Truth be told, nobody talks about Toy Story being the first computer-generated film as its biggest accomplishment; we talk about it being a great film, period. Its follow-up, Toy Story 2, likewise, has been embraced for being one of the best sequels ever made, and not for the strange events that helped create it.
Those in the know, of course, will recall Toy Story 2’s legendary ‘troubled’ development. Nearly all of the original production was lost to a technological mishap, but things would only get more hectic for Pixar Animation Studios from there.
Originally envisioned to be a direct-to-video sequel, a turgid market that was briefly popular in the late 1990s, bigwigs at Disney soon realized that Toy Story 2 would be more commercially successful in theaters. So nuanced was this point that the final film wouldn’t count among a newly cut deal that would have Pixar deliver Disney five animated films for theatrical distribution. This one was on Pixar, quite literally.
The team, unsatisfied with early clips, made a decision that must have seemed crazy at the time: to scrap the film and start over. With less than a year to the film’s release, the team had their work cut out for them, leaving them just nine months to essentially rebuild the next Toy Story from scratch.
“Save Buzz and Woody. Save the franchise. Save the movie. Save the company. It was an all-in bet.” said former Chief Technical Officer of Pixar Oren Jacob.
The gamble paid off. Toy Story 2 was released on time, surpassed its predecessor, and helped establish Pixar Animation Studios as the best movie-makers in the business.
It’s become the stuff of legend how Steve Jobs, having been fired from Apple Computers, the company he created, helped transform Pixar from a computerized render factory into the face of animation excellence we know it today. Perhaps by brute force as much as love for the art form, the past and future CEO of Apple Computers (and then just Apple) was a master of the shrewd and often overpowering belief that delivery of content can be just as exciting and important as the content itself.
It’s hard to imagine him not being involved on some level in the decision to remap Toy Story 2 into the masterpiece it became, barking orders to release nothing but the best movie possible, backed up with the best marketing and delivery system afforded by Disney, of course. It was a method he spliced so completely into the DNA of Apple that it lives on to this day.
Mysterious Ways and Apple Pays
Apple’s recent press shin-ding, by now a cultural event, unveiled the latest slate of iPhone 6 smartphones and made the mysterious Apple Watch less so. But none of company’s mysterious ways seemed more apt than the show’s final surprise, when global superstars U2 came on stage to debut their new single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”, and to announce the existence of their long-awaited new album, “Songs of Innocence”. But they weren’t done with the surprises just yet.
Following the performance lead singer and stylish eyewear aficionado Bono linked fingers with a giddy, E.T.-style, to telegraph a move that would shake the music industries distribution system like never before. The new album would be available in seconds with the touch of a button, and it wouldn’t cost anything; no purchase required for anyone with an iTunes account. Gratis.
Make no mistake; this is the musical equivalent if Disney decided to have the new Star Wars Episode VII skip theaters and beam it right onto your high-definition screens. For free.
Apple was releasing the new album from the world’s biggest band for free to every iTunes user, regardless of what phone/tablet/platform they used, without any extra hitches. That’s upwards of 500 million potential copies to be downloaded onto countless devices, as well as unlimited streaming on iTunes Radio and Beats Radio.
Prior to the event rumors began to leak that the Irish band would be somehow involved in the event many speculated, including yours truly, that a crass tie-in might in the works, similar to how rapper slash mogul Jay Z and Samsung made his new album “Magna Carta Holy Grail” available as a timed digital exclusive to the first million customers picking up new Galaxy devices. The ploy worked, as following the Samsung promotion the album went on to sell millions.
And let’s not forget Jay Z’s more-famous spouse, Beyoncé, who used the power of shock and awe (with generous helpings of bootyliciousness) to announce/release her own magnum opus, the self-titled “Beyoncé”, exclusively on Samsung rival iTunes without promotion or prior notice last December. It became iTunes fastest-selling album ever, topping retail charts when it was released elsewhere and selling millions.
In hindsight, Apple partnering with U2 seems like a no-brainer. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year that Apple gave away ‘free’ U2 music to fans – the first would be the band’s single charitable (RED) single “Invisible” during Super Bowl XLVIII.
