"I might be a hero on stage, but off-stage I'm an anti-hero."
The @U2 Interview: Marc Marot (Pt. 2)
May 15, 2006
Marc Marot left Island Records in 2000 after 16 years of working closely with U2. Two of the last things he did while at Island continue to impact the band today: He introduced Bono to the idea of Jubilee 2000 in 1998, and he re-negotiated U2's record contract in 1999, a deal which has never been reported before.
Part two of our interview with Marc Marot addresses both of those events, but begins a little earlier -- in 1996-97, as U2 is struggling to finish the Pop album.
[continued from The @U2 Interview: Marc Marot (Pt. 1)]
Moving forward a couple years after Passengers, there was the Pop project. U2 fans are obviously very familiar with the difficulties in getting that album released. What was happening at the label as the band was missing deadline after deadline after deadline?
It was an absolute nightmare for us because of a number of things.
Chris Blackwell's philosophy had always been, "Worry about the music first, and then the money will sort itself out." So that was all very well and good when you're running an independent label, but very difficult when you've got shareholders that own a company like Polygram or Universal. And so I couldn't just worry about the music by that stage because I was under enormous pressure to deliver the record because, obviously, any U2 record that could sell anywhere between 4 and 10 million units for a company like Polygram and Universal is a huge record and a very, very important thing for their shareholders.
So I was under enormous pressure from above to get the record out. And there was nothing that I could do about it. There was nothing I could do without damaging my relationship with U2, and I felt that my relationship with U2 was much, much more important than, frankly, meeting fiscal year-end requirements for that particular year. And I also felt that I was protecting Polygram in protecting U2. So, I lied through my teeth and told my bosses it was coming, it was coming..."Mańana, mańana, mańana"...and kept the pressure away from U2 the best that I could.
This is the time -- '96, '97 -- the Internet starts to play a role in what bands are doing, and certainly what music fans are doing. So Pop is the first album where song clips are on the Internet before the album comes out.
Let me tell you what happened -- I can tell you exactly what happened. I can almost even name the f--king individual that did it.
We thought the record was coming in time for Christmas in...would've been '96, I think. Is that right? When did it eventually come out?
You're correct. It was originally supposed to be fall of '96.
That's right. So we thought it was coming out the fall of '96 and so were U2 confident.
They were so confident that I had a managing directors meeting with all of the presidents of the labels around the world that fall, and U2 -- they made a little tape that I could take there that included an outtake of "Discotheque." And what happened was, I made a VHS of the Island Records presentation which included U2 -- it included whatever we were working on, y'know -- Cranberries, Tricky, PJ Harvey, Pulp, whatever it was that we were working on at the time. And I gave it to the presidents of the labels around the world. Now bear in mind that these people are presidents of labels -- they're highly paid, highly skilled supposedly, and highly intelligent people. One of them -- the Hungarian president -- gave it to his marketing manager, and the marketing manager gave it to his friend who was a U2 fan. And the VHS of a rough mix of "Discotheque" ended up on the Internet, which was then picked up by KROQ [a FM radio station] in North America, who made a version of it.
So, basically, what you had is -- you had a rough mix converted to VHS quality; VHS quality then converted to MP3, in the early days of MP3; MP3 then picked up and recorded onto digital audio tape by KROQ, and then broadcast over an FM frequency. You can imagine how awful it was.
I don't have to imagine -- I remember hearing it! The quality was terrible.
Yes. And worse than that, all of KROQ's rivals decided that if Kevin Weatherly's [KROQ Program Director] got it, they've got to have it. So they started recording it off FM, onto DAT, and then rebroadcasting it through their FM broadcast. So the quality just became worse, and worse, and worse. And it got to the point where -- and then Capital radio in the U.K. played it, which was a very important commercial station in the U.K. -- and the only thing we could do was get that record out into the marketplace, and effectively change our plans to roll with it.
So what you're telling me, then, is that the people -- the fans, the conspiracy theorists that think those snippets were actually released purposely by the label -- that's way off-base?
