Helping Creative People Create

What U2 Can Teach You About Being Timeless

by glen

What U2 Can Teach You About Being Timeless
Photo by Matt McGee

I was fortunate to catch a U2 show last weekend in Oklahoma. The tickets were a present from a groomsmen for my wedding. Aside from my love for the amazing band, it still never ceases to amaze me how timeless they’ve made themselves.

Over the past 30+ years, U2 has created a monster brand. And they’ve been incredibly successful; one of the most successful bands of all time. They’ve

  • created over 12 studio albums
  • sold over 145 million records
  • been named one of the greatest 100 greatest acts of all time by Rolling Stone
  • been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
  • tied Stevie Wonder for the most Grammys from a contemporary group (23)

But the most incredible thing I think U2 has done over the past 30 years is stay relevant to the time.

They’ve made themselves “timeless”.

Being Timeless

The modern web is a relatively new place. I mean, most popular sites only go back a few years in their history, and at most 10 or so. The Internet is still a very new and wild place.

For those of us who are in it to make a living from it over “the long haul”, it’s kind of hard to predict where the Web is heading. Who would have guessed five years ago that microblogging would be so insanely popular? Not me.

So, how do we ensure that our content or products that we’re creating are timeless? How do we keep our work relevant? After all, we don’t want the content that we’ve so painstakingly created to become irrelevant in the next 3 or more years.

Let’s take a few lessons from one of the greatest rock bands of all time to creating a brand that is immortal.

Be timely, but not tied to time

u2 album covers
Photo by Tiger Pixel

It’s not that U2 hasn’t changed their sound over the years. They’ve done that aplenty. The band’s sound has been influenced by the changing musical styles over the years, and their current sound is a mixture of everything. They’ve managed to do something special: stay relevant to the time period, while retaining their own, unique characteristics.

The same should be true with what you create. You may change your scope slightly, but you’ll still be under a certain heading###.

For example, I’m trying to focus less on productivity and more on helping people create. That doesn’t mean that I won’t ever be writing about productivity, etc., I’ll just be doing more bigger picture writing. While productivity, GTD, and all that are popular right now, they probably won’t be in a few years.

That doesn’t mean that you should be oblivious to current trends and pop culture. In fact, one of my most popular posts of all time had to do with a current popular movie.

Whatever it is you do, capitalize on current trends and what’s hot now. Just make sure your overall focus is timeless.

Show that you can outlast

U2 was far from an instant success. They formed in high school, but didn’t have an international single until 4 years later. They didn’t have a commercially-successful album until 3 years after that, and still another 2 years were needed before U2 started building a following and selling out arenas. Nine years is hardly what anyone would call an “instant success”.

Many failures come from just not having the fortitude to stick it out, to play all nine innings. Many bloggers give up too quickly, many book writers give up after their first book, and many bands throw in the towel after a couple years together.

Sometimes it just takes time to refine and become successful. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell estimates that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice or experience before expertise is achieved.

Oftentimes success is just a matter of outlasting.

Stay away from cliche

U2’s songs tend to be about timeless things (love, historical events), and while their sound has evolved slightly over the years, they still stick to the same components. The Edge’s guitar sound is one of the most recognizable features of the band. The drum sound has remained somewhat constant over the years. You won’t hear Bono using auto-tune to create R&B-like vocal effects. They haven’t let pop musical fads overcome their core, distinctive aspects.

For us bloggers, that might mean doing simple things like using the word “write” instead of “blog”. Who knows how long the “blogging” platform will be around? You certainly want your writing to outlive it.

Evolve

It’s amazing what time can do for a band like U2. Recordings from Boy sound drastically different than their latest album No Line on the Horizon.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I think a portion of their fans would go back to their earlier sounds. Others might like the “newer” U2 better. One thing is for sure though: U2’s success has been impacted greatly by their ability to evolve.

All successful systems evolve over time. I would imagine the reason that the band has been able to put out amazing records for the past 30 years is because they’ve been creative and evolved slightly. Can you imagine playing the same sounding things for 30 years? I’d go crazy.

Don’t forget the fans (and be thankful)

U2 onstage
Photo by r_w_h

Part of U2’s success stems from the fact that they’re very thankful to the fans that have supported them over the years. At our concert Bono made a specific point to thank the fans for the life they’ve given the members of U2.

It could be easy for a band like U2 to think that their success is directly because of their talent. But they know better. Their rabid fans are a critical reason for their success. There are gobs of bands with talent oozing out of their ears who have yet to even be signed to a label.

Fans are the difference between one hit wonders and a successful career that spans thirty years.

Give back

U2 donates tons of their time and talent to help support causes like the ONE campaign, Project Red, and many others. Activism is a critical part of U2 and their songwriting.

If you’re doing everything for money, power or fame, you’re not going to last. People can quickly see through that. But they’re more willing to support everything you do if you’re willing to give back. If you can use your platform for improving the world, you’ll win followers.

Too often we don’t think enough about the future, and get sucked into the tunnel of the current trends and fads. What’s here today might will probably be gone tomorrow.

