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How U2 have stayed on top of the world

Posted on Sunday, August 03 @ 11:16:34 CEST by Macphisto

(Independent.ie) -- In a rapidly shifting business, Bono and his band have stayed ahead of the game. As they re-release their first albums, manager Paul McGuinness reveals their strategies to Neil McCormick

By Neil McCormick
Saturday August 02 2008

With recording still ongoing, sleeve designs to be finalised, download visuals to be completed and all kinds of marketing plans to be set into place, the atmosphere is of frantic concentration.

"It's all hands on deck," says manager Paul McGuinness, although his smile suggests that, if you have to spend summer in the recording studio, it doesn't hurt to have your equipment set up in an enclave of luxurious chateaux in Provence, surrounded by holidaying family and friends. McGuinness may have a mobile in his hand and business to take care of, but at least he's calling from poolside.

U2 have a reputation as idealists, a rock band with strong Christian ethics committed to political and charity campaigns to change the world. But there is another side to them that involves tax shelters, rights ownership and wheeler-dealing that has helped them become not just one of the most successful, but also one of the richest and most powerful bands in music history.

"U2 always felt it would be pathetic to be good at the music and bad at the business," says McGuinness. "I think it's part of the artist's responsibility, quite honestly, and artists who aren't interested in that are going to find it harder to reach an audience."

Not long ago, the big stories in the music business tended to focus on the music. These days, they are just as likely to be about the business itself and the convulsions it is undergoing as it tries to adapt to a digital age. Just in the past week, the Rolling Stones ruthlessly demonstrated the growing power of established artists by leaving EMI for rivals Universal, taking their back catalogue with them. "Artists and managers who have their wits about them are now doing things for themselves that were historically done by record companies," notes McGuinness, approvingly. Meanwhile, under pressure from the British Phonographic Industry and the government, some of the largest British internet service providers (ISPs) agreed to send warning letters to customers suspected of involvement in illegal file- sharing, a move enthusiastically supported by McGuinness.

"The business model that I expect to see develop in the future will be in partnership with the ISPs, where they effectively become revenue collection partners for rights owners. It's a pity that they have preferred to sell broadband subscriptions as fast as they possibly can without observing their responsibilities to the content owners, but there are encouraging signs that they are waking up."

And satellite broadcast giant Sky struck a deal with Universal (also home to U2) to launch a new music download service to rival iTunes. "Some music will be heard on services where the revenue comes from advertisers. It wouldn't suit the clients that I manage, but the future will be multi-platform, and artists will have to embrace that if they want to be successful."

You get the impression that McGuinness lives and breathes this stuff. "I don't have nostalgia for the way things were. More music is being made and listened to than ever before, and the multiple platforms provided by streaming services, digital downloads and physical products should make it a more interesting world. It is certainly more complex, but the opportunities are greater than ever."

An Englishman educated in Ireland, McGuinness was a 27-year-old advertising film-maker and part-time musical entrepreneur when he first encountered the fledgling U2 in 1978. Bono has referred to him as "an iron fist in a velvet glove", and McGuinness certainly carries himself with an air of understated power, always extremely gentlemanly and polite, yet forcefully determined. His energy, ambition and vision that an Irish "baby band" could take on the world by first tackling America was as much a driving force in the success of U2 as Bono's charisma or Edge's extraordinary guitarwork.

McGuinness always took the long view, which is why the contracts he has negotiated have become legendary in the music business. Before U2 had even had a hit, he made sure compilations and reissues were excluded from their record deals.

"We were pretty suspicious of greatest hits, which were usually premature and had no artist input, and often signalled the end of a band's career. We felt it was the band's responsibility to compile and order its own catalogue, and these albums should be as much a part of their canon of work as a regular album."

Thirty years since their Irish debut single, U2 have embarked on a comprehensive programme of remastering and reissuing. This week, their first three albums, Boy, October and War are released in deluxe editions that include previously unreleased songs.

"We have treated it as an opportunity, not a chore," says McGuinness. "I do not expect the CD to disappear in my lifetime, but I think artists and record companies have to put more effort into it, otherwise why would people want one over a download?

'The artwork surrounding the release of a new music from an artist that you're interested in is, in many ways, just as interesting as the music. I can remember when carrying a 12-inch LP down the street was almost an expression of the kind of person you were, every bit as significant as what you wore or how you cut your hair. These things evolve, but I think the industry as a whole is missing the opportunity to produce the digital visual coefficient [of an album sleeve]. And watch this space, because it's something U2 are addressing on their next album."

However, don't expect U2 to follow Radiohead's lead and give away their music. Alan McGee, the former Oasis manager, recently claimed that "the only people who think music isn't free any more are the record companies", but McGuinness is unconvinced. "It disturbs me greatly when I hear quite sensible people talking about the end of copyright. I think copyright is part of civilisation, and we'd be very foolish indeed to accept the proposal that it is now a redundant concept.

"There is a moral question here. Should we just allow people to take our music because they can? You wouldn't say that if you were talking about shoplifters. If new ways of stealing from department stores were being developed, you wouldn't just give up running department stores and say let them have it.

"I think key to this is going to be co-operation and revenue sharing with the ISPs. And once that principle is accepted, you will get better quality music legally and pay a reasonable price for it."

- Neil McCormick

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