Paul McGuinness could never break another hit act — and usually the mark of a great manager is the ability to do it more than once.
One of the best managers most people have never heard of? Gary Borman. He built Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban, and knows it’s who’s onstage who counts, not the genius behind the curtain.
That’s the downfall of the music business: the belief that suits count more than artists.
Credit McGuinness with building U2.
But now’s a good time to get out, because the band is at a crossroads. It took all the money out of the market with a multiyear stadium trek and, without a hit single, it will probably never be able to tour at this scale again.
Hits are what U2 is dependent upon if it wants to keep the mantle of the world’s greatest rock and roll band, which it stole from the Stones decades ago, even if Mick Jagger doesn’t know that.
But rock is dead. At least on Top-40 radio, where hits are made.
What’s a poor boy to do?
Become a venture capitalist, like Bono did with Roger McNamee and Elevation.
Or try and save the world, which Bono is also doing.
But if he wants to stay a relevant musician, that’s a much harder goal to achieve.
But he’s got Guy Oseary in his corner! Oseary becomes the manager of U2 with McGuinness’ sale of Principle Management to Live Nation.
To believe Oseary is a great manager is to think Metallica svengali Cliff Burnstein can front a band, and Irving Azoff can play in the NBA. What Oseary does best is get into the head of Madonna and make her believe he’s indispensable, which he’s not. Madge has had a series of managers since she broke through, even the aforementioned Mr. Burnstein, who helped her stay relevant with “Ray of Light.”
But Madonna’s relevant no more. It pains her, but athletes retire. And in music, the game changes. It’s less about age than fads and desire and other elements elder people just can’t keep up with, and oftentimes look bad trying to. If you’re not willing to admit your age, you’re gonna have a hard time in popular culture.
And so often music is youth culture.
And you can tour to your core, but as you age that core cannot fill stadiums — not usually.
If you know McGuinness, he’s a force of nature. Someone who’s all what he’s promoting, 24/7. It’s not easy to find someone like that, who lives and dies for you. He’s essentially Col. Parker, but with a fairer deal and a worldwide viewpoint.
In other words, no one’s gonna care as much.
So U2 has lost its rudder.
And although Live Nation’s Arthur Fogel is brilliant at what he does — one of the absolute best — U2’s problem is not touring financials so much as creative issues.
Music has always operated best when unrestricted. When those involved were free to reinvent the wheel at their leisure, to test limits, be offensive and charm us all at the same time.
Tying up with Live Nation is no different from selling out to Google or Microsoft. You’ll get paid, but you’ll lose control. Happens every day: The founders get frustrated and leave, and their products often go into decline.
But music is not a mere product. When done right, it’s not evanescent. It pricks our hearts and stimulates our brains and makes us believe life is worth living.
Bono once had that power. He’s sacrificed it. So goodbye ’80s rock. And goodbye ’80s pop, too. We’re in a new era where the most stimulating productions emanate from bedrooms, get traction on YouTube and are shared virally by the general public.
There’s business and there’s music. Business ain’t bad. But music’s in sad shape.
Because everybody’s looking to sell out.
Read more Bob Lefsetz columns at Lefsetz.com.