Is Bono the Most Popular Man in the World?

The money results are in from Pollstar, the concert industry tracking publication, about the financial success of bands touring the United States in 2009. And the numbers are mind-boggling. In just 20 days, U2, led by the compelling front man and world-wide personality brand Bono, brought in $123 million at the box office, selling 1.3 million tickets in huge stadiums in just 16 cities. So each night, the U2 360° concert raked in an average of $7.7 million. If you do the math, that works out to about $95 a ticket (of course, that's before the massive reselling and scalping).

The U.S. tour was but one piece of a larger "360-degrees" global tour that will continue well into 2010, and will likely surpass the $389 million that U2 raked in from its 2005-2007 Vertigo tour, which is second only to the Rolling Stones' "A Bigger Bang" trek. Billboard reports that U2 "toured Europe in July and August, the U.S. in September and October for a total of 40-45 shows this year." There are plans for "more stadiums in America in June and July next year, then August and September in Europe. The trek then tentatively will hit South America in the fall of 2010, for potentially as many as 90-100 shows over the next two years."

Bono and U2 blew other U.S. touring groups out of the water. Theirs was the only tour going over the $100 million mark, as concert revenue increased across the board, despite the recession. It seems that no matter what, music fans will find the dough to hear live music. Second on the Pollstar list was Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street band, which took in almost $95 million, but that was in 58 shows, under $2 million a show compared to the $7.7 mil for U2. Third, if you really want to know, was the irresistible combo of Billy Joel and Elton John, grossing $88 million; the Piano Man meets "Candles in the Wind."

Is there any other human being/band who could attract the kind of attention and money in the U.S. as Bono and U2 did over such a short period of time? The only possibility that comes to mind is the Pope, who of course draws huge crowds to stadiums in his very infrequent visits to the States.

Of course, those people can see the Pope for free. Could the Pope fill 82,000-seat stadiums at almost $100 a head and often much more? I doubt it. But we'll probably never find out, since it would be un-Popelike to charge big bucks.

So, absent any other competitive nominees, I have to conclude that Bono and his three U2 cohorts sit at the pinnacle of global visibility and popularity. Since the Bono brand is wrapped up in political and social messaging, what does U2's popularity mean? Does it translate to the ability to exercise power and create change? What is the relationship between fame and influence? Needless to say, I don't have the answers to those questions, which will be debated for a long time.

On the Front Lines

Thanks to my friend Erin, I was fortunate to see U2 in action at the ancient Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, in late October and even to be front-row in the stands (a real privilege, I know, and I am humble). I felt the awe of the spectacle. I loved hearing many classic U2 songs. And the show was impressive -- by far the most ambitious construction of a rock concert site, with giant screens and stage innovations designed to blow one's mind. As noted on the band's Web site, "With a cylindrical video system of interlocking LED panels, and a steel structure rising 150 feet from the floor over a massive stage with rotating bridges, the band has truly created a intimate 360 experience for concert goers." The whole shebang reportedly required 200 trucks and some 330 people to construct, and presumably a lot of those millions of dollars were paid out in expenses to produce the monster. Bono probably had more success in putting Americans to work than the TARP funds. But the sheer enormity of the thing also made U2 vulnerable to criticism ... more about that in a second.

The most moving portion of the concert was near the end, when a gaggle of Amnesty International volunteers came onto the stage in a long processional, each holding a mask of Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-imprisoned leader of Burma. The procession was accompanied by a stirring video and exhortations from Bono himself. Freeing Aung San Suu Kyi has been one of U2 and Amnesty's major causes, positioning them at the forefront of international politics while at the same time sadly underscoring their political impotence.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 19 years, with no end in sight. As Bono says, "Her crime is that if she were to participate in elections, she'd win ... We must not stand by as she is silenced again. Now is the time for the UN and the entire international community to speak with one voice: Free Aung San Suu Kyi." But despite the spotlight shone by Bono, Burma's oppressive regime doesn't seem to be budging. The awareness of many millions of concertgoers has not changed the reality in Burma. True, ridding the world of the brutal military junta is not an easy problem to solve. And not a goal the U.S. has been successful at either, although there is some question as to how hard our government has tried, given China's close relationship with Burma and need for its energy resources.

As for the concert's extravagance, as AlterNet's Vanessa Richmond wrote, "Ironically, U2 is outspoken about their commitment to the environment, but carbon output of their tour this year is far bigger even than Madonna's high-maintenance carbon-heavy tour. U2's carbon emissions will equal that of 90,000 people flying from Dublin to London, and are equivalent of the waste created by 6,500 average British or Irish people in an entire year (equal to leaving a standard 100 watt light bulb on for 159,000 years). To offset this year's carbon emissions, U2 would need to plant 20,118 trees." Before the tour began, "Live Nation, the producers of the U2 360° Tour, confirmed their commitment to producing the largest concert tour in history in an environmentally responsible manner with a goal of balancing the tour's direct carbon footprint through a comprehensive reduction and offset strategy."

I wonder if they are going to plant those 20,118 trees?

U2 has also been criticized for their decision several years back to move their assets to the Netherlands in order to take advantage of the country's lower tax rates; it seemed Bono, a longtime anti-poverty advocate, preferred a more regressive system of taxation when it came to the band's own earnings.

More recently, Bono drew the ire of net neutrality activists with an op-ed that slammed file-sharing and seemed to suggest online content should be policed. Blogger Cory Doctorow had this to say in response, according to BBC News: "If only greed and ignorance could sequester carbon, Bono could FINALLY save the planet."

So in the end what do we make of Bono? He continues his strong alliance with Amnesty International, while his ability to converse with and in some cases convince world leaders to shift policy (on Third World debt for example) is widely recognized ... and publicized. On the other hand, as the London Times noted in 2007, Naomi Klein, "the poster girl of the anti-globalization movement," attacked "the Bono-isation of protests ... which has reduced discussion to a much safer terrain." Klein called Bono's Make Poverty History campaign "the stadium rock model of protest -- there's celebrities and then there's spectators waving their bracelets. It's less dangerous and less powerful [than grassroots street demonstrations]."

Klein has a point. People talking, reading and thinking about change are not as productive as people actually creating change. On the other hand, I don't come to bury Bono. When all is said and done, I'd rather have him up there exhorting the crowd than Mick Jagger or Dave Matthews, for that matter. In the end, Bono is probably a positive force. The more educated and aware people are, the more chance there is for change. U2 makes so many people feel happy and positive -- even those in the nosebleed section, the uncomfortable but still pricey seats at the top of the stadium. That is no small thing in this period of high unemployment, underwater mortgages and onerous student loans.


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