Totally, totally, totally, totally to be discounted. Absolutely no validity in it whatsoever. And I have no axe to grind. I'd love to have been that clever.
Okay, one more thing about the Pop album. We know that it sold millions of copies. Any other band would be thrilled with what Pop did in terms of sales. But there's still this belief that the album was a failure. The singles generally didn't perform too well, and at one point Paul McGuinness even pointed a finger at one of Island's marketing people in terms of "Staring at the Sun" not succeeding. What do you think went wrong with that campaign?
I'll tell you exactly what it was. Again, this is a direct quote -- you can quote me on this. There was a point where Alain Levy -- that's the worldwide head of Polygram -- had his 50th birthday in New York. I was invited to the celebration, and I sat at the table with Bono, Edge, Pavarotti, and Paul McGuinness amongst others -- and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. It was a great table; we had a lot of fun. Bono and Edge, at one point, huddled in the corner with me and said, "The problem with the record is we never finished it. We knew we had to deliver it; we never finished it. The heart of the record is missing -- it's not a finished record."
And that's what it was. The fans weren't stupid. The fans could spot that, and U2 admitted it privately to me, too.
The first time I ever encountered your name was when the Best of 1980-1990 album came out. You were quoted in some of the news articles then. How did you even convince U2 to do the Best Of albums, 'cause they always said in the past that they'd never release a "greatest hits" set.
It was a personal relationship thing. One of the things that I did, funnily enough, was that I used the Internet against U2 in a really clever way.
I built IslandRecords.co.uk, and IslandRecords.co.uk was one of the first-ever record company web sites when the graphical interface hit in about 1995. I built a relationship with those using the Internet that were interested in Island Records. And I built up quite a little community of U2 fans. And I started asking -- I did this sort of ranking system, and I asked U2 fans on IslandRecords.co.uk to rank, in order of preference, their tracks. And I said that you can give 10 points to your favorite track, and one point to your least-favorite favorite track, and no points for everything else; you've only got 10 votes.
And, at the time in 1995, nearly 26,000 people voted. And for U2, that was huge to them. In particular, they began to realize that the Internet really was a great community tool. Because what they had -- instead of me going into a room with a bunch of people pulled in off the street and doing some market research, playing a few U2 tracks and saying, Which ones do you like the best? -- they had the most unbelievably properly ranked track listing. And one of the reasons why they'd not been keen on doing a Best Of before was they weren't convinced they could nail one that would satisfy everybody.
So the interesting thing was that, under the terms of the contract that acquired those rights, I was named in the contract as being entitled to put forward my track listing. And Edge was named as being entitled to put forward his track listing. But I didn't put forth my track listing; I put forth the fans' track listing. And there was only one track difference between my track listing and Edge's track listing.
The fans and me wanted "Bullet the Blue Sky" on it.
So that's not on there.
That's not on there, no. And...so, in many respects, we kinda used logic and we used the fans to argue with U2. We used the anniversary, and quite frankly, it was also a very sweet deal for them, too. But that was the last thing on the agenda, was the deal. It wasn't the first. Many others do Best Ofs because it's the first thing on the agenda.
Over the years, was there ever any talk about doing other collections? A big box set or something like that?
Yeah, it's all there in the contract already. I did that last deal. I did that deal in 1999 -- it was pretty much the last thing I did before I quit. It was a huge re-negotiation, probably one of the biggest in the history of the music business, and under it, there is also the right for Island Records to release a box set at some point in the future. And that will undoubtedly happen.
The deal you're referring to -- is that just the deal that covers the Best Ofs? Because wasn't that contract --
No, it covered the Best Ofs, but it also covered studio albums and box sets and a number of other things. It pretty much takes U2, umm, probably until 2015...if I can work it out.
Okay, 'cause I was gonna ask you about that. I was under the impression that the contract for the Best Ofs was totally separate from the deal that was, I think, in 1993. There was, like, a 6-album deal--
No, no, no -- that effectively -- that was re-negotiated in 1999 to extend it beyond the scope of the 1993 deal and to also capture the Best Ofs.
