They’re used to playing marathon shows in sold-out arenas, but on the morning of Sept. 9, Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.–known collectively as the world-bestriding Irish band U2–performed a single song on a bare stage in a tired auditorium to a mere 2,300 geeks, investors and journalists.
The audience at the Flint Center in Cupertino, Calif., may have seemed inconsequential, but millions watched U2 on a live feed. Or tried to–the feed stuttered under the pressure of people logging on to discover what the tech giant Apple, the event’s host, was ready to reveal. Onstage, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the company’s heavily anticipated smart watch, then summoned the four rock stars to unleash a brand-new creation of their own. Driving chords announced “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” the first single from Songs of Innocence, U2’s 13th studio album, which, like the Apple Watch, was rumored but until that moment unconfirmed.
The bigger surprise came as soon as the band finished playing. Within minutes, the more than half a billion subscribers to Apple’s music download service iTunes began receiving Songs of Innocence in their accounts, paid for by Apple and delivered for free.
Traditionally, singles are released before albums to build demand before the record becomes available in digital and physical formats like CDs, at a price. But tradition no longer counts for much in an industry that has seen every business model upended by the Internet. Once, musicians made albums to make money, relying on touring to promote album sales, but these days they’re just as likely to record albums to lure fans to live shows. Music, easily pirated and free to access on legitimate sites like YouTube, is often a loss leader.
Apple and U2 have joined forces at a pivotal time for both. Each has something to prove, and each has something to get from the other. Apple hitched itself to one of the world’s biggest bands, giving U2 the ultimate album-distribution system. But past glories can be a burden. At the Flint Center, Apple silenced skeptics with its impressive new products as the company finally emerged from the shadow of its late founder, Steve Jobs. Then it was U2’s turn to prove that it can still match its creative high-water marks. The band’s lovely, complex Songs of Innocence–3½ years in the making–must stand against earlier triumphs such as Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree. The bandmates are now in their mid-50s, nearly four decades into their careers, but ambition burns fiercer than ever. “It sometimes feels that we are competing with ourselves a lot,” admits Edge. He worries that TIME has described the new album as “very, very good.” U2 settles only for greatness.
After the Apple show, the members of U2 arrived at Silicon Valley’s Hotel Los Gatos for a celebratory lunch. They believe in the album, and their guests, including music stars Gwen Stefani and will.i.am, fashion models Lily Cole and Liberty Ross, Apple execs and music moguls, enthusiastically affirmed that faith. But even amid the celebrations, rancorous comments were already appearing on social-media platforms, trolling the album that popped up unasked in iTunes libraries and characterizing U2’s Apple deal as a devil’s pact that enriches the band while devaluing music by charging consumers nothing. “They are seriously running ‘ads’ for the new U2 album!? Are they suggesting we have a choice?” asked another rocker, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, on Twitter. On Sept. 15, Apple–facing complaints from customers struggling to remove the album from their iTunes libraries–released a tool that allowed users to delete what Bono has described as “the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys.”
Mockery is nothing new to U2. Its front man’s ceaseless campaigning on behalf of the world’s poorest has earned him the nickname Saint Bono. But the singer is by no means the only evangelist in this band. All four members aim to persuade consumers to place a value on music once more, to the potential benefit, yes, of U2, but also of all musicians. Getting Apple to pay them to give away their new music to millions is just an opening salvo in a new collaboration with the tech company. Bigger hopes ride on a secret new digital format they’re developing with Apple that they hope will attract reliable paying customers again, boosting the music industry–and maybe even saving it.
“For the last decade, the interweb has had its way with music,” says Bono in an impromptu speech at the lunch, opening his arms wide as if greeting a stadium crowd. “Today we turned it around.”
The members of U2 have always been preoccupied with saving things, starting with themselves. They were in bad shape when they first convened in 1976 at Mullen’s parents’ house after he posted a notice at their tough Mount Temple school in Dublin seeking musicians to form a band. Together they discovered an alchemy, plus a clumsy name–the Hype–later exchanged for another clunker. (The band became famous before they had the chance to change their name again.)
Songs of Innocence–the album takes its name from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience–charts boyhood excitements like discovering the music of the Ramones and the Clash. It also mines early tribulations, which tinge even up-tempo tracks with melancholy. The inherent contradiction in U2 dispatching “its most intimate album ever” to everyone with an iTunes account gave Mullen “a little tickle,” the drummer says. A wry presence, he counterpoints Bono’s voluble passions, Edge’s instinctive self-effacement and Clayton’s easygoing charm.
