Bono and his new media ambitions

The small truck parked across the road from Bono’s plush, south Dublin home last Wednesday hardly merited a glance from passers-by. Had they paid as much attention to it as the local resident who complained that it was blocking the view at the junction opposite the U2 star’s €7m Killiney home, they would have noticed it was a removals truck.

Indeed, as the shrill sound of drills now emanates from the site on a daily basis, the singer’s few remaining staff have been busy helping him and his family move out of the house.

Last week, they (and all that they can’t leave behind) finally departed and are not due back until at least next June.

This brings to an end an era of Bono’s almost unbroken tenure in one of Dublin’s most exclusive neighbourhoods overlooking Killiney Bay – and quite possibly the beginning of the end of U2 as we know it.

It also amounts to a new line on Bono’s career horizon – and one that is likely to mean more time for his new media interests and less for the phenominally successful multi-Grammy Award winning band he has made his name and considerable fortune from over more than 30 years.

With another album by year end – as promised in March – and a musical next February, Bono could be forgiven for wanting some serious rest.

But that is looking increasingly unlikely as he bases himself in New York, nearer his venture capital colleagues at Elevation Partners, the $1.9bn private equity firm he cofounded in 2005.

His move from Killiney will mean no more regular sightings of Ali jogging along the beach with her dogs in the morning, of Bono in Finnegan’s pub in Dalkey or the Harbour Bar in Bray or strolling into Rasam Indian restaurant in Glasthule.

He has said the band plans to release an album before Christmas, presumably with the aim of securing a seasonal number one for a band that is now one of the wealthiest and most successful of all time.

Yet with 12 albums and countless top 20 hits to their credit that have earned them 22 Grammys, seven Brit awards, 14 Meteors and 10 Q awards, one of the only things they have left to prove is whether they can keep going.

Meanwhile, Bono’s concerns outside the business of recording and touring continue on a scale as grand and ambitious as the revolving circular set design for the forthcoming 360 degrees World Tour, which starts in Barcelona on Tuesday.

Along with Red – Bono’s popular charity initiative that raises millions from the sale of specially branded consumer products produced by established companies – there is also the stage musical, Spider-Man, for which Bono and the Edge have composed the music and lyrics. With previews starting in January, the show is expected to open on Broadway in February.

But while Dublin projects like the temporarily stalled U2 Tower and the redevelopment of The Clarence Hotel attract the headlines, Bono’s considerable interest in media, and in particular new media, has managed to hover below the radar.

It is an interest that is increasingly leading observers to ask if Bono is planning to add ‘media mogul’ to his growing list of monikers.

Digital media is being hyped as ‘the new frontier’ as far as mass media is concerned, but the market has yet to be cracked. As a venture capital newspaper editor said last night, ‘everybody wants to create the next great template’.

Rupert Murdoch has spent increasing amounts of his time and energy in recent years addressing the thorny issue of how to make digital media into a sellable medium.

Murdoch has said: ‘Instead of an analogue paper, printed on paper, you may get it on a panel which would be mobile and which would receive the whole newspaper over the air.’

He added that readers of the future will be able to get ‘the guts or main headlines and alerts and everything on your Blackberry, on your Palm, or whatever, all day long’.

So it is telling indeed that Bono and his partners in venture capital firm Elevation Partners kicked off their foray into the new media markets with a $325m investment in Palm Inc in June 2007, topped up with a further $100m last December.

On top of that, U2 have secured sponsorship for their latest tour from Blackberry. (Though, of course, they also famously collaborated with Apple, the makers of the iPhone, to create a branded iPod).

It seems clear, then, that Bono is determined to get alongside the very businesses that Rupert Murdoch believes will control our communications over coming decades.

Indeed its mission statement, Elevation Partners says that it ‘is a private equity firm that makes large-scale investments in market-leading media, entertainment, and consumer-related businesses… We aim to help media and entertainment businesses create and market great content and insure it reaches the widest audience possible.’

But what makes Bono’s move into mass media even more interesting is the links between him, members of Elevation and Wikipedia – the world’s leading internet encyclopaedia and, second only to Google as a source of reference information.

This was underlined by the recent appointment of Elevation Partners cofounder Roger McNamee to Wikipedia’s advisory board.

Before joining Elevation Partners, McNamee was heavily involved in engineering investments in technology companies.

He helped pioneer an investment strategy based on building bridges between private companies keen to expand and public companies keen to invest in them.

As well as co-founding private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, he co-managed the T Rowe Price New Horizons Fund which was, at the time, the largest emerging growth fund in the US.

In 2006, he was ranked 12th on Forbes’ Midas List of the best dealmakers in hi-tech venture capital.

Since then, however, his name has not appeared on this list – due in no small part to the fact that Elevation Partners now owns a large stake in Forbes Media, the parent company of Forbes Magazine and

A graduate of Yale, McNamee may have a reputation as a heavy hitter in the venture capital world but he is also a rock musician.

Although he performed with The Flying Other Brothers until 2006, his current musical incarnation is in the form of an onstage ‘persona’ called Chubby Wombat Moonalice with the band, Moonalice.

A former colleague said last night: ‘He is an extraordinarily astute man and probably the best venture capitalist a person like Bono could go for.

‘He shares the same conscious capitalism ethos Bono subscribes to and is not adverse to dipping his hand into his pocket on any one of the number of altruistic whims. He’s rich enough to do that.

