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"The Latin Americans have the sexy end of Catholicism. They have carnivals, which we don't have in Northern Europe. We have all of the denial but none of the celebration."

-- Bono

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The @U2 Interview: Marc Marot (Pt. 1)

@U2, May 08, 2006
By: Matt McGee

 

You may not know Marc Marot's name, but you certainly know his impact on U2. He introduced Bono to the idea of Jubilee 2000. He oversaw the worldwide marketing of U2's re-invention in the 1990s. He was involved in every contract re-negotiation between U2 and Island Records in the 1980s and 1990s. He led the effort to create U2's official web site, U2.com. And that's just the beginning. What Marot did for U2 during his 16-year tenure at Island Records (1984-2000) is more direct and far-reaching than many of U2's more well-known associates.

Today, he's the managing director of Terra Firma Management, Ltd., representing the likes of Paul Oakenfold, Spiritualized, and Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens). He's very happy with his current situation. "I do what suits me these days, Matt," he says. "I don't do anything for anyone else; I do it for me."

We spoke on a Tuesday evening in mid-March, as Marot drove home from his office in London -- a drive that takes more than an hour every day. His voicemail picked up a dozen calls while we spoke, but that didn't stop us from talking about his early days with Island Records, why he decided to leave the label, and almost everything in between involving U2.



It's 1984. You're 24 years old. You're named general manager of Blue Mountain Music, Island's publishing company. What does a music publishing company do, and what responsibilities did you have at the time?

There are two sets of rights, broadly speaking, in the music industry. There's the master rights, which is the right to sell physically the recording, i.e., the album. And then the second right is the songwriting rights -- the publishing. And so I was a music publisher.

So basically, if -- for argument's sake -- U2 didn't write their own material and they did only cover versions of Frank Sinatra songs or whatever...actually, that's a bad example because he only ever did cover versions. If U2 only ever recorded other people's songs, there would've been no music publishing rights vested in U2. But, as U2 wrote 100% of their own songs, they needed somebody to protect those songs and to be able to, quite frankly, exploit them fairly and properly around the world.

So, if I can give you an example, when a copy of The Joshua Tree is sold in a record store in Atlanta, somebody owes U2 money, and record companies collect that money. But when a track -- when "One" is played on the radio at 4 o'clock in the afternoon in Patagonia, somebody in Patagonia owes U2 money, and it's the music publisher that has the organization to be able to collect that from Patagonia, get it back to the UK, and make sure that U2 get their fair share.

So, it's a rights-based thing, and music publishing is about the ownership of the songs, whereas the record company is about the ownership of the masters, the actual recordings themselves.

What were your responsibilities when you started at Island Records?

When I started out on the music publishing side, the first thing I noticed -- I mean, I'd been a U2 fan before I joined Island and Blue Mountain Music. One of the things that I noticed, as an active musician, for instance, is that there had never been any of their songs put down as sheet music. It had never been exploited in terms of other musicians being able to do cover versions -- amateurs or professionals.

So, one of the first things that I did was put together a book called U2 Portfolio, which covered all of their early years up to Unforgettable Fire, which is right about when I joined [Island]. I joined, really, before The Unforgettable Fire. So, there was a good example of the first thing that I did for U2.

I couldn't get a print publisher interested because U2 weren't big enough. But I was so convinced that a book would sell that me and my general manager, my assistants at Blue Mountain -- we authored the book ourselves. We had to, y'know, do everything to publish it ourselves. We had to commission printers, commission photographers, commission designers. I think we had it printed in Japan, we had it bound in Korea, and we had it shipped to the UK, and we sold over 100,000 copies of the book within the first year of releasing it. And that was when all of the professionals were telling me nobody was interested in U2. And we had a huge, commercial success right from the get-go, which kinda proved that other musicians were interested in seeing how U2 put their music together.

