Artist Of The Decade: U2’s Experience + Dominance

After U2’s record-breaking “360” tour of 2009-11, which until very recently reigned as the largest tour ever with more than $735 million grossed, the band and its team was already looking forward but had a massive task on its hands: figuring out what to do next.

“At the end of ‘360,’ having done the biggest thing ever, they said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to start the next tour under a single lightbulb?’” laughs Willie Williams, U2’s show designer since 1982. “Of course, that was partially a joke, but it gave us sort of a creative talisman, and that lightbulb became such a symbol of that tour and that story.”

The “lightbulb” moment became a focal point and metaphor for the “Innocence + Experience Tour” of 2015. The band – still made up of original foursome Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton – takes the main stage under a single lightbulb, where they play a handful of favorites to minimal fanfare before kicking off the full production, which featured a 96-foot-long “video cage” suspended over a long walkway that connects to a circular B-stage at the opposite end.

The intimate show opener, especially coming after the four-year break since the “360” tour, demonstrates the band’s ability to be both the biggest in the world and still stripped down, energetic and music-focused.

“If you take all the innovation, all the bigness away, the spirituality of the show is just as mindblowing,” says Maverick’s Guy Oseary, who began managing the band in 2013. “You feel like you’ve gone to church, in a way, the togetherness and soul of the band. The thing about this band is they are just as powerful with all the machinery and all the innovating as they are with nothing, with just the lights on.”

Channeling that energy and intimacy is no small task considering the size of the band and its reach, which takes them to Southeast Asia and India for the (somehow) first time in December to cap off a year of touring a second run of the “Joshua Tree Tour” celebrating the seminal 1987 album.

“It’s really exciting we’re finally getting to some of these places,” adds Live Nation Global Touring head Arthur Fogel, whose time with the band goes back to booking a club show in his native Canada in 1982 and has served as the band’s tour producer/promoter since 1997-98’s “PopMart” run.

“It’s a challenging part of the world for big shows to tour in, but I think the ability to do these territories more efficiently and to make sense of it financially really turned around in recent years, so it’s great to have the opportunity to bring this show to those parts of the world.”

Looking at the decade as a whole, U2 had a bit of a head start with 2010 being between legs of the “360” tour, famous for the giant “Claw” stage putting the biggest of shows in the round in the biggest of venues.

From 2010 to today, U2 stands alone as the only touring artist to eclipse $1 billion according to Pollstar’s Boxoffice records, with $1.038 billion grossed and 9,300,500 tickets sold on 255 shows (not counting the full “Joshua Tree 2019” run that hasn’t wrapped yet, which Fogel says is another 500,000-600,000 tickets.)

Looking at Pollstar’s annual year end Top Tours tallies, U2 passed the $300 million threshold in 2017 with the “Joshua Tree Tour,” with the only other artists to match that feat being Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift (both 2018). U2 also broke that barrier in 2009, extra impressive when counting for inflation.

A lot happened in 10 years, with staunch social justice advocate Bono continuing his work with a previously thought unlikely ally in former U.S. President George W. Bush in anti-poverty and AIDS advocacy, even receiving the first ever George W. Bush Medal For Distinguished Leadership for his efforts in 2018.

Always willing to take risks and ahead of the curve tech-wise, the band faced a bit of blowback for pre-loading its 2014 LP Songs Of Innocence onto every single Apple iPhone, with many still saying they’re unable to remove the tunes, although most wouldn’t complain about getting a free album from one of the most influential and successful bands of the past four decades.

A lot has transpired in the world of concert touring as well, with the 2010 merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation perhaps the focal point of an increasingly consolidated business. Today’s touring business sees global tours with bigger stages, brighter lights and bigger screens – or in the case of the “Joshua Tree” tours of 2017 and 2019 – the biggest.

The screen was massive, measuring at 200 feet wide by 45 high with a 7.6K resolution, but the most striking part of the “Joshua Tree” production is what you don’t see – speaker towers, lighting trusses and other heavy gear obscuring the stage and screen. “The real breakthrough was the ability to cantilever all the stuff over and above the screen,” Williams says. “Nobody had really taken that on before – you have towers to put the sound on and that was the law of the jungle.”

The idea came from longtime U2 production manager Jake Berry, who devised the method with StageCo – “although we’re all quite happy to take credit for it,” Williams adds with a laugh.

“The result is you get this 200-foot wide picture with no interruptions,” Williams says. “When you see it, it almost doesn’t occur to you. You just know there’s something very special and incredibly beautiful about what you’re seeing. And, of course, everybody does it now,” Williams adds.

Another thing that changed in that decade span is the band’s manager, who from 1978 until 2013 was the legendary Paul McGuinness, with the changeover to Maverick founder Oseary.

“I’m just lucky to be part of what they’ve built over four decades,” says Oseary, adding that he is “the new guy” on the block, joining longtime members and in some cases childhood friends like the band’s stylist Sharon Blankston, sound designer Joe O’Herlihy and friend and close working consultant and musician Gavin Friday.

Oseary refers to McGuiness as “one of the greatest managers of all time,” whose U2 groundwork “makes life easier, to walk into something so beautiful and powerful. We all think about him all the time, ‘What would Paul do?’ We’re in awe of what he built with the band, and I’m just a recipient of all that hard work.”

