It has been a whirlwind nine months for Guy Oseary since he took the reins of U2’s management after longtime manager Paul McGuinness announced his retirement last fall. That includes a Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination, a big Super Bowl campaign and the premiere of The Tonight Show in support of two songs that ultimately didn’t make the final cut on Songs of Innocence, the history-making album that debuted to 500 million iTunes customers on Sept. 9.
With lead single “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” set to be featured in a massive media campaign from Apple, valued at $100 million by multiple sources, U2 has already scored arguably the biggest launch in music history. And it’s one that’s already fraught with a little controversy, from angry retailers to Grammy and SoundScan guidelines. Oseary, 41, rang Billboard on Sept. 11 to address the many questions about the launch, and what’s next (another album?) from this landmark deal with Apple.
Songs of Innocence has already been touted as the biggest album launch of all time. How did you get to this point?
U2 worked five years on this album, they poured blood, sweat, tears into project, and we were really confident with it. The goal was: how do we reach as many as possible? U2 first worked with Apple nearly 10 years to the day when they were sharing a stage with Steve Jobs and launching their iPod with many fewer accounts, and here we are 10 years later with Apple gifting this album to 7 percent of the planet.
Many people are already calling the announcement “disruptive” in the same way that Jay Z’s deal with Samsung and Beyonce’s surprise album drop were also disruptive to traditional industry rollouts. While this news was significant for U2, how could other artists potentially benefit?
Well first of all, when music becomes a piece of the conversation at an Apple event, that’s always a good thing. Two is, the power of music and the fact that it can actually be shared with 7 percent of the planet in one push of a button. That’s a pretty big concept. Any sort of innovation may inspire other people to do things that are innovative. We may see someone sitting with another manager, or another band going, “Hey, what can we do that’s interesting maybe with our lyrics or our videos or something interactive with the ticketing to our shows?”
That’s all, I don’t know where it’s headed, I just know that I’m always looking for the answers, for new ways to do things. That’s my job, my job is to try to not follow the lead. And there’s a lot of other people that have a lot of peers and bands that are in the community wanting to lead, and they’ll lead in other ways. And that’s what’s exciting to me. It’s not gonna be the same thing. But who knows where it goes? There’s endless possibilities to do things today with music and performance.
Jimmy Iovine is a figure we didn’t see onstage Tuesday, but someone who has been closely linked to U2 for many years from his days at Interscope and now happens to be an Apple employee. What was his role in making this deal happen?
Jimmy is part of whatever this band does, even in their personal lives. It’s a family. We look to Jimmy for guidance and support no matter what we end up doing, whether its this project or talking about the next single, or whether we’re talking about doing other things down the road. Talk about family, trips, things that we wanted to to do in our personal lives — we’re really connected, we’re really supportive. Jimmy is near and dear to this band, he’s definitely a source of support and guidance. He’s a big part of the U2 family, and to myself personally — whether I’m working with U2 or someone else, he’s always been a very supportive and dear friend. We consider him family and there’s been a lot of hand-holding together through this process.
On Tuesday, Bono emphasized the fact that the band was paid by Apple for the album, and there’s a reported $100 million ad campaign in the works, which may have ruffled some feathers of longtime fans who admire Bono’s humanitarian work. So, is there an altruistic component to this new Apple partnership?
Apple’s very private about their philanthropic work, but they’ve done a lot for (RED.) They’ve given $70 to $90 million to saving lives, and while I was at the event I counted two times where two (RED) products were actually promoted at the event.
Bono also mentioned on Facebook that there’s a second album already in the can. What else can we expect from U2 and Apple?
We’re working on other things as well with Apple that have to do with how music is heard and innovation, with [iTunes VP of content] Robert Kondrk leading that charge. There’s a lot of things still to come that are really interesting. The band really wants people to engage with albums, they want them to support the art form of artwork and lyrics and video content and just get into their music in a much different way than an MP3 file. This is a long relationship.
Some retailers are already up in arms about a five-week exclusive with iTunes. How will you make sure there’s still value to the commercial release when it arrives Oct. 14?
There’s four brand-new songs, and Gary Kelly [Interscope’s head of retail sales] can tell you there’s a bunch of acoustic versions of songs from the album, too. So it’s probably gonna be anywhere between nine or 11 songs that were not on the standard. Retail is important, too, we’re not trying to alienate anyone. We’re just trying to reach our potential, and it happens to be with a company that is very forward-thinking. U2 is part of the Apple story, and Apple has played a big part in U2’s life.
It’s been a decade since U2 has had a true mainstream hit, so there’s a whole generation of music listeners who may just be discovering the band’s music. How do you convert them into fans without oversaturating them?
As you can see from today’s iTunes charts, clearly people are digging back into the catalog to learn more about the band, with 16 albums on the iTunes charts. That’s a statement, that people are going, “Oh, let me learn more about this band.” I’ve seen a lot of tweets from kids who are 14, 15, 16, 18 who are going, “Wow, this is really good.” They didn’t know what to expect. That’s a great feeling, that maybe someone in their collection only has hip-hop, and yet maybe someone only has country artists, or someone in India doesn’t have any Anglo artists, and they discover U2 today. The one thing all these people have in common is U2 now. The one thing everyone on iTunes has in common today is U2 and a U2 album. It’s an amazing opportunity, even at this stage in U2’s career, to make new friends.
You just gave away an album to 500 million people worldwide. How do you turn those free customers into album buyers a month from now?
This is all new territory, but we have four brand-new songs and the deluxe is a killer package. And it’s early days. You can’t look at the standard as one piece of this puzzle, you have to look at whether we reached as many as possible. Are people buying the catalog all of a sudden? And the answer is yes.
By releasing a free album this week, you’ve missed some of the requirements for the Billboard as well as Grammy deadlines. So what’s the overall statement you wanted to make?
Look, we just went with organic, genuine feelings of “Let’s share this album with as many people as possible” and then we know that there’s a lot of unknowns. And we accept the ups, we accept the downs, it’ll be what it’ll be, but we’re really happy with this week and historical launch.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of Billboard.