Don’t go shopping for the new U2 compact disc

The Associated Press (1997-01-31)

NEW YORK — The bubbling, electronic sound of U2’s hotly anticipated new song, “Discotheque,” has been all over the radio and video channel airwaves since its debut three weeks ago.

But fans who want to buy the disc are out of luck — until Feb. 11.

It’s an odd marketing technique — imagine advertising a refreshing drink yet not stocking it in store coolers on a hot summer day — but not an unusual one in the hype-driven world of popular music.

“What this is about is creating a bigness to it, trying to create a sort of event,” says Stephen Dessau, president of Track Marketing Partners, a music marketing firm.

At the HMV music store in midtown Manhattan, however, store manager Mohamed Fazel isn’t too excited. He estimates about 150 customers have asked about the single and he’s had to tell them he doesn’t have any for sale.

Some of the customers walk away angry and others don’t believe him, he says.

“I would have liked to have had it,” Fazel says, “It would be a great sales boost. U2 — they sell records.”

Island Records, and the industry as a whole, hopes that this is true. After music sales remained essentially flat in 1996, the industry is looking to the popular Irish rock band to help lift the business out of the doldrums.

Not only is U2 one of the few megastars with a loyal audience, but the upcoming “Pop” album is said to experiment with some of the hypnotic dance sounds that some in the industry believe could be the next big popular genre.

“Pop” is scheduled to be in stores March 4.

The four-week lead period on “Discotheque” is partly logistical. It requires some time to make sure the disc is in stores all over the world. Island wanted to avoid leaks, and didn’t want some radio stations to begin playing the song before others and angering their competitors, says Hooman Majd, Island’s executive vice-president.

But Island also wants to create a sense of anticipation, so when the record finally does go on sale, it will be snapped up quickly — and make a splashy debut high on the charts.

The bandwagon effect can then be counted on to create even more sales.

“If they’re playing it, we’d rather have the record in our hands,” says John Wheat, head of marketing at the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan. “But it builds up the hype so it blows out of the store when it does come in.”

Mercury Records tried the same thing with John Mellencamp’s “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” last fall. And Fazel recalls receiving complaints about George Michael’s last single being on the air before being in store.

The sneak previews can work for established artists with loyal fans, but not young musicians. Record companies don’t want to risk alienating interested customers when it’s a new artist trying to build an audience.

U2’s lead time seems a little longer than usual, especially since most of their fans will likely want the album, not a single, Dessau said.

But there’s been a lot of talk about “Pop” and some delay: Island initially wanted it in stores for the holiday seas.

Majd says Island hasn’t had any complaints about the unavailability of “Discotheque.” Many retailers accept it as the way business is done, says John Sullivan, spokesman for the 482-store Trans World chain, who’s also unaware of complaints.

“The really hard-core fans tend to know early on when the release date is.” Majd says.

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