So that was my first thing, and the brilliant thing about that -- the only way that I could get the sheet music done was to go on the road with U2. So, I went on the...it would've been the War Tour...I went on the War Tour, on the tour bus. Paul McGuinness allowed me to come on the bus with them and travel around Europe for about two weeks whilst I had the Edge -- basically, I was a bit of a guitar player and I tried to work out all of the structures myself, and then I also listened to the records very carefully and wrote the lyrics out. And for two weeks I had Bono and Edge laughing at me as they looked at my crap guitar tablature and also my terrible transcription of the lyrics. So that was how I got to know them really well. As I say, I was on the bus for two weeks just putting the book together.

Is that the first time you got to meet them, then?

Not the first time I got to meet them, but the first time I got to spend serious time with them. I was in the same hotels. I was on the same bus. I was at the same gigs -- y'know, we were touring all over Europe and it was a really good, sort of bonding time. We're pretty much the same age. I'm a year older than Bono, by about three days -- a year and three days older than him. And we got on really well.

Do you remember the first time you met them? You said you were a fan earlier; had you gone to see shows before you started working for --

I had gone to see shows. Before I got into the music industry proper, I was a musician. And whilst trying to be a gigging musician, [I was] working for a very small -- well, what is now a very huge chain of record stores -- but at the time was just a small chain of record stores. And I was just a general assistant, selling U2's records over the counter. And so I was very familiar with them as somebody who worked in a record store and knew that this was a band that was on the up, that was doing really well, even though they hadn't broken big by that stage.

And when I joined Island Records, I very quickly found that I developed a relationship with Chris Blackwell, who owned Island Records and Blue Mountain Music. And Chris -- probably because of my age and my background -- had an instinct that I would get on with U2. So he introduced me ... certainly to Bono, at his house, I suppose it would've been the beginning of 1984 -- right about May 1984.

The first time you met Paul McGuinness, what were your impressions of him? And the reason I ask is because other folks have said he can be somewhat intimidating when you first meet him.

I've become very good friends with him, but he was very scary at first. I got the feeling -- he's never admitted it -- but I got the feeling he was very suspicious of me, because I was a kind of young whippersnapper being pushed into the U2 camp by Chris Blackwell, and I wasn't quite convinced that Paul understood why I was there. [laughs] And he was a little bit suspicious of me, but over that two weeks on the road, we began to, y'know, get a proper relationship going.

But already -- now knowing what I know about rock and roll 20 years later -- I look back on that and I realize that Paul already had a really strong sense of scale and a strong sense of how big this band could become, even way before they had their first proper commercial success.

When you think about what Paul McGuinness has done for the band, one of the first things that comes up is how he got such a good record deal from Island, in the very earliest days. How did that come about?

Well, he didn't. If I can be really blunt about it, he didn't get the great record deal at the beginning. There's a bit of myth that goes on -- there's myths about the quality of the record deal, and there's myths about the quality of the publishing deal, too, because I've seen both of those -- because I ran both the publishing company and the record company. And in the early days, y'know, U2 themselves will tell you this quite frankly -- when they used to fly in to London to meet the record companies, the very last record company they could possibly see on their way back out to Heathrow Airport was Island Records, because we were the furthest away from the center of London. They'd start out in Soho seeing Sony Records, and then they'd go out to EMI Records in Manchester Square, and they'd go to RCA Records in Bedford Square. And then eventually -- when everybody had said "no" to them -- they'd come all the way out to Chiswick, which is on the way to Heathrow, and there's little old Island Records. And everybody had said "no." So, in fact, the record deal was not a competitive record deal. It was based upon the fact that nobody wanted the band, not that everybody was trying to sign them.

So, what Paul did very, very cleverly, though, is that once they got themselves in the position where some commercial success happened, they were able to re-negotiate the deal in a really smart way, and that's when it became interesting for them.

Am I correct -- that was about 1984 or so?

I think the first re-negotiation probably would've been after The Unforgettable Fire. I can't tell you that for sure, but I'm pretty certain that would've been right about the time, because Unforgettable Fire was the first record that I would describe as "hitting scale," i.e., it sold in significant enough quantities to make the record label sit up and notice. Before that, nobody would've cared if U2 wanted to re-negotiate their deal because they were so in debt to the label, that...you know, who would want to pick up the phone call?