So, when a U2 fan asks -- you know, people are always worried, "Are they gonna call it quits soon?" and somebody says, "No, they have X amount of albums left." To your understanding, and I know it's been a few years, how many albums are left on the deal?
I don't know, Matt. I would imagine [pauses]...at least another three...I think. And I think there may even -- dependent on how well the two Best Ofs did -- there may even be a right for Island to have a combined Best Of. Because obviously they did the '80s and then they did the '90s.
A combined Best Of combining what kind of stuff?
Everything! Anything from any point in their career. That's certainly not on the schedule. It's not on the agenda for the moment, but there just happens to be a clause somewhere in the contract that allows them to do it.
Oh, okay. Speaking of releases like this, how come U2 has never issued a complete, start-to-finish live concert album? I mean, surely that idea came up, didn't it?
That's the kind of thing that a fan would be more obsessive about than a band. Because they obviously have released Unforgettable Fire [Ed. note: Mr. Marot likely meant to say Under a Blood Red Sky] and they released Rattle and Hum. They would view it as they've released two live albums. But I don't think they've ever needed something...You know, I obviously manage lots of bands now, and one of the things that I still do all these years later is that I keep, on my desk, every record that U2 has ever recorded. And the thing that is just astonishing is if you look at 1980 to 1990, and you look at all the music they released, I don't know when you would think they could possibly get another record out. Because they pretty much released an album a year for 10 years. I think it's eight albums in 10 years, isn't it?
Very much so -- certainly in the '80s.
If you go Boy, October, War, Unforgettable Fire, Under a Blood Red Sky, Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, and Wide Awake in America, you've got eight releases there, if I'm right, in 10 years.
That's true. And you're certainly right -- there have been things like Wide Awake in America, but it just comes up every now and then that there is not one full concert, from start to finish, available as an album.
Well, you know what? They record everything. They film everything. Their archive is impeccable. I know it. I've seen it -- impeccable. It'll happen! It's just that I think they've got other things on their agenda, y'know?
That makes sense. U2 has not released a single -- a retail single -- here in the U.S., I think, since "The Sweetest Thing." Is the U.S. just not a singles market?
There's no singles market in America other than hip-hop, really. That's the reason. Nobody does them other than R&B and hip-hop. There's no hidden agenda there -- it's in line with the Chili Peppers or Dave Matthews Band or any other band that a U2 fan might also connect with. It doesn't really happen anymore.
There's a good story -- I've got to give you a good story on "Sweetest Thing." I really like "The Sweetest Thing." I will say that it was U2 that thought that "The Sweetest Thing" could be a single, and I flew to Dublin to sit in the Principle Management board room and I had to sit with the band and discuss the plans for what we wanted to do with the Best Of, and I told them that I felt we should commercially release "The Sweetest Thing."
And they absolutely laughed in my face, saying "There's no way. You can take it to radio, but you can't commercially release it -- nobody will buy it." And I said, "I'm prepared to gamble. I'll bet you that we can have a Top 5 single with it." And Bono said to me, "The best you'll get -- I reckon we'll get to 24 in the U.K. charts." And I said, "I'm guaranteeing you Top 5." And he said, "Okay. I'm gonna hold you to that, but I'm also gonna trust you."
So we released it and, of course, it was one of their biggest singles in years. It really, really helped them and I think it got to No. 3 or No. 4 in the U.K. [Ed. note: It reached No. 3 in the U.K.] It was within that margin for error that I'd given him -- the Top 5 -- and it was a huge hit that lasted for ages. And out of the blue he gave me a Peter Blake painting -- the guy who did the Sgt. Pepper's front cover. That was the wager, apparently, for me promising a Top 5 single and then delivering on it.
[laughs] That was a good bet on your part, Marc!
It was great! It's still hanging at home.
