U2 are being taken over by Live Nation and Madonna's manager in a $30 million deal. Will this lead to a disco mix of Bono Don’t Preach, wonders Neil McCormick
By Neil McCormick
U2 are under new management. The flag-waving rock megabrand are being taken over by the biggest concert promotion company in the world, Live Nation, in a $30 million deal.
Paul McGuinness, the charismatic manager who has steered their career from the beginning, is being kicked upstairs, to an ill-defined “chairman” role, which even he has likened to retirement.
Perhaps adding to the sense that this is a some kind of sinister corporate manoeuvre exposing the venal heart of the world’s most famous rock idealists is the news that Madonna’s manager, Guy Oseary, is in line to take over the day-to-day running of the U2 operation (whilst continuing to oversee the career of his solo superstar).
So what does this mean for the outspoken Irish rock legends? Will Bono be next seen posing naked but for strategically placed sunglasses in a high-fashion photo book? Will Madonna and U2 be marketed as a megastar double bill with the highest ticket prices in the known universe and a disco mix of Bono Don’t Preach? Or will it just be (music) business as usual?
When news of the proposed sale of U2’s Principle Management broke, McGuinness released a droll statement admitting that “it could be seen as slightly poor etiquette for a manager to consider retiring before his artist has split, quit or died, but U2 have never subscribed to the rock ’n’ roll code of conduct.” At 63 years old, he says he wants to take “a less hands-on role”.
Like most managers, McGuinness is a little older than his charges (Bono is 53). McGuinness has grown wealthy steering U2’s ship, but he has also suffered periods of ill-health. With the band rumoured to be gearing up for yet another album and tour, he has perhaps wisely decided it is time for a younger man to take the reins (Oseary is 41).
Judging by U2 messageboards and Twitter chatter, their fan base is quite perturbed by these events. For what it’s worth, from the vantage point of someone who has seen this grow from a one-man operation run from McGuinness’s home phone, I don’t think there will be much change. Everyone knows Bono really runs the band.
Or rather, Bono leads the band, in terms of spirit, big ideas, charisma and energy. Guitarist Edge takes the lead musically. Bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr tend to be the sage counsellors steadying the ship. Every major decision is made by democratic vote, although, as Mullen has pointed out, “only in the classic Greek sense that a democracy is in the hands of those in power. If you are in a band with someone as loud, talkative, argumentative and persuasive as Bono, things can be kind of difficult for the rest of us.”
McGuinness is the fifth member of the U2 cabal, with an equal share of the profits, and an equal vote at the table. I don’t expect that to change a great deal. McGuinness will still be available for big-picture strategising, which has always been his great strength, to balance the band’s artistic impulses with the fundamental principle that they are a business, and what they do has to make money. It might seem obvious but any experience of the giddy flamboyance of rock and roll management will tell you this is not always the case.
U2 are effectively pre-empting a crisis, managing what can be one of the most difficult transitions for an artist: outgrowing their management. When Brian Epstein died, the Beatles were left effectively rudderless, steered mainly by Paul McCartney, and eventually splitting when bullish music accountant Allen Klein attempted to take control.
The Rolling Stones were managed with inspirational zest at the beginning of their career by the brilliant Andrew Loog Oldham but by the end of the Sixties, the band were broke. So who manages the Stones now? The answer is Mick Jagger, with the (not always forthcoming) support of Keith Richards and the advice of a trusted inner circle of music business accountants, promoters and record company bosses.
Because setting things in motion for brilliant, naïve young artists is a very different business from overseeing an established ticket-selling showbusiness juggernaut headed by experienced, wealthy, powerful, adult stars. Once success has been achieved, most bands effectively co-manage themselves. U2 have always done this, with a large and experienced team at Principle Management, most of whom will remain in place.
What Oseary will bring is energy, ideas, a grasp of practical detail and, given his particular music business experience, a strong affinity for new music-technology interfaces.
The latter is particularly important because it suggests that U2 are not ready to shuffle off onto the vintage rock platform currently occupied by the Stones and so many other veteran superstars, effectively touring operations focused on established fan bases. Bono is determined that, even at this late stage of their career, they continue to engage with the pop marketplace and remain part of a big cultural conversation.
It is four years since their last album, No Line On The Horizon, and over two years since they played their last 360 Degree show, the highest-grossing concert tour in history. In the meantime, they have been writing and recording almost constantly, amassing and refining material, because they are determined to make the next album count.
“U2’s been on the verge of irrelevance for 20 years,” Bono admitted in 2011. But like their new stablemate Madonna, U2 are committed to constant reinvention, on Bono’s principle that “it’s stasis that kills you off in the end, not ambition”.
Rather than worrying too much about management changes behind the scenes, fans should see it as an indication that, after a period of reflection and regrouping, gears are clicking into place for the full-scale return of one of the biggest bands in the world.