U2 are the Biggest Band In The World. Everyone knows that. It must be a freakish anomaly, then, that their new single ‘Magnificent’ sold just 4,000 copies in its first week of release, and hobbled into the charts at number 42, giving the band their worst chart performance since 1982.
But perhaps they’re not a singles band anymore. Parent album ‘No Line On The Horizon’ must be a global sales behemoth, right? Well, yes and no. In the UK it has sold fewer copies than The Prodigy’s ‘Invaders Must Die’. In the US, as Idolator pointed out, the album shifted around half as many copies in its first week as the band’s previous long-player ‘How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb’.
Could it be that the public are not quite as head-over-heels infatuated with U2 as the mainstream media likes to make out?
When ‘No Line…’ was released in February, the BBC essentially became U2’s unofficial media partners, offering them across-the-board coverage, from Zane Lowe to The Culture Show. The band’s rooftop gig stunt could have been reported no more enthusiastically had Bono unexpectedly morphed into a golden eagle and started pissing pound coins all over the faces of the front row.
Indeed, the BBC’s coverage was so extensive it prompted an official complaint from commercial radio’s trade body, RadioCentre, who argued that the corporation’s “excessive and exclusive promotion of leading artists” (using licence-payer funds, remember) constituted a breach of fair trading rules.
But the Beeb weren’t the only ones to roll over for the Paul McGuinness machine. Critics were at it too. Q magazine called ‘No Line…’ U2’s “greatest album”. The Observer said it was “as memorable as any [album] U2 have created”. Rolling Stone labelled it “their best since ‘Achtung Baby'” (all three magazines, incidentally, put the band on the cover around the same time).
All this is symptomatic of a wider power shift within the music industry. As magazine sales slide, big-hitting PRs increasingly hold all the cards. Hence big-budget albums get correspondingly big-budget reviews.
Witness the weird, Stepford Wives-esque critical consensus surrounding Green Day’s ’21st Century Breakdown’. Is no-one willing to break ranks? Do we really all agree that this daft, over-reaching record is a masterpiece of stadium-filling, punk-rock dissent? Or are we just desperate to participate in the blockbuster moment of its release, hoping to catch some of it reflected, multi-million selling glory?