Inside U2’s Ambitious Upcoming Tour Strategy
Despite album backlash and a battered Bono, the band preps its first road run since 2011.
The announcement on Dec. 3 of U2’s Innocence + Experience Tour was a blast of confidence for a band that has experienced a bumpy past few months. Setting aside mixed consumer reaction to its Apple give-away of new album Songs of Innocence and frontman Bono’s Nov. 16 bike accident in New York (he shattered his left elbow, fractured a humerus bone in his left arm and injured the orbit of one of his eyes), the trek will begin May 14.
“Like any good football team, sometimes you have to adjust your game plan at halftime,” says Live Nation’s Arthur Fogel, promoter-producer of all of U2’s tours since PopMart in 1997 and 1998, noting that he would have liked to make a splashier announcement tied to a high-profile TV play, no doubt in reference to U2’s planned (and scrapped) five-night residency on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. But “given all factors, we’re OK.”
It’s a pivotal time for a band that, nearly 40 years after forming, remains consumed with its relevance (“We don’t ever want to become a heritage act,” The Edge told The Hollywood Reporter in February). The new tour will arrive with an ambitious strategy in which U2 plays two dates in each market (and four at both Los Angeles’ Forum and New York’s Madison Square Garden) with different sets on consecutive nights -- one representing Innocence, the other Experience (an indication that U2’s already confirmed next album, Songs of Experience, may be previewed or even released by then). Songs of Innocence has struggled to find success at radio, but many touring executives think U2’s track record as an elite live act will lure fans. Consider its last outing, 360°, which grossed $736.4 million from 110 shows to become the biggest tour in history, despite an accompanying album (No Line on the Horizon) that sold a third of its predecessor (1.1 million in sales versus 3.3 million for 2004’s How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, according to Nielsen SoundScan).
“I have a lot of confidence they could pull it off,” says Chip Hooper, worldwide head of music for talent agency Paradigm, of U2’s dual-night approach. “There’s a sense that they’ll deliver again.”
Affordable pricing should help generate early sales, too: A large percentage of floor seats will sell for $30 and $65, “which is kind of ridiculous, in a good way,” says Fogel. The configuration splits the arena floor in half, with a rectangular layout, though Fogel wants to keep certain details of the production secret.
After the enormity and spectacle of the stadium-based 360°, with its spider-like in-the-round stage, some insiders predicted the band will scale back on its next run. Indeed, indoor arenas serve the introspective, personal nature of Songs of Innocence well. “No matter what size the venue, they create an atmosphere and community that’s really unrivaled,” Fogel says.
As for the consumer blowback to the Apple promotion, Fogel remains undeterred on its potential tour impact. “It’s noise, frankly,” he says. “These are great songs, and they’re going to translate incredibly well live.”
Only stops in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe were announced, and Fogel is tight-lipped on future plans, but it wouldn’t be out of the question for the tour to run as long as three years, returning to North America and Europe, along with visits to Asia, South America, Australia and other territories.
Additional reporting by Andrew Hampp.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.