Paul McGuinness, legendary U2 manager and winner of this year’s Billboard Industry Icon Award, does not mince words. Not only did he deliver one of Midem’s best speeches at the award’s ceremony, but he also gave a fantastic follow-up interview discussing life after U2, his thoughts on major tech firms, the Midem conference and why he’s not afraid to jump into the fray.
Billboard: Congratulations on being named Billboard’s 2014 Industry Icon
Paul McGuinness: I’m grateful, honored, thank you.
You’ve always kind of shied away from the limelight, how do you feel about doing events like this.
When people come to work for me one of the things that is part of their jobs is to read the trades. And that always means Billboard, and Music Week as well, and I expect them to know what’s in there. And find the time each week to read Billboard, not just weekly but daily actually there’s important stuff in there.
Do you look at Billboard.biz?
Yeah of course.
Do you find it hard to take a step back after being in the music industry for so long? Is it a hard to transition to make or are you looking forward to it?
I’ve been looking forward to it. There are other parts show biz that i’m interested in as well. I’m one of the owners of the film studios in Ireland. And a few years ago I was involved in setting up Ireland’s TV3 which i’m not involved in any longer but that was exciting. I certainly intend to remain involved in the entertainment just not managing artists any longer. That’s the big change, I’m not going to do that anymore.
Was running the record-setting U2 360 tour the hardest you’ve ever worked as a manager
Oh yeah, it was a giant undertaking. II think it was about 110 shows and as i said we grossed three-quarters of a billion dollars. So the sums of money were staggering. To set it up was staggering. But then the rewards were enormous.
Did you get burned out working on it? Didn’t it run for 2-3 years?
Well it ran for longer than we intended because Bono had a serious back injury so we had to postpone. So everything was bigger. So were setting world records. There was even a record-setting insurance claim.
How were your stress levels through that?
It was a strain to hear every morning that we had spent x million of dollars and that rate of burn, that’s a strain. But Live Nation make it very easy. We have very strong relationship with Arthur [Fogel], it would be impossible without them. The last tour we did without a worldwide promoter was in 1991. When the band took the risk, I didn’t really want to take the risk after that and neither did the band.
It was interesting what you said in your acceptance speech about you and the band “infiltrating” a major label at Universal and effectively using the mechanisms to your own benefit and also how you were able to get your masters back.
We got them back, they wanted to extend the deal and we had to claw them back. We said you can extend the deal but we’re licensing them to you. We were having enough success to make that work for both parties.
When was your first Midem
I want to say early-80s, about 1983 or 1984 maybe?
And what was it like then?
It was much more crowded. And quite wild late night. It was pre-digital so everyone was making deals in the corridors. And the record companies in the mid-80s they were just starting the CD boom and there was a lot of let’s just say excess. Overall, the music industry prepared for the digital age very badly. There’s no doubt about that. All this stuff was coming, you could sense it but the label bosses were very short sighted—anyone who thought past the holiday season was regarded as a strategic thinker.
Do you feel Midem is still worth your while?
Yes I do. Over the years the conference part has become much more significant than it used to be. It used to be really a side part and now there’s a genuine exchange of policy ideas and it’s very formative and the debate is very often conducted here. People take it very seriously intellectually. The trade fair has kind of diminished because everyone’s doing it online rather than on the street. It used to be much more of a bazaar.
Also interesting in your acceptance speech today was how you took the opportunity to call out the tech companies.
Even though I’m known to be the scourge of Google, there is so much to admire in what they do, of course there is. I just wish they adopted a slightly different mindset. They are going to be the biggest distributor in the world quite soon and there are signs that they are becoming more generous, more prepared to share with the people who make the content. I like the signs, I think i can say all that. The presentation I saw by four YouTube executives i thought was pretty impressive and criticisms about the rev shares are helping things to become better. YouTube did one of the first live streams from Pasadena — U2 played the Rose Bowl — we played to a 100,000 people and we gave it to YouTube to live stream. They got 10 million hits worldwide and the technology worked perfectly. None of us were quite sure how but it worked impeccably.
