It was a chilly night in Norman, Oklahoma, when the sky opened up and it started to rain. Running for cover wasn’t a consideration since U2 was just settling into their show. My brother Chad was hosting me and a few friends for my birthday. I was a few months into my first solo business venture and enjoying a momentary distraction from the 16-hour days and humbling uncertainty that comes with starting something new.
Three songs in, Bono paused and shared with the crowd that it had been 26 years since they played Norman — about a mile down the road, in a small bar, to a small crowd, as relative unknowns. He reflected that “it took us 26 years to move a mile down the road” to a sold-out stadium of 60,000 mesmerized fans. He thanked Norman for the upgrade.
I reflected on the U2 journey for a moment, surmising that Bono’s message was most certainly meant for me. A clear sign from the universe to focus forward on my own journey and keep doing the work. One day, it would all be worth it.
Fast forward 14 years, and I have been fortunate to see U2 perform live another half-dozen times. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, often to mark a special occasion, and always to make a special memory. So, when they announced their residency to perform “U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere” in Las Vegas. I anticipated the text message from Chad that arrived within the hour.
“A science project in service of art” is how Bono eloquently described The Sphere. Spot on. The Sphere sits at 366 feet tall and 516 feet wide. The venue can seat over 18,000 people. It surrounds you with a 16K LED screen displaying augmented animations and also serves as a 360-degree JumboTron showing close-ups of the band. Aside from being a visual marvel, you feel the music, with over 160,000 speakers spread around the bowl. The Sphere reportedly cost $2.3 billion to build.
The show starts on a faraway planet before taking viewers on a journey through Earth’s history, exploring both natural and human-made elements. I was in awe and immediately overwhelmed at the felt experience. Nothing else really compares.
U2 served as masterful guides as they moved us through the immersive experience. Bono was flirtatious, reflective, raw, inspired and grateful — honoring the community U2 has cultivated in four decades of creating art and leveraging music to move humanity.
I am a fan, and this far exceeded any expectation I could have conceived of a live performance. It was an astonishing visual achievement and emotional experience that really does bring you to “that other place.”
4 Lessons From U2’s Constant Reinvention
I was so moved that I vowed to go back. I have also considered how this elevation of performance art offers so many beautiful lessons to people that want to create an impact. A few that are top of mind for me:
- Reinvent yourself. U2’s had a long, storied career — 14 studio albums that have sold 170 million copies worldwide, plus 22 Grammys. Yet they continue to push the envelope with their art and sound, even reimagining lyrics to classics on “Songs of Surrender.” Evolution doesn’t always sit well with traditional fans. Who cares? They create in service of the Muse and have delivered a body of work that speaks for itself. This time around, they completely reinvented the live performance. Thank you.
- Be willing to take risks. This was an ambitious project and, arguably, an unnecessary risk at this stage in their career. Success was also largely outside of their control and dependent on integrating a team of visionaries into a completely untested concept. All I can say is that finally someone delivered a live performance that sounded like it was made for music and not a professional basketball game. Pushing the envelope of your own limitations is where the breakthroughs happen. This is a clear breakthrough.
- Technology in service of a human experience. “This is about trying to make a connection … trying to get closer to the audience,” according to Bono. The experience elevates the intimacy and emotional connection with the audience. “It’s probably the most intimate stage they’ve done [in decades],” says Ric Lipson of Stufish, who created the stage and set design. The audience experience is at the center of everything this band is doing, and it’s felt in the most profound and stunning live performance I have witnessed.
- Serve something larger than yourself. What keeps a team together and continuously expanding four decades in? According to The Edge: “It takes a lot of good luck. In our case, the origins of the band were based on friendship. As we got older, there was a sense of group purpose. We took on a band ego and left our own egos checked at the door because if the collective wins, we all win. That makes it so much easier to deal with each other’s idiosyncrasies. Most bands break up because one or more members decides they’d be better off being solo. It’s more every man for himself.” U2 embraces a “give generously, don’t keep score ethos” and divides profits evenly, with no extra royalties for the songwriters. No idea or individual is more important than the band.
To think it all started with a note on a Dublin school notice board in 1976: “Drummer seeks musicians to form band.”
U2 has never been more relevant. And, of course, they are adding dates to the residency due to unprecedented demand.
This week, I’d simply suggest it might be worth considering if there is a lesson you can apply to your own reinvention efforts. Or, just enjoy the show!
I cannot wait to go back!