But after The Unforgettable Fire, when things began to really turn around, that was the moment where any artist is able to begin considering re-negotiating -- because suddenly they're important to the label. U2 were certainly important, creatively, to the label -- in fact, there's a letter on file from the managing director of Island Records who was there in 1983 -- this was in my files that I inherited. It was addressed to Chris Blackwell, saying "We're too much in debt with this band, we must drop them." And there's a handwritten note from Chris Blackwell that just says the legend, "No," underlined, and that was it. So that was the president of the label trying to recommend to the owner of the label that U2 get dropped because they were so in debt in 1983.

Wow, how about that? And then Unforgettable Fire obviously changed things. So somewhere, then, between The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree -- is that the point when U2 is sort of becoming, and I don't know if this is the right phrase, is that the point when they're sort of becoming the cash cow for Island?

Oh, absolutely. Unforgettable Fire alone was probably a 4- or 5-million seller in its cycle, which for Island Records -- we were an independent label -- it was a huge record. It can't be underestimated how important that record was to us. We did have important artists at the time, like Robert Palmer, Steve Winwood, Grace Jones -- they were making successful records. It was the time that Robert Palmer was having success with "Addicted to Love," Steve Winwood was having success with "Higher Love," and Grace Jones was having success with things like "Slave to the Rhythm." And it was the time that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was kicking off, and we had a relationship with ZTT Records. So there was a lot going on for Island. It was a very successful period in Island's history, and at the time, too much was put into the fact that U2 became the cash cow.

But the reality is that U2 have been, and still are a cash cow -- if that's the right word -- over [the] years. But it was only really around The Joshua Tree that it became absolutely ginormous...you know, where the record sold 10 million. And that, by anybody's standards, is huge. You've got to remember that the biggest record in North America last year was Mariah Carey['s], and it sold something like 5-and-a-half million units. Well, Joshua Tree was 7 million units on its own. Unforgettable Fire was probably 4 or 5 [million] in the States, so you can't underestimate how important U2 were to a little, independent label.

We know that in the late '80s, Island was sold. And is it true that the label had some financial difficulties? If there was all this money from The Joshua Tree and what U2 was doing, what happened that got Island in financial trouble?

Well, basically, speculation in areas that it didn't really know too much about. What happened is that, one year -- which I think is the year before The Joshua Tree -- Island invested in a number of movies. One was She's Gotta Have It, which was Spike Lee's first film. The other was Kiss of the Spider Woman, which is an important film, too. And the third, I think, was called The Trip to Bountiful. And all three of them won Oscars in our first year of trading as a film company -- we won more Oscars that year, I believe, than MGM won. And all of a sudden Island Records thought it was in the film industry.

And so, the following year, when The Joshua Tree royalties started flowing, what happened was that we started investing money that wasn't -- we started investing our cash flow into movies. And the problem with that is that all you need is two dud movies at $6 million a piece for production, and you've eaten up U2's royalties.

So, in effect, Island Records got into difficulties because it over-invested in areas that it wasn't really fully competent in.

Last question on this whole period: Was there any point, then, at which it could be said that U2 was helping keep Island afloat? Or is that overstating it?

No, it's not overstating it, because -- they weren't putting money into it, but what they were doing is not taking money out of it. So, basically, what Paul McGuinness did, and did extremely well, was that he converted the cash Island owed on The Joshua Tree into a percentage, an equity in the label, so that U2 owned a piece of Island Records, owned a piece of Island Music, and owned a piece of Blue Mountain Music. And when the company got sold in 1990, the value of that piece was way in excess of the value of the royalties that they waged on The Joshua Tree. Which meant that they were able to make a significant return on the money that they gambled on the Joshua Tree royalties.

Aside from that financial benefit, how did U2 react as a band to suddenly having, y'know, the Big Label involved? It's not Island; now it's Polygram.

They always did have big labels before, because Island -- we were licensed by Warner [Brothers] in North America, we had a number of different relationships going internationally. So, U2 were quite capable of dealing with major labels; they just happened to love being with an independent, and were very, very loyal to Island Records. And when Polygram came and took over, there were those within Island, you know -- bear in mind, I'd worked for Island, by this stage, for six years and I went to sleep one day working for an independent and I woke up the next morning working for the number one major in the world. It was scary for all of us; it wasn't just U2. I'd made a specific choice to work for an independent like Island, like U2 had made a specific choice to record with an independent label.