‘You get all sorts in venture capitalism, and then you get characters like Roger. He’s one of the good guys.’

At least two of Bono’s venture capital colleagues have already donated substantial sums of money to the foundation that runs the online encyclopaedia.

And Bono, accompanied by another Elevations Partner pal, Marc Bodnick, held an interesting summit in 2006 with Jimmy Wales, the founder and boss of Wiki.

On a hotel rooftop in Mexico City, Bono suggested Wikipedia should increase the number of professionals being used to ‘polish and publish’ the volunteer-generated content – a highly controversial move as, to many users, any professional ‘editing’ smacks of interference in the strictly amateur and user-generated nature of Wikipedia.

It is this absence of editorial input, they believe, that ensures Wiki’s independence.

However reports of the meeting claim that Bono compared the increased use and importance of pro-fessional to Bob Dylan going electric – unpopular at first but it worked in the long run.

Although no other meetings with Bono have been reported, Bodnick has since met with Wales on a number of occasions.

He went to a 2007 Wikimedia board meeting in the Netherlands, which Wales later described as a ‘get to know you session’.

And in all, the Wikipedia Foundation has since received at least $1.3m from efforts on its behalf by members of Elevation Partners.

McNamee and Bodnick have personally donated a total of $300,000, while they are said to be instrumental in arranging a further $1m from anonymous friends. About $500,000 of this is rumoured to have been given by Bono – although nobody will confirm or deny this.

What is true, though, is that since the Mexico City meeting, contributions to the charity, which survives on small donations from its users and contributors, have leapt up from $1.3m in 2006 to $4.6m.

As well as helping see through the organisation’s recent change in licensing arrangements, making it easier for its content to be accessed, McNamee also helped find new offices for its move to San Francisco.

According to the Wikipedia Foundation website, he acts as ‘special advisor’ to Sue Gardner, the Canadian ex-journalist hired to run Wikipedia in 2007.

McNamee’s interest in Wikipedia is ‘a personal one’.

Yet despite fears among web enthusiasts about the involvement of a venture capitalist in Wikipedia strategy, Gardner has insisted McNamee only talks to her ‘as a private individual’.

Indeed, last night a spokesman for Elevation Partners was at pains to stress McNamee’s interest in Wikipedia is ‘a personal one’.

And he added: ‘There were initial discussions to explore if there was any opportunity to do anything with them and it didn’t go any further.

EX-Wikipedia chair: ‘Why are EP (Elevation Partners) interested in us?’

‘There is no relationship with Wikipedia going forward.’ However the relationship with Bono’s venture capital billions is an issue at the centre of debate within and without the Foundation.

A recently-replaced Wiki Foundation chair, Florence Nibart-Devouard, was quoted last year in an exchange of emails asking: ‘Why are EP (Elevation Partners) interested in us?’ Previously, the scientist had said it was ‘easy to see which interest WE have in getting their interest. The contrary is not obvious at all’.

Pressed on the future involvement of venture capitalists and indeed advertising, a Wikipedia spokesman said: ‘You can never rule out anything.’

Association with Wales also means an association with the for-profit arm of his activities, Wikia Inc. It is behind a project – albeit one temporarily stalled – to bring out a search engine to rival Google. It is also heavily involved in for-profit wiki software, programmes that allow users to create and collaboratively edit web pages.

And Wiki is not the only media organisation that has benefited from McNamee’s largess.

Telling too is McNamee’s donation to the start-up magazine The Stimulist, which has become the poster publication for what became popularised as the ‘change generation’ in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Bono is said to be very keen to tap into that generation, a large chunk of which gain their information almost entirely from the internet rather than from traditional media formats.

The big problem, however, is securing a means of being able to generate a regular stream of income in the long term.

US Buyouts magazine editor David Toll said last night: ‘The transition from traditional media forms to new media is something everybody is struggling with.

‘That online advertising has not proved to be such a magic bullet is an issue.

‘While you don’t normally associate venture capital firms with new media start-ups, there is no doubt some of them are working on them. But this is very much behind the scenes.’

That Bono is now at the helm of what could turn out to be a revolution in media terms speaks volumes of the man’s vision.

And while it is one that can at times seem alien to his fans, he doubtlessly sees it as a logical next step.

Damien Mulley: ‘I would want to be best mates with Jimmy Wales’.

From the start of his career more than 33 years ago, he has seen the media he grew up with go from stamped-addressed envelopes, terrestrial TV and vinyl to CD, DVD, web music downloads, email and webcasts.

It’s an ever-changing technological landscape that is in something of a hiatus due partly to the current world economic downturn but also to the realisation that neither mass traditional or new media is likely to make more money than they already make.

In fact, both sectors are in decline with the internet worst hit in terms of its ability to generate a steady income stream from advertising.

Elevation Partners’ 40pc buyout of Forbes, which cost close to $160m, was the one act so far that served to catapult Bono into the world of high corporate finance.

Technology consultant Damien Mulley said last night: ‘Anyone wanting to successfully break into the new frontier of digital media, they are going to need everything going for them.

‘Having the technological wherewithal is a key part of this, and Elevation Partners have that. ‘But content is massively important and any device that can come pre-loaded with something like Wikipedia is likely to be a sure-fire hit.

‘The problem at the moment is compression software and so far only Apple’s iPhone has broken through that technological barrier.’

He added: ