or her audio device. Users should be able to purchase the whole album app at a standard bit rate, probably 256 kpbs if it is sold on iTunes, or slot their own audio files into a version of the app purchased without the music.

What would truly set this sort of app apart from the herd is U2's wealth of visual material. As much as I love their music, part of what has appealed to me about U2 since the early 1990s has been their striking use of visuals. The covers to Achtung Baby and Zooropa are two decades old at this point, yet they are still engrossing visually. The ZooTV, Popmart, Vertigo and U2 360 tours consistently set the bars as to what the visuals on a tour could add to a live music experience. The quality of visual material from artists like Anton Corbjin, four5one/AMP Visuals and Catherine Owens are perfect for the visual aspect of a device like a tablet or smartphone, and there is always such an abundance of visual material and graphic design from each U2 album that the app would (and should) never stick with one static image to represent itself in the way that most music apps use just the album cover currently.

One of my favorite U2 albums visually is How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. I thought its use of sharp, jagged, bold lines in a limited palette of colors served the covers for the album and singles and the style of the accompanying Vertigo tour very well. The white and red stood out very prominently against the black (I never quite understood why they introduced cream to the color-scheme with the "All Because Of You" single) and it all added to the back-to-the-basics theme of the album in a way the cover photo never did. I see opening up the app and being greeted with the chorus of "Vertigo" as the danger chevrons slip across the screen and the red and white targets ripple like puddles with rocks dropped in them. The album title and track list move into place with the chevrons sliding across the screen and then the explosion icon opens and closes as a selection is made. The options could include the album, its b-sides, its videos, its lyrics, and so on. As the album went through its track listing, videos and lyrics would appear where appropriate. At a touch they could be accessed, or the listener could dismiss them to focus on the music itself. The background art would change from song to song as well. "Miracle Drug" could have the strands of DNA from the Vertigo concerts winding their way through the background. "City Of Blinding Lights" could use the streams of lights and Japanese text it had in Vertigo. "Yahweh" could incorporate the morphing icons and giant stick-figure city used in U23D. Beyond How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, I can see shifting pictures of the band in the desert from The Joshua Tree sliding and folding upon themselves a bit like the Nexus Version music video of "Window In The Skies." I can see the listener flicking the stars from Zooropa cover and watching them bounce around the screen as the purple static in the background flickers and pulses and the poor Zoo Baby astronaut sits in the middle of them asking, "What do you want? Que veux-tu faire?" The credits could have actual links to the charities the band supports, rather than just lines of text imploring the reader to check out the causes. The band could include relevant interviews, outtakes, and so on. There are so many options, and it would all be available on the iPad touchscreen sitting in front of you, to observe, to interact with, or to simply sit back and listen to, and the band could feel free to update and add to the app at will.

I have no doubt that if any band out there could make this cool, it would be U2. So many people, U2 members included, lament the death of the album in favor of the single without really doing anything about it. They release the music in a new format but add nothing new to it, outside of some low-quality remix or outtake as a bonus track. They promote Digital Rights Management controls or Internet Service Provider castigation with the vague assumption that if they just prevent people from sharing their music, the public at large will automatically start paying for it again and their revenues will go back to when CDs were approaching $$20 a pop. A brand-new iPad has just come out in various countries around the world and it has the best screen ever released on a portable consumer product. Just like the iPhone 4/4s and the most recent iPod Touch, the screen quality is sufficient that you cannot see pixels on it unless you put the screen right up to your nose and look for them. It is essentially a glowing, interactive screen with printed media graphic quality. I can see how much effort the band is willing to put into their products as of late. My cousin, a very big music fan who hates U2 (and Bono in particular) had to admit that the box sets of No Line On The Horizon, U2 360 Live From The Rose Bowl and Achtung Baby were pretty darned impressive in both content and appearance. When U2 want to wrap their music in beautiful trappings, they outdo everyone else in the business that I've seen. If the possibilities offered by the new iPad and the devices that are sure to follow aren't enough to whet the band's appetite on both artistic and monetary platforms … well, then I really don't know what to make of U2's ambition at this point. This seems like it is EXACTLY up their street, and no band is out there with as many monetary and creative resources to take advantage of it as U2. 

(c) @U2, 2012.

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