The band won’t say how much Apple paid for Songs of Innocence, but a record-company insider reveals that the tech giant pledged more than $100 million toward a marketing campaign. The surprise release has rekindled sales of U2’s back catalog too, with old albums re-entering the iTunes charts across the world. It’s good news for the band, but money has never been what drives them. “I preferred being on the other side of the barricade,” says Mullen, referring to the times when working for a living was an obligation, not an option. That ethos–to keep searching, to keep toiling–drives them today: the band went straight back to the studio after the Cupertino jaunt, finishing an acoustic version of Songs of Innocence that will be released alongside the CD and bonus tracks on Oct. 13 in most of the world, a day later in the U.S.
When U2 got together, Mullen had already lost his youngest sister to illness. At 15, shortly after the band formed, he had to cope with his mother’s death in a car crash. Bono understood his grief. As a 14-year-old, the singer had attended his grandfather’s funeral, only to watch his mother Iris collapse at the graveside. She died a few days later. He commemorates her on Songs of Innocence with the ballad “Iris (Hold Me Close).” The trauma left Bono with a rage that he still harnesses creatively. “But I don’t let it rule me.”
For his part, Clayton had been uprooted to Ireland from England and consigned to boarding schools before his expulsion from one such institution landed him at Mount Temple. Edge can’t easily pinpoint why he felt alienated, but he was, in his words, a “weird” loner.
The band provided solace and the opportunity for reinvention: the teenage Paul Hewson became Bono; David Evans became Edge. Religion also lifted the group, though not the type then purveyed by the Catholic Church. A track called “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” about a pedophile priest, reflects the brutal reality of the Ireland U2 knew as boys. Mullen learned to drum as part of a traditional marching band and recalls the failure of adults to ask why one of the other child musicians, a victim of sexual abuse, had become too traumatized to speak.
Clayton, widely thought to be the lone atheist in U2, unpicks that idea. Though he took to the rock lifestyle enthusiastically–so much so that he landed in rehab in the 1990s–he says he’s “probably like the rest of the band” in seeing “a core of an idea in organized religion that is appealing, but how it played itself out in suburban society didn’t touch me at all.” As an unhappy schoolboy, he literally prayed to be a musician.
He did not, however, follow his three bandmates into a charismatic Christian sect called Shalom. Paul McGuinness, who managed the band from their early days until his 2013 retirement, had to push back when Bono, Edge and Mullen announced, under Shalom’s influence, that rock life was incompatible with religion. It was 1981, the band’s debut album, Boy, was riding high, and they had recently signed to make a follow-up. “I said, ‘If God had anything to say about our plans, there was a time he should have spoken up a few weeks ago, when we were signing the contract,'” McGuinness remembers.
The faith that threatened to break U2 at its start instead now sustains the band. “It probably saves me from myself, in the end, because when you’re in these environments, you have to be able to wake up in the morning and start a new day fresh and clean,” says Mullen.
Yet the perception of piety can be a cross for U2 to bear. Bono’s campaigning through ONE, the advocacy organization he co-founded to combat poverty, and its sister organization RED, which harnesses commerce to fight AIDS, can seem at odds with the wilder spirits of rock. His sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms that cause and maintain global poverty–and his determination to mobilize help from across the political spectrum to disarm those mechanisms–creates jarring juxtapositions. It’s hard to be hip when you’re schmoozing President George W. Bush or inviting archconservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to your gigs.
Helms accepted, to the discomfort of Edge, who is viscerally opposed to the brand of politics the late Helms represented. There may be complaints–and there are–but the rest of the band is at peace with Bono’s extracurricular work, tolerating the hit to their image as part of an enduring pledge to support one another.
U2 has always stood out, melodic during the roar of postpunk. Coldplay at times could be mistaken for a U2 tribute act, but only U2 sounds exactly like U2. Edge’s ringing guitar is as instantly recognizable as Bono’s emotion-drenched vocals; Clayton and Mullen form a rhythm section that is unexpected in its attack, in a good way. U2’s songwriting–Edge says he lays down “a bunch of hooks and chords” before Bono adds “the top-line melody and the lyrics”–produces music that can quietly envelop or soar to fill huge spaces.
“You want to play stadiums? You listen to U2,” says will.i.am, whose own band, Black Eyed Peas, has benefited from this advice. “You study it for harmonics, the vocal placement, the freaking chord progressions, their lyrics. You study the production. You study it because studying that equals stadiums.”
Something else marks out U2 in a legendarily scrappy industry. After 38 years of sweaty proximity, its members still really like one another. During the recording of Songs of Innocence, they’ve been sharing digs, coping with one another’s eccentricities–Edge composing, loudly, in the middle of the night; Mullen so nocturnal they’ve dubbed him Dracula. It’s a sitcom waiting to be filmed.