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Leave a Comment

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

davidglover October 28, 2009 at 10:05 am

Glen, relevant spot on comments. I hope you live in Oklahoma we need more people like you here.

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Jason of Kim & Jason October 28, 2009 at 11:20 am

Interesting take, Glen. I also got a chance to see their first show in Chicago back in September and it was great. I'd also add their authenticity as a reason for their timelessness. Certain bands and artists are poseurs, trying to be something their not. It may be hard to tell at first, but after a few albums, it becomes pretty obvious. U2 has always been sincere in their efforts to make great music, make a difference, and push themselves to be the best they can be. They're always trying to top themselves and that always comes through in their music, their interviews, and their live shows.

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Ideas With A Kick October 28, 2009 at 11:42 am

A kinda had this impression about U2 of being timeless, which i think is rare in the music industry. Now I know why. Thx.

Eduard

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Armen Shirvanian October 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Hey Glen.

I do keep a solid focus on each of these things. The point about not being tied to time is useful. It is quite easy to latch on to things that will go away soon enough, but that is not a long-term way to go. Once the fad rolls away, the foundation is weakened, and then you wish you had not latched on to anything. It is worth it to put in a little more effort to stay latched onto your own message, instead of what is popular.

That point about showing you can outlast is also highly relevant. Presenting your creation for an extended period lets people know that it represents you well, because no one can fake creation or production of some kind for that long without starting to fall apart. There is only so much a person can handle that isn't of their own doing.

Cool points here.

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Girlie | Digital Room October 29, 2009 at 3:18 am

Another inspiring post. I always feel good and inspired everytime I read your blog posts.

Keep the good posts coming!

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Glen Stansberry November 2, 2009 at 11:44 am

Thanks so much :) That's what I love/need to hear!

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DonnaKFreeman October 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

Fantastic! I'm a huge fan of Us and have been for 20+ years. Thanks for taking their success apart and applying it so we may learn form their example. Can't wait for when they visit my hometown next June, just bought the tix yesterday. Will reflect on your comments again while enjoying the concert.

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Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 29, 2009 at 12:38 pm

I'm a huge U2 fan (“Achtung Baby” is my favorite album of all time). In fact, I had tickets to this concert but was unable to make it. :(

In any case, I loved your post and the way you bridged U2 and the concept of being timeless. Great stuff!

Cheers,
Dayne

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Glen Stansberry November 2, 2009 at 11:47 am

While trying to pick a favorite U2 album is like choosing between favorite children, Achtung Baby, Joshua Tree and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb are probably my top 3.

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Mark Arnold October 30, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Very unique take on influencing what creation with the band! It is a very good idea to use current trends and events to incorporate in your creation but keep the focus to be timeless as you mentioned. Think Huge when making your timeless creation, look at the big picture but achieve it through smaller contemporary but unique actions!

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bedroom dresser November 4, 2009 at 9:28 pm

I also idolize U2 because of their music. Even after many years, they still manage to make a name to sustain their popularity.

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J.D., Meier November 5, 2009 at 6:29 am

Good stuff.

I'm a fan of timeless and enduring, while evolving. I think the key phrase is “built to change” over 'built to last” (where change is the key to lasting :)

In the book business, we call these “Evergreens.”

Your post reminded me of the book, The Living Company, which is about why some companies can last for 200, 500 or 700 years while others can't make it through their first 3. You hit a key point when you said it can't all be about the money or fame … it does need to include impact on society … and it is about evolving. It's also about value … and that too isn't static.

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Door Hanger Printing November 9, 2009 at 7:04 pm

Great post I think it is really important to do more than just focus on money. You need to give back and be more involved in your industry and helping others.

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ThisIsInspired December 7, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Spot on. Well done – I agree U2 has built a brand (in a sense). Their true strength isn't necessarily in singing (Bono honestly can't carry a tune in a bucket) or their (initially) simplistic guitar, but in the connection they make with their music and with their fans. You can tell they perform from the soul. Being honest like that about any job will bring success… either secularly or just in personal contentment.

While you say you're a fan it's not obvious from the neutrality of your writing – thank you. I like them as well, but it adds credibility to the piece by remaining neutral.

Reply

ThisIsInspired December 7, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Spot on. Well done – I agree U2 has built a brand (in a sense). Their true strength isn't necessarily in singing (Bono honestly can't carry a tune in a bucket) or their (initially) simplistic guitar, but in the connection they make with their music and with their fans. You can tell they perform from the soul. Being honest like that about any job will bring success… either secularly or just in personal contentment.

While you say you're a fan it's not obvious from the neutrality of your writing – thank you. I like them as well, but it adds credibility to the piece by remaining neutral.

Reply

ThisIsInspired December 7, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Spot on. Well done – I agree U2 has built a brand (in a sense). Their true strength isn't necessarily in singing (Bono honestly can't carry a tune in a bucket) or their (initially) simplistic guitar, but in the connection they make with their music and with their fans. You can tell they perform from the soul. Being honest like that about any job will bring success… either secularly or just in personal contentment.

While you say you're a fan it's not obvious from the neutrality of your writing – thank you. I like them as well, but it adds credibility to the piece by remaining neutral.

Reply

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