It’s a partnership that stretches back to the heyday of the original iPod, famously with the special (RED) iPod that came loaded with all band’s entire discography, spearheaded by an Apple-sponsored debut of the hit single “Vertigo” which became a commercial for both. Bono seems to have found his technological soul-mate in Apple’s master designer Jony Ives. To this day there’s a little Bono in every copy of Apple’s iOS operating system (check your Music App icon if you don’t believe me).
So is U2 still relevant? In the blended world of pop-culture and commerce “relevant” has become a shady code for “can we sell them” to the kiddies, the most desirable demographic in sheer buying power and expendable cash.
True, their albums and singles don’t sell as well as days past. Their last album, 2009’s “No Line of the Horizon”, failed to notch even a hit single. But you could make that argument for just about any modern act as the music industry struggles with a market that’s changed dramatically over the past decade, churning out new acts via reality TV and flushing them away just as quickly. The term ‘bubblegum’ has never felt so appropriate.
When’s the last time Justin Bieber or Brittany Spears made headlines for their music? Or just about any chart-topping hip-hop star? Is the ability to integrate one’s name into Google News headlines the only metric for ‘relevancy’ in an industry that’s come to rely more on SEO trickery than actual talent?
Forget album sales (and that “No Line” still sold millions), U2’s 360° Tour became the highest-grossing concert tour in history in both attendance and earnings, raking in well over $700 million between June 2009 through July 2011. (full disclosure: I attended a Chicago gig and it was mind-blowingly spectacular.)
To put these numbers in perspective, Guardians of the Galaxy, the most hyped film of 2014, has earned “just” $588,028,705 as of his writing. So, yes, even by that horribly misleading metric U2 are clearly still relevant.
Free or Not Free: No Lemons
Of course, this is hardly the first time a giant act has given away new music for free, or even used the value of surprise to generate buzz. Rockers Radiohead and Trent Reznor have all let fans decide what they’d like to pay for new albums, even if their preferred price was ‘free’. But let’s not compare individual acts to a monolithic marketing apparatus like U2, a band that has become legendary for their ability to rage against the machine from inside the machine itself.
And let’s not forget, the album is only free to users, not to Apple. The company reportedly paid the band an ‘untold sum’ (rumored to be upwards of $30 million) for timed exclusivity for iTunes/Beats users. “We were paid,” Bono told TIME. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”
On an entirely superficial level I’m fine with this, giddy even, to open my iTunes account and see a brand new U2 album waiting there for me. Because I’m wholeheartedly with ‘Team U2’. For me its like Christmas, New Year’s Day(!), and my best birthday all rolled into one.I really couldn’t have been happier.
But what happens when a similar future stunt (unavoidable if this one is successful) decides to be equally ‘generous’ with unwanted new albums from the likes of Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift? Would I be just as grateful to have them sitting alongside my carefully curated library favorites on the chance I may like them if only I gave them a chance. Forced submission, however pleasant it seems, is still submission.
Savvier tech zealots will note that having an iTunes/Beats account is required to grab the album, potentially giving Apple (who owns both enterprises) millions of new potential users – and their credit cards – advertise future products and even converting them to their new Apple Pay wallet-less payment system. This may well end up being entirely true.
But is this really so different with how music is pushed, nay, forced on us? Record companies pay big bucks for laced advertisements letting you know what to buy while online stunts go ‘viral’ with all the authenticity of plastic fruit. Mosey into any retail superstore and you’ll hear the latest “hit” single from the latest sponsored album blaring from speakers, same with any basic cable show or blockbusters film.
Speaking of blockbusters, never doubt the power of cross-promotion: even summer champ Guardians of the Galaxy was able to help push a whole disc of “old” songs to the top of the charts this summer. This stuff works.
More recently, veteran funnyman and undisputed parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic surprised fans by announcing the existence of his new album with a week-long celebration of videos on a variety of sponsored streaming services like Nerdist, Vevo, Yahoo, and others. The stunt led to Al dominating pop-culture like never before, even earning him his best first week sales and topping the Billboard Charts for the first time ever, even playing the Emmy’s in a spoof of hit show theme songs, a highlight in an otherwise lukewarm broadcast.