The one thing that Polygram did for us was, they funded our dreams in a way that, as an independent company, we were not able to do. They gave us the cash to be able to invest in marketing campaigns, in new signings, in videos, and all sorts of things that were very difficult for us, as an independent label, to do. And U2, of course, were able to cash in on the back of that. And we were able to ramp up the quality of a lot of what we did on back of the fact that we were part of the number one company.

And then the other thing that happened, of course -- this was a time of great reinvention for U2. You've gotta remember that, even though Rattle and Hum -- a lot of people loved, and was a hugely, hugely commercially successful record, it was probably their least critically successful record. And I took over the role of running the label outside North America in March 1990, and the first record that I was delivered, really, was Achtung Baby -- which was part of a huge reinvention for U2. It was a complicated and costly thing because you were converting a band that everybody thought they knew, they had under their belt. They understood who U2 were and what U2 did. And U2 decided to tear it all up and start again in a really, sort of post-European, ironic way -- which is what Achtung Baby was.

They gave me the instructions to have fun, don't be too serious about it -- go out there and do something really exciting. And that would've been a really difficult thing to do if we'd been an indie label -- to be gambling the future of U2 on an instinct. Partly, I'd say, we were able to do the Achtung Baby reinvention in such a way simply because -- not simply because, but partly because we knew we had this great big machine behind us that was supporting us. And "us" -- I mean Island and U2, against the world.

Let me ask a little more on that in terms of what the relationship is between the band and the record label. Is the label at this point, with Achtung Baby -- are you just executing the band's plan, or is the label actually helping formulate the plan?

We're very much helping to formulate the plan. It was me, for instance, that introduced them to Paul Oakenfold for all of those remixes that became so important. I felt that U2, for the first time -- because of the nature of the music on the album -- we could play with it a little bit. We could be a little bit irreverent. And I persuaded -- in fact, it was Adam Clayton at first -- we persuaded Adam Clayton to let Paul Oakenfold, on spec, do mixes. And if U2 didn't like them, they didn't have to pay for them; the label would pay for them. And, in fact, I almost remember it like yesterday: My head of A&R, my head of talent, Nick Angel, came into my office laughing, saying, "You've got to hear this." And he played me the remixes of "Even Better Than the Real Thing," and we just laughed all the way through it, thinking, This is just so awesome....

And I had to ring Paul, and then ring Bono, and persuade them to let me release it separately as a single, so that U2's version came out first, and then Paul Oakenfold's version came out two weeks later. We had the same single in the Top 10 at the same time, competing against each other. It was really a measure of the kind of thing we were able to do because we had this power behind us.

Two other things related to Achtung Baby I have to ask about: Number one, there was some bootlegging of some of the early studio sessions. I happen to have a CD of that, and a lot of U2 fans do. What do you recall about that episode?

What I recall is the panic around it, obviously. This was the stuff stolen from Hansa Studios, wasn't it?

Right.

Yeah. We, we...I can't remember...I don't think the Internet really existed at the time, so you won't see much of my quotes on it at the time, but I did quite an extensive PR campaign, basically, trying to make people realize that this was a very bad thing to do, effectively. It's now quite an interesting document, isn't it -- listening to those sessions again and hearing how they morphed into that record. But at the time, the feeling was that this is private material, and it was extremely, grossly unfair to allow unfinished material out into the world because it could prejudice people against the record before it even comes out.

So we did as much damage limitation as we could, right down to our security people raiding premises that we knew were stocking it. We had to do some pretty tough things to try and rein it in. But at the end of the day, once it's out there, it's out there and there's not much you can do about it -- especially now in the days of the Internet.

The people responsible -- were they ever caught?

We had a very, very good idea who it was, but...you know...somebody very humble within the studio organization, but we felt there was no mileage to be had in hanging, drawing, and torturing him.

