Why You'll Buy-Not Download-U2's "No Line On The Horizon"

Plenty of people have already written eulogies for the compact disc now that iTunes is the number one U.S. music retailer, and CD sales are in a death spiral. But U2 is making an excellent case for old-fashioned physical, collectible music with today's release of the band's new album "No Line On The Horizon."

It starts with the choice of cover art: A black and white photograph of an empty seascape, with an ill-defined border between sea and sky. It's by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto from his 1980-onwards "seascapes" series. It's a work of art, best viewed as a printed photo--and it ties in with the album title perfectly. 

The box packaging seems inspired by Apple. Inside, you'll find a poster of a different "seascape" photograph, a DVD of an Anton Corbijn film, and a hardcover book with interviews and photographs that document the making of the album. The CD case has a shiny mother-of-pearl-effect logo superimposed over Sugimoto's photo, and inside there is another booklet and a fold-out poster. They're all tangible, gripable artifacts.

Sure, you can see a photo of the album cover when you download it from iTunes--even have it swish by in that slick Coverflow view. There is even a digital booklet to download as part of the package. But that's not the same as holding and flipping the pages of a real booklet, looking at a poster of an atmospheric photo, or leafing through a hardcover book filled with art. Maybe that's why Apple had an iTunes-exclusive extra track available if you pre-ordered the album--it's one way to tempt you to buy a digital rather than a physical version of the album (which you can always rip into MP3s later).

Of course there's also the fact that U2's manager Paul McGuiness has a strong position on digital music, and has specifically laid the blame for music piracy at the feet of Internet service providers. Maybe this played into the new album's design--it's a reminder that in an all-digital future, where we'll read the liner notes on a Kindle e-book, and ogle the photography on an LCD screen, we may miss out on the tactile aspects of artwork.

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14 Comments

  • Deidre Cerul

    Love how the article doesn't mention the outrageous retail price of almost $100 for this marketing extravaganza. Love U2, but we are still in a recession, people, what makes you think I'm going to fork over that much for ANYTHING these days? Someone out there needs to get a clue that music IN GENERAL costs too much for the average American. I know plenty of people will say "I personally don't mind the price, I think it's worth it," but MILLIONS MORE can't afford to "invest" in such enjoyments.

    /rant

    I download because it's the smartest option for my overall lifestyle.

  • Richard Kobayashi

    nice article. i think you'll find that the photographer, sugimoto, had a lot to do with quality of the printing for the box set. he says the box set is the only part of the package he was really happy with - in terms of the quality of the print. He has spoken about the experience working with U2 in the Japanese newspaper The Japan Times. It is interesting - apparently use of the photo was permitted in exchange for a song.
    http://search.japantimes.co.jp...

  • Caryn Keller

    I'm a packaging junky and I like U2, but $100? Hmm, not sure about that even with the Anton Corbijn dvd.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Sam. $99--hmm. I got mine for €50 here. And "bunch of paper...filling up our shelves"--you don't have books?

    It's sometimes not all about getting the cheapest, "most digital" version of something. I've just discovered a great photographer called Dang Ngo. I could ogle his photos on the web for free, sure. But I spent a chunk of cash and bought a large print of one of his beautiful images and hung it on my wall--I love it. If it'd come with a DVD documenting the photoshoot and a book with more of his photos, I'd probably have bought that "box set" instead, and happily paid extra.

  • Thomas Uhlir

    I just bought this new U2 album on vinyl, yes vinyl and cd. I love how vinyl still has that crispness about it. And buying the cd is a no-brainer at 9.99 at Best Buy. I like physical things. What if your hard drive crashes and your back-up crashes. I never heard of a cd crashing unless it's been in a car accident. The point being? Protect your music. You cn have a thousand versions of one album, but you go back to the original cd for comfort.

  • J GM

    Well, I downloaded it this morning and listened to it on the way to work. I'm in the process of trying to cull down the big pile of media that clutters my house, not add to it. Fancy (non-standard) packaging makes the problem worse, not better.

    And, oh, by the way, $3.99 for the whole album on Amazon.com, DRM-free, high-quality 256kbps, downloaded in about 5 minutes (today only, I believe). Tell me again how I'm going to go out of my way to pay $10+ more to get a souvenir?

  • J Heavens

    hahahaha! Are you kidding me? How about you check back in with us in a month or two and let us know how the digital sales compare to this delusion of self worth. I like U2. I'd even say I love them but it's for the music. Not their refusal to evolve or attempt at trendy slight of hand. When was the last time you went over your album art or CD inserts? What's that? Not since the day you bought it? Let me guess, you gave it a once over while you imported the CD into itunes and haven't seen it since.

    You didn't even mention how the album is. As to Mr. McGuiness, he is a relic and can blame whomever he wants but it won't make it true. The Music labels and industry have done this to them selves. Up next...BluRay and other non-digital movies.

    Let's say this was half the list price...NO THANKS!

  • Sam Jennings

    WRONG! A shiny box and some mass-produced photographs are going to save the CD? Not a chance.

    While it is true that it's "...not the same as holding and flipping the pages of a real booklet, looking at a poster of an atmospheric photo, or leafing through a hardcover book filled with art," it is also true that 99% of the listening audience simply DOES NOT CARE. Especially when this so-called "special edition" has a retail list price of $95.98! Your article seems to have forgotten to mention that.

    So I should pay almost $100 for a single disc's worth of music because I don't want to "miss out on the tactile aspects of artwork?" Wake up. In 2009 that is a pretty ridiculous thing to ask of the consumer. I'm sure there are the hardcore U2 fans who are going to snap up this bloated, over-serious testament to paper and plastic, but for the rest of us who only listen to music through digital means and actually DON'T want a bunch of paper and plastic filling up our shelves or the landfills, a $9.99 digital download will suit us just fine.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Snapper. Agreed--but if I'd bought the U2 box set for its collectableness I'd never have cracked it open... For me it's a question of having a physical object in your hands that gives a real sense of "ownership". I agree with you on the cost of downloaded music though--compared to the production/distribution costs of burning real CDs, digitally distributed music comes in far cheaper, and the album prices should reflect that (in a perfect world).

  • Snapper Cridge

    And here are the reason's I won't be buying actual physical (box) version. CDs and/or the boxes, cases, and media they come in are never really collectible. I am honestly interested in the music. It's much cheaper to download it. And oh by the way, even though I am downloading it. I still have to pay for it.

    Paul McGuiness and Lars Ulrich need to take a good hard look at music history before they go blaming ISPs for music piracy. Music piracy exists because of the bloated cost of music, it's gross inaccessibility, and the overwhelming lack of good music (U2 excluded) available that NO ONE in there right mind should have to pay for...(Soulja Boy anyone!!)

    The only people that I could see spending their money to have a hard copy to take up space are die hard core fans. I will stick with the downloaded version (paid for of course!)