NASHVILLE (Billboard) - As U2 wraps the 2009 dates of its groundbreaking 360 world stadium tour, the band is expected to gross about $300 million and sell about 3 million tickets to fewer than 50 shows.
Rather than a high-end ticket price, the big numbers are more about a unique staging concept that boosts configurations at stadiums, and fans know that U2 is again pushing the production envelope. The tour is in support of the band's latest album, "No Line on the Horizon," and if it isn't scaling the sales heights of previous sets -- since its March release, "Line" has sold 991,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- the band's manager, Paul McGuinness, credits that more to overall market conditions than a decline in the act's popularity.
Though sometimes outspoken about industry issues -- his 2008 MIDEM keynote excoriating the industry for its lackluster response to digital distribution still resonates -- McGuinness is anything but riled as he sits in an office backstage at Chicago's Soldier Field just before U2 went onstage. "What do I possibly have to be pissed off about?" he wonders. Both pragmatist and gambler, McGuinness guides the career of what has become arguably the biggest band in the world, and it has been a banner year for the group he has represented since the start of its career.
Much like the band he represents, McGuinness continually focuses on breaking new ground, and he's constantly looking for new ideas. The 360 tour is U2's first under a new 10-year Live Nation multiple-rights deal. While he doesn't claim to have all the answers, McGuinness is open to new horizons, as evidenced by "the claw," the massive staging concept that makes U2's 360 tour truly an all-encompassing experience.
Billboard: How did the European leg feel to you on this run of the 360 tour?
Paul McGuinness: Incredible. We played to staggering numbers. We've broken records in every building we play because the effect of this production economically is to increase the capacity by about 20 percent routinely. For instance, in Berlin at Olympic Stadium, we held the record already jointly with the Rolling Stones at 70,000. This time I think we put in 90,000. Every building we play we will break whatever record there is there.
Billboard: So you feel good about the live part of U2's business?
McGuinness: Absolutely, because in a way there's a memory in the audience. They've always known that when you come to a U2 show -- even when we were doing theaters -- we would do as much production as we could afford. Once we got into arenas, we loved it -- we always played in the round in the arenas -- so this seems natural to be in the round in the stadiums.
The engineering problems are enormous and costly. We had to find a way for it to be aesthetic and figure out a way of doing video. That cylindrical screen we have -- that didn't exist, we had to get somebody to invent that. We had to design this four-legged thing (the claw) -- and build three of them.
Billboard: How long will it take to get into the black?
McGuinness: When do we hit the break-even point? We haven't hit it yet. But we will sometime between now and the end of this leg.
Billboard: So next year is gravy?
McGuinness: Not exactly gravy, because whether we're playing or not, the overhead is about $750,000 daily. That's just to have the crew on payroll, to rent the trucks, all that. There's about 200 trucks. Each stage is 37 trucks, so you're up to nearly 120 there. And then the universal production is another 50-odd trucks, and there are merchandise trucks and catering trucks.
Billboard: Why do that when you can go out and set up a stage and still play stadiums and be in the black before you reach these shores?
McGuinness: Well, we have been trying to find a way of doing 360 for years. This was not something we decided to do recently -- we just couldn't find a way of doing it. The engineering to build a temporary structure capable of bearing the weight that this carries, hundreds of tons, nobody had come up with a way of doing that. (Set designer) Willie Williams and (architect) Mark Fisher had been teasing at it for years.
The other thing that has come such a long way is the LED technology -- those little guys -- we started the use of them for the industry with the PopMart tour (in 1997), and they weren't completely reliable in those days. We had a lot of technical trouble with that. The kind of modern production style really can be traced back to ZooTV (in 1992), which was a groundbreaking production. Building this cylindrical screen was only made possible by the trellis on which it's mounted, which was invented by this guy named Chuck Hoberman.
The coming together of those LED skills, the engineering skills, the imagination of the band, Mark Fisher, years of talking about this and years of seeing occasionally somebody performing in the round in a structure that would take a week or two to build and a week to dismantle. You couldn't truck it, you certainly couldn't take it up and down in a couple of days. This had to be transportable -- and it is, and it's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Billboard: The fans seem to get it that you're bringing them something they've never seen before.
McGuinness: Each one of these shows there are 10,000 $30 tickets -- so even though the gross is expanded by the increase in the capacity, we see what's happening in the marketplace, people don't have much money. And so worldwide we came to the decision to have really low-priced tickets. We have some expensive tickets, but our expensive tickets are $250; they're not as expensive as the Rolling Stones' or Madonna's most expensive tickets. I think it's a very fair pricing. The scaling of this tour has worked everywhere we've played.
Billboard: Any comment on the state of the music industry right now?
McGuinness: I don't have a recipe for the solution to the woes of the record companies and the recorded side of the music business. It's very, very important, it must be supported. And there are an awful lot of people and an awful lot of industries and individuals -- the telcos, the (Internet service providers), the device manufacturers -- that have enjoyed an absolute bonanza since music went online. And I just think they should feel more responsible out of a sense of fairness to the community of creative people who make that music, which is now in so many cases completely free. Times change, mechanisms for distributing music change. I would like to see a greater recognition of the obligations the tech side of the business have to the writers and musicians.
I've nothing against big companies. Big companies are there to be infiltrated, they want to be infiltrated, they want you to come in and tell them how to do it, what to do. I've never found a big corporation hostile to anything we wanted to do. Similarly with Live Nation -- our relationship is very close indeed. This is our fourth tour with Arthur (Fogel, global music chairman for Live Nation). The first tour we produced and he promoted. The second one he produced and promoted, because that was better. And as (Live Nation) developed their plan to take Live Nation out of Clear Channel I was absolutely behind that, and I'm totally behind the plan to merge Ticketmaster and Live Nation. I think it's very good for the industry.
(Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters)