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Profile: Paul McGuinness: They Do the Music, He Does the Business

Sunday Times, November 14, 2004

 

In the small hours of last Tuesday morning, Paul McGuinness stood at the end of the long counter at the Village bar in Wexford Street, Dublin, glass in one hand, wide grin on his face. Not even news that bootleg copies of the new U2 album were appearing on the internet could dampen the spirits of their manager.

McGuinness was in ebullient form because the new Dublin alternative rock licence had just been awarded to Phantom FM, a former pirate station. Promising to give regular daytime airplay to new and established Irish artists, Phantom had beaten off Zed FM, backed by Bob Geldof. McGuinness and other station backers, including Denis Desmond of MCD, had gathered for a party in the Village, owned by Frank Gleeson, another member of the Phantom consortium.

As the musicians and advertising industry types drifted off one by one at the end of the evening, McGuinness had a big handshake for each of them. Another successful deal sealed. "There was no question how happy he was," said Simon Maher, Phantom's manager. "There were ear-to-ear grins all round. It does mean a lot to him."

The week ended equally well for the 53-year-old businessman: "Vertigo," the first single from U2's 11th album, is set to go to No. 1 in Britain later today. Early reviews of the album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, have been positive.

Further proof that his charges are still on top, after 27 years together, is that singer Bono will be among current chart toppers in London today to re-record the Band Aid charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" He is the only participant from the original line-up to be asked back. Robbie Williams, Fran Healy from Travis, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Justin Hawkins from the Darkness all wanted to sing his line -- "Well tonight, thank God it's them instead of you" -- but the organisers said Bono was the only one who could do it justice. He would hardly have been asked to sing it again if U2 had gone the way of most of the original Band Aid-ers, such as Status Quo or Ultravox.

That U2 have managed to stay on top of their game is down to how they reinvented their sound in order to stay relevant. Equally, McGuinness has not rested on his laurels, devising innovative business deals that have made the group one of the most lucrative in rock history. This time it is album tie-ins with top-rated television shows in America, as well as the recent link-up with Apple for a special-edition iPod.

McGuinness has always been focused on business interests. In the early days of TV3, he was with a group of friends in Smyth's pub on Haddington Road watching an Ireland match. An investor in the station, McGuinness was furious because he thought TV3's logo was not visible on the screen. He stormed out of the pub, and phoned the station's head to remonstrate. While he was doing so, one of his friends got a foolscap page, drew the TV3 logo on it and stuck it onto the screen. McGuinness saw the joke.

Some consider him arrogant and pompous, traits often associated with those schooled in the exclusive Clongowes Wood. His capacity to intimidate is well known, too. Those close to him say his pompousness may be a means to combat shyness.

Although he holds no business qualifications, McGuinness is known as a shrewd operator. Those who have had dealings with him describe him as bright. He has certainly made U2 much wealthier than they would have been through negotiation of intellectual property alone. Latest estimates put the band's combined wealth at more than €600m, which is split five ways with McGuinness getting the same share as the four band members.

Willie Kavanagh of EMI, who has known McGuinness a long time, says: "Paul has always been very tough but very fair. He hasn't changed. On a personal level he is a generous person with a good sense of fun. He's a gentleman." Kavanagh points to McGuinness's appearance in a video for Dustin the Turkey's single -- a parody of "Numb" -- as evidence that the serious businessman has a sense of fun.

Around the time of the album Achtung Baby, when U2 considered splitting up, it was said that they and their manager were growing apart. "A lot of people say this on a regular basis, that he's not as close to the band as he used to be," says one friend. "But why do they all have houses together in the south of France? I sometimes think people like to create a rift that isn't necessarily there."

McGuinness was born in June 1951, in Rinteln near Hanover, Germany, where his father Philip, a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant, was stationed. His mother, Sheila, a Kerrywoman, was studying to be a teacher when she met Philip in Cork. The McGuinness family went home often as Philip moved from base to base in England and Malta. The young Paul, an avid reader, was schooled at home by his mother.

As a seven-year-old he displayed his organisational skills when he decided to construct a museum of items collected by his dad on his travels. Artefacts such as stones and bones were labelled and dated meticulously before being put on display. When he was 10, his parents sent him to Clongowes Wood college, one of Ireland's most prestigious private schools run by the Jesuits.

During his six years there he directed two plays, edited the student magazine, and won the gold medal as the school's star debater. With honours in English, Latin and French in his Leaving Cert, McGuinness went to Trinity College Dublin to study philosophy and psychology. Among his friends there were Shane Ross, now a senator, and Paul Tansey, an economist. He also met Kathy Gilfillan, whom he married in 1977.

Academically, his time was less well spent. His journalistic activities led him to neglect his studies, and by the end of third year he hadn't attended enough lectures to sit his exams. Though he returned to Trinity after a spell driving a taxi in London and working as a tour guide in Lourdes, he didn't last long. After landing the job of location manager on Zardoz, John Boorman's 1974 futuristic film starring Sean Connery, he decided to stay in the industry, mainly working in commercials.

This was followed by a year of managing a folk-rock group, Spud, before he met U2. McGuinness would later recall the gig at the Project in 1978 where he first saw the band. "The Edge's playing was quite unique. And Bono stared into the audience's eyes as if daring them to look back at him. It looked to me like they could be a great rock band," he said.

In the early days, after meetings in McGuinness's flat on Waterloo Road, the band would reach into a jar of coins their manager kept on his sideboard for their bus fare home. One of McGuinness's early challenges with the group came in the early 1980s. Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen, who were in a Shalom Christian group, told McGuinness they wanted out because being in a rock group was incompatible with their beliefs. McGuinness persuaded them to fulfil their touring commitments and then review the situation. They agreed and the crisis passed.

A couple of years later McGuinness renegotiated their contract, landing them one of the best deals in music history. In 1984, in a particularly shrewd deal, McGuinness managed to get back the copyright on U2's material from Island Records. Few acts now own all of their own songs, and U2 also get one of the highest royalty rates on gross sales in the industry (28%).

Not all of McGuinness's ventures have been as successful. He and Ossie Kilkenny, U2's accountant, invested in Quasar, a laser gun game, in the late 1980s. They lost large sums when a chain of leisure centres planned for Dublin and Germany did not go ahead. McGuinness has also managed Chrissie Hynde (for a year) and Sinead O'Connor (for just a few weeks). Neither fared as well as U2.

Tomorrow McGuinness will sit down with the rest of Phantom's board to plan the station's launch next July. Most of 2005 is already mapped out in his diary. U2 begin their world tour on March 1 in Florida, the first of more than 95 shows.

Bono may not have found what he's looking for, but for McGuinness it's always a beautiful day.



© Times Newspapers Ltd., 2004.

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