Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

All change at U2 Inc as Paul McGuinness plans to step down

The position of U2′s fifth man to be taken by Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary

Paul McGuinness speaking at a recent MIDEM conference in France

Wed, Nov 13, 2013, 08:03


It’s what you’d call a very big deal. Per the New York Times, Paul McGuinness, who has handled U2′s management affairs since the year dot, is in the middle of negotiations to sell Principle Management to Live Nation. The purported $30 million deal, which would also see the live music giant buy Madonna’s entertainment company Maverick, would then see Guy Oseary take over U2′s day-to-day management.

While the deal is still in negotiation, McGuinness nonetheless released a statement to the Times which put his spin on things:

“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 and roll code of conduct. As I approach the musically relevant age of 64 I have resolved to take a less hands-on role as the band embark on the next cycle of their extraordinary career.

“I am delighted that Live Nation, who with Arthur Fogel have been our long term touring partners, have joined us in creating this powerful new force in artist management. I have long regarded Guy Oseary as the best manager of his generation and there is no one else I would have considered to take over the day-to-day running of our business.”

It’s a big move (and a sudden move, with news only emerging about it yesterday), chiefly because McGuinness has been the band’s fifth member for most of their long, successful run. He’s the one who took or pushed the band to take many of their most lucrative business decisions over the year, such as taking a 10 per cent share in Island Records in 1986 to offset outstanding royalties (a deal which netted the band $30m when Island was later sold on). You could also credit McGuinness with much of the long-term thinking in the 1980s which set up the band’s career and helped to build their fanbase in the first place. And, in fairness, you can’t really blame McGuinness for the truly terrible run of albums from the band in recent years.

What’s interesting about McGuinness as a manager is that he was truly an one-man band. While Principle Management has worked with various acts over the years including The Pretenders, The Rapture, Paddy Casey and PJ Harvey (who was a Principle client until earlier this year – see update below), there was never another huge, worldwide mainstream star in the U2 vein from that stable. However, it’s worth noting that this is harder to achieve that it might seem – it’s interesting to look at the acts on Troy Carter’s roster, for example, now that Lady Gaga has departed – and a band like U2 are an once-in-a-lifetime occurence for a manager. Unless you’re prepared to really go large and hire loads of really smart, clever and eager managers and diversify your activities like Q Prime or Quest or Front Line, it’s hard to build and keep a roster of superstars if you’re the only management superstar in the company.

As a manager, McGuinness played a leading role in the dialogue around the ongoing changes in the music industry. He was a regular speaker at the annual MIDEM pow-wow in the south of France where he held forth on issues like the growing influence of tech companies with speeches and talks on the same in 2008 and 2012. While it will be interesting to see if he makes any further moves about this beyond speechifying now that he’s no longer U2′s Mister 20 Per Cent, it’s worth noting that not even the manager of U2 could do anything about tech’s grasp beyond taking some of the cash on offer.

McGuinness was also without a shadow of the doubt the biggest fish in the Irish music business sea. Whatever about live music promoters like MCD’s Denis Desmond whose influence has now spread to the UK and Europe, McGuinness was the music businessman who brought a lot of attention and focus on Ireland and Irish music over the last 30 years.

However, for all that attention and focus, the local music business infrastructure still remains minor-key. Be it management or labels, most of the big Irish acts from Snow Patrol to The Script to Kodaline rely on expertise in those departments from elsewhere because the key personnel and networks required to make things work are just not here. There’s still only a very small handful of managers based in Ireland who have the gumption and experience to work an international band. That, of course, is not McGuinness’ fault, but it’s worth pointing out that he leaves the stage still as the biggest dog in town in that regard. There’s no-one around to step up.

Which is probably why the band are turning to Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary (remember that it’s the band who hire the manager not the only way around so the U2 four will have had a huge say in Oseary’s hiring and the terms of his contract). Oseary has certainly had a chequered career to date and is someone, like McGuinness in some ways, who has had a diverse CV, including an appearance in Charlie’s Angels (er, unlike McGuinness). It will be fascinating to watch how he guides the band, especially as he will be coming into the fold as an outsider without the career-long knowledge of the band’s ins and outs like his predecesor, which may well be as much an advantage as a disadvantage in the U2 scheme of things.

With a new album now very much on the horizon – when there’s talk of expensive Super Bowl commercials, you know the album is arriving sooner rather than later – Oseary is already believed to be making the calls to and taking the meetings with sponsors and other vested interests to set another album project and world tour in motion. Again, as with McGuinness, you can’t blame him for whatever Bono and co come up with in the studio, but all will be closely observing and parsing Oseary’s business moves on behalf of the band in the coming months and years.

Meanwhile, it will be equally interesting to see what McGuinness does next because he doesn’t stike you as someone who will be chilling out and kicking back any time soon. He’ll still be around the U2 camp – there’s talk that he will now be chairman of Principle – but it’s his moves outside the four which will be worth following. It will also be interesting to hear more about this largely unexpected move and what precipitated one of the most successful managers in the game stepping down. There’s probably a book in it…

UPDATE: As you could imagine, the story about Paul McGuinness stepping down has dominated the news cycle in the last 24 hours or so. However, there are still many unanswered questions around what’s happened. Whatever about what I think about U2′s music of late, I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for their business acumen and how they’ve ran a tight ship over the course of their career. This move, though, is a little all over the place and doesn’t have quite the 360-degrees-attention-to-detail that we’ve come to regard as standard from Planet U2.

For instance, does anyone else think it’s strange that the band haven’t issued a statement on all of this? You’d think they would have some very kind, flowery words to say about their long-time manager – and the man most responsible for their business success – stepping down after 35 years to go along with McGuinness’ own statement. Also, isn’t it odd that Guy Oseary has already been at work on deals and meetings for the band, per Billboard, and there hasn’t been any statement from Bono saying “hey Guy, welcome to the gang, tell Madge we’ll be around for tea and sandwiches later”? And when exactly did Oseary move into the driving seat and why was that kept quiet for so long?

Furthermore, what exactly are Live Nation’s shareholders buying here? Remember that Live Nation have had a lucrative 12 year deal in place with the band since 2008 so purchasing Principle seems a mite over-the-top unless they’re that desperate to get their mitts on Paddy Casey’s old contracts.

Of course, there are also many other questions which will only be answered in time, such as will Oseary move his loyal lieutenants into place to replace long-standing U2 Inc executives? It’s very rare that a new manager, be it in sports or music, doesn’t do something to exert his own influence, be it dropping a player or sacking a drummer. While I can’t see Oseary firing Larry Mullen, he will no doubt be keen to have his own men and women watching his back. This is a fascinating story which is far from over.

UPDATE EXTRA: it’s worth noting that PJ Harvey is now managed by Brian Message and Sumit Bothra at ATC Management. Per an email from Sumit, the artist “amicably parted ways with Principle earlier this year”