Oseary says his real time with the band started like anyone else’s, as a fan, listening in his bedroom as a teenager and going to their shows, which at the time were the biggest spectacle he’d seen. But, any modesty or music-purist tendencies aside, there’s no way around it – the band remains a spectacle, from ticket sales, dollars grossed, production value and sheer star power to boot.

Blockbuster Boxoffice reports over the last decade include $32.8 million grossed over four 2017 shows in Sao Paulo and another $32.3 million there in 2011 on three shows, as well as $19.47 million grossed over eight shows at Madison Square Garden in 2015, $15.8 million from with six shows at The O2 in London in 2015 and many other eye-popping numbers.

Fogel says that during his time as the band’s promoter and producer, U2 has moved more than 21 million tickets, a number that equals the population of Florida, more than New York, and is close to the total population of countries including Taiwan, Australia and Sri Lanka. The road crew totals in the hundreds, and with freight to match, such as each “Claw” requiring 40 trucks, meaning 175-200 trucks on the road at a time. Williams admits he doesn’t keep count of a lot of the specs, but remembers one instance that stood out even after more than 1,000-plus shows with the band.

“It’s a touring standard that everyone has a bag tag. They’re numbered and that of course works as an indicator of how many people are on the tour,” Williams says, laughing. “Towards the end of ‘360’ I was definitely seeing bag tags in the four-hundreds. In 30 years in the business I’d never seen a bag tag with four-hundred-something on it.”

Another first is something that may be hard to fathom – a band doing a whole tour without its most famous songs. U2 wanted to give The Joshua Tree a year off for the 2018 run of “Experience + Innocence,” surely a first since the seminal album came out. That means no epic intro and outro setup for “Where The Streets Have No Name,” no singalong for “With Or Without You” and no Bono bullhorn or The Edge jet-engine slide guitar for “Bullet The Blue Sky,” among still other U2 staples.
“And it worked,” Williams says. “There was very, very little criticism. They were really applauded for being brave enough to do that. Did we have enough hits? Of course. It’s been so fantastic to hear those songs again [on the current tour], but for an indoor show, it worked.

“They can do anything now,” Williams adds. They can play smaller venues and do new material with no hits, they can do a big retrospective, they can do whatever they want. That must be very liberating for them.”
The “Joshua Tree” artistic endeavor required more than just steel and freight as well, with the actual desert plant painted onto the screen as a canvas for the show, which has more of a focus on the visual landscapes and video rather than closeups.

“For the 2017 tour the Joshua Tree was painted onto the screen in silver and gold,” Williams says. “As you can imagine that was an enormously expensive operation. All the little shaders had to be taken off individually and painted and each one had something like 16 little screws or something mad.”

For the current 2019 run, the tree was depicted by video, as it wouldn’t be efficient to paint the screen for a shorter batch of shows on the other side of the world with rented materials. However, nearly everything else was brought over from the 2017 tour, which shows the band’s commitment to delivering worldwide.

“The sort of ‘rest of the world’ audiences really appreciate it,” Williams says. “They know when they’re getting the B-show, and the fact U2 won’t go anywhere without the full thing is very appreciated.”

And, while the spectacle and size of U2 has been clearly on display for this 10-year run as the biggest touring artist in the world, the art is what made fans love the band in the first place and continue to do so. Part of the task is to continue the artistic expression while on the road, which Williams says he is proud of contributing to on the “Innocence” tour in particular.

“The great satisfaction I got was from the ‘Innocence + Experience’ narrative. Certainly the storytelling about them in Dublin, growing up through the ’70s when the country really was quite backward, the way the visuals and the music and performers were integrated, it was unlike anything else. It felt like we were doing ‘Tommy’ or ‘The Wall’ or something, starting with the story and building the show around it,” Williams says. “The notion of playing sideways down the arena was also another breakthrough, as that opened up so many seats close to the audience.”

On the business side, surely U2 tickets sell themselves but, as the band’s success seemingly only continues to grow and new avenues are still being found, Fogel says there is much to consider.

“For me there’s always a strategy,” says Fogel, who remains on the road with U2 if at all possible, while producer / promoter of many of the world’s biggest tours. “There’s a strategy in the moment of planning a tour, and a strategy to planning that tour and looking to the future. It’s important when you lay out tour plans that you’re thinking ahead to next time, and how to sort of play the markets but not overplay.”

Meanwhile, the big question no one can or will answer is whether the band, with members still only in their late 50s, could be the biggest band of the next decade.

“I really don’t think of it in those terms, and they probably don’t either. It just kind of goes along and what happens happens,” Fogel says. “That they’re the biggest of the decade is testament to them and it’s incredible. Clearly they have established themselves as a tremendous live band and continue to try to top themselves.”

Oseary echoes, “They are what they are, they’re always breaking new ground and pushing the possibilities. They’ll continue to do that, with all the energy put into each detail, always with the idea to explore. They’re not afraid. This is a band that’s fearless. ‘Let’s explore and take some chances,’ and I love that about them.”

Williams, who says he’s officially been to more than 1,000 U2 shows, jokingly adds, “Bono explained it. It’s like the priesthood – you think you can leave but you can’t. It’s so much more intense than working with any other artist, but there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.”

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Pollstar/ Ryan Borba

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