OK, so cynics will scoff at the shrewdness of marketing music via other media, but surely this must come at the cost of artistic accolades, right? Hardly. Every music award show, from the stupendously stupid MTV Music Awards to the even stupider (yes, it’s possible) People’s Choice Awards, it’s all about promotion linked to a marketing/commercial system so incestuously connected there’s not a shred of light between them.
Even the Grammys, often mocked but still the closest thing we have to a ‘legitimate’ musical measuring stick, plays ball. A band like U2, the most winningest in Grammy history, won’t see their “Songs of Innocence” eligible for any 57th Grammy Awards because it wasn’t released to the buying public on time. According to Billboard.com the the album misses the event’s “commercial eligibility” period of September 30th. Remember, it’s all about promotion.
And one element missing from the surprise launch is that, by going direct to your library, the album circumvents the a well-entrenched system of critics that have become little more than extensions of the music marketing machine. Worse, the self-important snobs who claim they ‘know’ what good music is and what people ‘should’ be listening to find themselves neutered of their one power.
That’s right, no ‘exclusive’ reviews or slow-dripped singles tied to specific marketing pushes here, folks. Fans get the whole enchilada right up front, no waiting and without the chatter of music snobs who ‘know best’ about what’s great and what’s not. This is music unfiltered by a system that’s become as integral to promotion as retail and McDonalds.
In an email Bono expressed his excitement in partnering with Apple to push the new album to fans, especially the potentially new ones:
“People who haven’t heard our music, or weren’t remotely interested, might play us for the first time because we’re in their library. And for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail.”
And like Toy Story 2, the album has become infamous for its troubled production, nearly five years (the longest stretch in the band’s history), missed deadlines and for discarding work by producers Rick Rubin and supposedly quashing collaborations with white-hot producers David Guetta, will.i.am and RedOne.
Instead, the finished album credits just a handful of producers, including main work by Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley), Paul Epworth (Adele), Ryan Tedder (One Republic), and longtime collaborator Flood (i.e. Mark Ellis). All lyrics are credited entirely by Bono and The Edge; no songwriting factories here, thank goodness.
About That Album…?
So beyond the chatter of digital commerce and cynicism about its distribution, just how is the album? I’m no music critic (thank goodness) but I am a longtime U2 fan. To the point of obsession, if we’re being honest with each other.
That said, this may be the band’s most complete album they’ve ever released, with production and precision that’s astonishingly great. While it may lack a single as euphoric as “Beautiful Day” or shake the world like “Where The Streets Have No Time”, there’s no filler here. Every song is brilliant, heartfelt, and flow along each other with a cohesion that’s startlingly fresh and inventive. Never in a million years did I ever think I’d hear this sound from them again. Wow.
Forget “Joshua Tree” or “Achtung Baby”, this is the follow-up U2 would have created after “War” had they not made “The Unforgettable Fire”. In “Cedarwood” Bono finally names the nameless street while “Raised By Wolves” resurrects the pain that raised “Pride (In The Name of Love)” with a blisteringly raw vocal that reminds us just how powerful a voice Bono (still) has.
It also includes not one but two homages to their musical heroes of punk, including lead single “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”, who passed away while listening to “In A Little While”. The other “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now”, is dedicated to The Clash’s Joe Strummer, who also passed a decade ago.
It’s worth noting that “Songs of Innocence” presented itself on the eve of September 11th, a day of infamy not just for the American people but one that would see the world resurrect an interest in U2’s unique musical ideology like never before. People longing to make sense of tragedy sought out music with meaning, and once again they looked to an Irish rock ‘n roll band who since the beginning have unapologetically wore tattered hearts on sleeves, four guys who felt music could change the world if only people would listen.
“Songs of Innocence” is a brilliant reminder they are still that same band, one headed into their fourth decade could hold our attention for a little while longer could means everything, commercialism be damned. I imagine that once the noise of its birth and distribution fade into history we’ll be left with an album that will be judged on its musical merits alone. As it should be.
Those not tied into Apple’s ecosystem or diehard purists who need their albums physical can always wait to pick up “Songs of Innocent” when it’s released commercially everywhere else on October 14th.