Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

U2′s tax issues have not gone away

Even in the midst of the usual hype and hoopla around the new world tour, U2 and tax are still inextricably linked

Bono attempts to water down criticisms of U2's tax arrangements. Photo: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP

Tue, May 19, 2015, 09:30


It’s good to see that U2 can still put on a hell of a show. Reports and reviews from the first night of the new tour by the band in Vancouver were full of wow and wonder about what was happening onstage. Some of the headlines may have been taken by The Edge falling off the large, lurid stage set (if he’d taken his hat off, he might have seen the bright neon markings seperating the stage from the great unwashed in the stalls), but U2 Inc would be damn happy with the coverage they received. They certainly got value for money from the hacks who travelled thousands of miles to the Canadian city.

But there are still off-stage noises which can render all of that positivity null and void. While other outlets were gawping at Bono in his old Cedarwood Road bedroom or hanging on his bon mots in a hotel restaruant, it was left to Sky News to upset the apple-cart with some questions about the band’s tax affairs. Unlike the songs from their dud of an album “No Line on the Horizon” (none of which featured on the first night of the tour), tax is a story which U2 just cannot leave behind no matter what they do.

Bono sounded stung as he replied to questions about how their tax arrangements chimed with his philanthropical work. “It’s just some smart people we have working for us trying to be sensible about the way we’re taxed”, he told the reporter. “And that’s just one of our companies, by the way. There’s loads of companies. We pay a fortune in tax. Just so people know, we pay a fortune in tax; and we’re happy to pay a fortune in tax, people should.”

Those quotes about “there’s loads of companies” and “we pay a fortune in tax” sound a little like that “we got paid” line he was spinning last year after the band spammed everyone with an iTunes’ account with their new album. There’s a bit of a bang of SoCoDu caricature Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to that kind of explanation for unethical behaviour.

With the benefit of hindsight, the band might think twice now about the completely above-board and financially astute advice they received in 2006 when they moved part of their business to the Netherlands to avail of lower tax rates there. At the time, the financial advice probably made complete sense to a band with vast earnings seeking to maximise a return on investment. But were the savings really worth it when you look at the blowback they’ve received from the move in the last decade?

Unlike the singer’s backdown and apology over the Apple fiasco, the tax move has always been soundly defended. It’s tarnished the singer’s reputation in many quarters, especially when it comes to his charity work and activism. While some of the elements of the singer’s political activism have produced uncomfortable scenes and scenarios for him and the band (hobnobbing with his pal George W Bush in the White House, for instance), the tax thing has produced anger right across the board.

Over the last few years, people have seen the adverse effects of austerity measures on their own and their country’s economies. They have seen how vital services have been cut in an effort to repay the gambling debts of bankers and financial cowboys. As a result, they have little time for very wealthy rock singers moving their money around to avail of lower tax rates in other jurisdictions, while lecturing and hectoring governments about foreign aid and debt forgiveness.

But like the whole stink about Jay Z and Tidal’s one per cent sense of entitlement, U2 have always treated questions about their tax arrangements with outrage. How dare people question us about this seems to be the way of the walk when the queries are asked. At a time when the band were all about the new tour – and trying to shift those stubborn last remaining unsold tickets (we keep reading that 98 or 99 per cent of the tickets for the tour are sold so what the hell is going on with the remaining inventory? Are these tickets for seats behind pillars, Arthur?) – they didn’t want to be reminded of past sins and failings. In U2′s case, those tax arrangements are still hanging around and no amount of live show smoke and mirrors is not going to change that. Nope, not even sticking the speakers in the roof.