You mentioned U2.com, you mentioned your involvement with the Internet. You headed up the project to get U2.com up and running. Why was U2 so late to the game in having its own web site?
Well, for years I encouraged Paul -- and, in fact, I encouraged Paul to buy U2.com. I can't recall, Matt -- I may have even bought it and transferred ownership to them myself. I can't remember what happened with U2.com, but I certainly did that for other artists. I have friends who were very deeply involved with the Internet right at the beginning. And they were very quick to let me know how powerful it could become for a musician, and that's why I started IslandRecords.co.uk, which was an award-winning, early -- I think it was the first U.K. record company web site, and it was certainly before most artists had web sites. And I encouraged all of my key artists to go out there and acquire their URL, and I kept beating up Paul all the time when I was running Island Records to get him to build a web site.
I don't think that Paul was...really [pauses]...I don't think he understood it, or felt that there were other, bigger fish to fry at the time. And I was quite critical of them for not doing it, because they could've capitalized so much earlier on it, and created the community that we eventually went on to create a lot earlier.
But when I left Island, I broke my contract and walked out early -- I'd had enough. We'd been bought by Universal -- Polygram had been bought by Universal, Universal had been bought by Vivendi, and I just wasn't getting on with people and didn't...I was tired. I'd been 10 years running a major label, and I didn't want to have to learn a whole new set of bosses and their preferences, new sets of relationships -- and I walked out.
And because I walked out and broke the contract, Universal were, in effect, able to use the law to stop me working in the music industry, which they did for a year, with the exception of working for U2. Because the day that I quit, the first phone call I got was from Chris Blackwell; the second phone call I got was from Bono and Paul McGuinness. And Bono and Paul McGuinness stepped in to protect me, effectively, from Universal, and told Universal that regardless of whether they wanted me to work in the music industry or not, U2 wanted me to continue working with them. And Universal had no choice, because obviously [U2] were Universal's biggest band in the world.
The first thing that they asked me to do was to get them an Internet solution. So I flew around the world with McGuinness, interviewing various companies, and then set about building U2.com into what it is now.
From your perception, are record labels afraid of the web?
Not anymore. But, I'll tell you, when we launched U2.com, we -- the happy thing is that there was quite a lot of money around for design because of the nature of the deal that we did. So we were able to spend quite a lot of money, and that was a complicated site to build because it was trying to be so complete in terms of its information.
So it was a very complicated site to build, but one of the things that we built into it, into U2.com -- the original 2000 version -- is that we built a unique home page for every territory of the world. So in Japanese, the Japanese marketing managers of Universal at the time, could access all the same articles, the same photos, and the same music as the U.K. company or the American company could, but could translate it into Japanese. They could put up their own home page, so that you would go to the front page of U2.com and there would be a bunch of flags, and you click on Swedish, Italian, Japanese -- whatever language you've got -- and the local record company would've put up a home page for U2.com in their own language.
Not one single Universal company took us up on that. We paid for it. We built it. The structure was in place for that to be implemented, and in the year 2000, people still didn't understand what the Internet could do. You did, because you were already working on it. The fan sites were doing a better job than most record labels were able to do with all their resources. And this was something where U2, the biggest band in the world, built a web site that allowed the Japanese company to speak to the Japanese fans in Japanese, with all the same music and all the same images that were being provided to the U.K. company and the American company, and not one company around the world bothered to pick up on it. It was shameful.
That is interesting. I can't imagine that--
But now -- I've now got a successful management company in the U.K., managing acts, and I have to say that the record companies now are entirely different. They just took an awful long time to catch on to what fans caught on to very early.
I just have a couple questions left for you, Marc. Let me change the subject here to Jubilee 2000. It's a very little-known fact that you're the person that called Bono in spring 1998 and introduced him to the idea of Jubilee 2000.
I wrote to him. It was the only time I ever did.