They have woven family lives into their nomadic rock-star existence and to that foundation added layers of old friends who work for the band or collaborate or simply hang out. Bono calls touring–and no band on the planet has bigger tours than U2–“taking a small city on the road.” At other times, they merely travel with a village. In 2005 the band flew from the U.S. to the Hague to celebrate the 50th birthday of their longtime friend and collaborator, Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn. They brought with them old Dublin mates including Reggie Manuel, who first alerted Bono to Mullen’s ad on the school notice board and who these days is the optician supplying Bono’s trademark eyewear. (The code to get into the Flint Center ahead of the Apple launch was sunglasses.) The band calls Manuel “Mad Dog.” Guy Oseary, U2’s manager since McGuinness’s departure, has become “Guy Oh So Serious.”
U2’s universe holds no higher honor than to be awarded a nickname, and Oseary, who also manages Madonna, appears to have stepped easily into McGuinness’s shoes. He’s gung ho about U2’s future. “They’ve got a lot that they’re planning on doing, and there’s announcements coming shortly,” Oseary says the day after Cupertino. “There’s no slowing down this train.”
Oseary may be right, but at this moment of maximum exposure, U2 flirts with failure, as the band often does, by aiming so high. For them it is not enough to keep making very, very good–even great–records and packing stadiums. They want to fix the industry that has given them so much.
Every year since Apple’s 2003 launch of the iTunes store, sales of physical recorded music have declined. In the U.S., Nielsen Soundscan registered drops in CD sales of from 18.2% to 19.7% each year from 2007 to 2010. The legitimate digital downloads sold by companies like Apple not only pay artists less per transaction but also encourage a culture change in which customers buy individual tracks more often than albums. Now downloads are also losing ground, dipping 12.5% in the U.S. in the first quarter of this year. Interactive streaming services such as Spotify or Apple’s own Beats are expanding but generally pay pennies to artists. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to enjoy music for free can easily do so by seeking out a pirate website or visiting YouTube. An entire generation has come of age without the habit of buying and owning music.
These trends have given U2 “a scary few years,” says Bono, citing the band’s decision in the early days of its success to agree to lower royalty rates in return for future ownership of their work, an arrangement that made sense before sales declined. The band members are rich, no question, but the U2 machine feeds many mouths besides. Still, U2 is lucky. The band has many other ways to generate income besides selling records: merchandizing; promotional tie-ups; synchronization fees from TV, film, video games and advertising; and most of all, live performance. By the time U2’s 360° Tour ended in 2011, it had sold more than 7 million tickets to become the biggest-ever tour by any artist or band measured by both attendance and box-office gross.
In the Cupertino greenroom after the Apple event, Bono declares, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” But in the case of Songs of Experience, it was a sacrament delivered from the stage of an Apple marketing event, one that will continue to be pushed with ads that celebrate Apple as much as U2. That has some critics calling the deal heresy. Not so, says Edge. The launch was “actually incredibly subversive. It’s really punk rock, it’s really disruptive.” Bono, with the grandeur that routinely lands him in trouble, compares the relationship between Apple and the band–which goes back years–to the Medicis’ patronage of Michelangelo, chuckling when it’s pointed out that opponents of the tech company might well accept its parallels with the ruthless Florentine dynasty.
“The music industry is at a nadir,” he says, “and the charts are broken,” reflecting only the dwindling amounts of paid-for music rather than the totality of what’s being consumed. U2 sees the iTunes rollout as a way to harness digital rather than passively roll with its punches. An immediate spike in sales of U2’s back catalog bore out the business strategy behind the deal even as the messaging went awry. But a bigger coup de théâtre is planned. There will be a world tour in 2015, and another album is in the works, a companion piece to Songs of Innocence called Songs of Experience.
Of itself, that would be good news for U2 fans, if little more, but Bono also sketches the outlines of the new format that Apple and U2 are developing. The band is working with Apple to create “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.”
Bono squints into the Californian heat haze as if a vision shimmers above him: salvation for working musicians everywhere, as consumers willingly pay to own music again–and not just single digital tracks but entire albums. “We’re about 18 months away from it,” he says. “I think Songs of Experience will be released in a new format. And I think it’s going to get very exciting for the music business.”
Apple isn’t quite as loquacious as U2’s front man; the company will say only that it “declined comment on future product plans.” Some technological leaps forward have transformed the music industry; others sink without a trace. (Remember Stereo 8, DAT tapes and minidiscs? Probably not.) And any new way of enjoying music would be swimming against the stream, the trend away from buying and owning content–records, movies, TV shows–and toward streaming from the cloud whatever we want, whenever we want it. But one thing is clear: not for the first time, U2 is on a grand mission, perhaps its grandest yet. 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. They may fail, but that won’t stop them trying.
This appears in the September 29, 2014 issue of TIME.