Later that year there was another episode, and I don't know how much you're gonna want to talk about this, but I have to ask you about the Negativland incident. How much did the band actually know about this release? Did they know what Island Records was doing in terms of the legal front?

I think it was completely a storm in a teacup. And I think that...the reality of it is that the band knew nothing about it. I, as the rights holder in the U.K., knew nothing about it. It was an initiative from some guy in a legal department in North America, y'know, acting a little bit as a bully boy.

But unfortunately -- well, I can understand why Negativland did it -- but the reality is that Negativland made absolutely the most massive capital they possibly could out of every legal letter. The reality of it is nobody cared. Nobody cared in U2's camp. Nobody cared within Island Records' camp. The only people that cared were people in Negativland's camp. It got turned into this, kind of, monster with three heads, but you know what? Nobody cared. It wasn't ... I don't remember ever having discussed it -- and I was the president of the label -- ever with the band or with Paul McGuinness. It was not on our agenda.

So it was something they were able to milk for publicity a lot more than--

Oh, absolutely! I mean, this must've occupied every working day of their life for years, but it didn't occupy one single conversation between me and U2, or me and Paul McGuinness. I'd really like that printed -- I'd love Negativland to know how inconsequential it was to all of us. Nobody cared!

And that was right before Achtung Baby came out, so you guys had other things on your mind.

Absolutely. Bigger things.

Let me fast forward a couple years to the Passengers project. To your recollection, how did that whole project come about?

I think it was...it was a conversation between the band and Brian Eno. Bear in mind, this was not a U2 record. It was a Brian Eno / Edge / Adam / Larry / Bono project. And that's very distinct from a U2 project. It was a very separate thing. And I was very, very, very strict on trying to stop this from being perceived by everybody as a U2 record, for a number of reasons.

I was very, very concerned that after...Zooropa had not been particularly critically well-received, and it hadn't done particularly well commercially. And what I didn't want was there being another -- the perception of there being another U2 record that didn't do well critically, and didn't do well commercially. So I was very instrumental in trying to make that be perceived as a different record to a U2 record.

I worked pretty hard on that, to make sure that, especially...This is the downside of working with a big, huge organization like Polygram at the time, is that, if they've got a little bit of a turnover and need a little bit of cash coming in, it would've been so tempting for them to have jumped on the back of Passengers and -- in Japan, or in Australia, where they thought we wouldn't notice -- turning this into a U2 record in terms of retail campaigns and radio promotion and everything else.

So, we spent huge amounts of effort and energy keeping an eye on all of our brothers and sisters within the label -- making sure that they treated it as a Passengers record rather than a U2 record.

I remember some quotes from some of the news articles at the time. Was anyone in the band thinking that it should be released as a U2 album, and not Passengers?

No, I never got that sense. In fact, I always got the sense that there were one or two in the band, who will remain nameless, who were very uncomfortable about the record at all...with possibly a third [who] had not come out.

[laughing] Larry has made it pretty clear that he wasn't too thrilled with that project!

Well, there you go. I'm not quoting him, you can quote him. [laughing] And as far as I was concerned, you know -- I'll move on to this, at some point, but I was pretty much the same with the Million Dollar Hotel soundtrack.

I had the really difficult duty of sitting in a viewing theatre next to Bono in Dublin, cringing...thinking, This film isn't very good. Bono's written it. He's sitting next to me. And he wants me to put out a single and have a hit record with it. And I had to say to him, "I'm really sorry, Bono, but I don't think you should release a single. You can release the soundtrack album, but I don't think strategically you should release a single because it draws too much attention to a film that isn't gonna do very well. And it will cause you embarrassment." And he looked me in the eye, and he thumped me on the arm [laughs]...and he said, "Okay." So that soundtrack came out without a single, and that was because I felt very strongly that it could do damage.



Coming in Pt. 2: Marc Marot talks about the "nightmare" of waiting for U2 to finish Pop, how he used the Internet to help put together The Best of 1980-1990, and introducing Bono to the idea of Jubilee 2000.

[continue to Part 2...]



© @U2, 2006.



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