Basically, my family is Mauritian, which is a very small island off the coast of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. And, whilst I'm not heavily a church man, I'm enough in the church community for those to recognize that, in the music industry, they needed help -- Jubilee 2000 recognized that it needed help. I had been approached by a little coalition of people who asked if I would help -- not particularly with U2, but if I would help in the music industry to make people aware of this whole Drop the Debt campaign. And I thought, Yeah, I can help here. I can get involved. I can give some to it. Because, quite frankly, I felt it would be like giving something to my father's country -- to Mauritius, too.
So I wrote to a number of people, handwritten notes. I wrote to Bono, saying, "This is something that means something to me. It means something to Island Records because Jamaica is involved. It means something to me because of my father and Mauritius and everything else." And all I was asking people to do was to sign a petition -- allow me to put their name on a petition that we can then advertise in a few newspapers and periodicals. It was the usual suspects: Bob Geldof, Bono...a few people...Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, you know -- people with a conscience, basically.
I wrote to a number of those people, and within, I would say, 24 hours of Bono receiving the letter, he was on the phone to me at home, saying, "This is it. This is what my life was meant for." I remember the conversation really clearly, Matt. It went along the lines of, "I've been looking for some meaning to the millennium, and you've given it to me. I've been looking for some reason to do something about the millennium -- the millennium is too good an opportunity to squander, and you've given it to me. Get everybody out to Ireland, and let's get going." [laughs]
So I had to gather Bob Geldof and all the people that were the principals behind Live Aid. Because, of course, at first, what we thought we would be doing is trying to get a big concert together for 2000. I got all the economists together. I got all the key, principal people that are involved in Jubilee 2000 to fly out to Dublin. We had a meeting -- principally, at first, with Bono and Ali -- to explain the principles of it. They, then, went away for a week or so, discussing it amongst themselves and deciding whether this was something they really, really wanted to get into, because they realized just the magnitude of how big this could be.
Then we had to go all the way back to Ireland again because we had to present it to the rest of U2, because Bono had obviously realized that this was going to take up huge amounts of time. And, yet again, they were struggling to get All That You Can't Leave Behind out, and this was gonna distract them yet again. We presented to Edge, Larry, and Adam, and we were sent out of the room and they made their decision that they would give Bono all the support that he needed.
So that was how it happened, and I stayed as involved as I could. I got into deep, deep shit with my bosses at Universal because people thought that I was very distracted by the campaign, and also that I had distracted their cash cow from releasing a record. So, I was feeling particularly bad with my bosses about doing this amazing venture, but I felt very good within myself. And then what happened was that -- I think it would've been, perhaps, 1999 or 2000 at the MTV Awards in Ireland -- Bono was presented with the Humanitarian Award for the work that he'd put into Jubilee 2000 by Mick Jagger. And from the stage, he thanked me personally, and said, "There's one bastard in the room that has ruined my life -- it's Marc Marot. Please stand up." [laughs] And he said that in front of about a billion people at the MTV Awards.
And, quite frankly, that actually was the moment I decided to leave Island Records. I just felt that I'd had enough, and I got very emotional about it. I actually had to leave the awards. I struggled -- I was having such problems with my bosses at the time, and I felt that life was too short, and there were other things I could do with my life.
And so today, seeing how far it's come, you must be...i mean, Bono's the right guy for this job.
I can't say that there was any prescient genius behind me writing to him. I did feel it was important enough to write to him. I felt this was not something my secretary should do, or I should leave a voicemail anywhere. I thought I needed to write him a handwritten note from home -- not on Island Records paper. It was done from my home, and it was basically me saying, "Forget me as the managing director of your record label; I'm a human being here, and this is a really interesting human cause." And I had absolutely no idea -- and Sheila Roche, who was the MD [managing director] of Principle Management, told me a couple of years ago that he thanked me in the United Nations, as well...[laughs]...in the United Nations forum, in front of the thronged ambassadors of the United Nations, which I was very shocked to hear, quite frankly.
And then, you know, when there were things like the cover of Time magazine, I got a copy sent to me with the words "You did this!" on it from Bono, which I thought was really sweet.
© @U2, 2006.