Is the answer legislation or is it getting a better integration between the music industry and Google
I think if Google and Apple led the charge — and Apple is the world’s biggest retailer and Google’s YouTube is going to be the world’s biggest distributor — i just think they ought to share more and it’s an attitude as much as anything.
From a business perspective, no one gives anything for free.
I don’t think it’s free, I think it’s priced too low at the moment. I don’t think the creators are getting a fair share and the rev share models are kind of inadequate. They should be improved and the artists should get more out of them then they currently do and the labels, and the writers, and the publishers– it’s a common interest. That’s the long term strategy. Downloads are going to become irreverent and subscriptions are here. It will be very interesting to see if Apple’s model of subscriptions will be as successful as ITunes was in its time. I suspect it will be they’re really very good at it.
One of the most interesting and brave moments in your career was when you stood up here a few years ago and said loudly and proudly that artists must get paid for their work and that piracy is wrong. Which seems commonplace, but at the time you got a lot of flak for it
The blogosphere is an hostile environment. It was easy to describe me as some kind of luddite. But the other thing which i was criticized for was greed and just looking for more money for U2 who were clearly already successful. I always said it wasn’t on behalf of U2 who had indeed been very successful, this was an issue that affected all artists, all writers, all publishers, all labels and i thought it was time that it was confronted. It’s so easy to be hip when you’re helping yourself to something that doesn’t belong to you. And if people tried to do that in super markets and just took their groceries and just tried to walk out the door without paying for them they know what would happen: the police would come for them. I didn’t think there was any difference between Kim Dotcom and a supermarket thief. That was what i was pointing out.
First of all the services had to improve and the first lot were not brilliant. And the record companies attempts to prevent piracy with DRM, those terrible ideas and the spyware – remember the records with the spyware? — the record companies have a lot to answer for. In that period they were really not [acting in their best interests].
It must have been very frustrating from an artist management’s perspective?
Well it was hamfisted — when the RIAA prosecuted some grandmother for a half million dollar fine which they would regard as a propaganda victory.
The debate takes place in different ways around the world. In Europe where copyright is covered by legislation in each of the different european member states. There’s a reality that no one ever confronts that is quite honestly that the big states like Britain, France, Italy Germany and Spain — they have massive quantities of cultural assets — music and film and literature to protect. The new smaller states the accession states spread around the periphery they do not have the same interests and they tend to be much more lenient about copyright and piracy. They don’t have anything that anyone wants to steal. So they don’t mind people stealing our stuff and American stuff and Canadian stuff. You have to bear that in mind when you’re dealing with Brussels.
How divided is the EU on piracy?
Well, I once gave a talk in Brussels that was for some Internet foundation before a hostile audience that was basically a lot of people from the tech industries and the TelComs and them lobbying at a noisy dinner and there was an after dinner and everyone had a lot to drink and I made my copyright pitch. I was silenced by the chairwoman who said, “We did not come here to be told about more taxes.” And i said, “Madam, I’m not talking about taxation, this is about workers getting paid whether they are writers of books or makers of film and they are still voters and let me remind you they are also voters.” This is really a straight forward equation about people getting paid for their work.
Were you a pugilist growing up or a tough guy? You seem not to mind getting into the fray and mixing it up in a principled way?
I don’t go around picking fights. But i think there are some very clear issues that are right and wrong like artists’ rights.
But most managers are not that forthright or willing to put their necks out on the line for these issue.
There should be more. But very often artists just raise their heads above this parapet and get shot at. Lily Allen in England was monstered and she just withdrew and that happens.
U2 have a new album in June, how are you going to feel when it comes out?
I’m be wishing them well and kind of lurking. I still talk to them every couple of days. I’ll be lurking in the background ready to help if anyone wants.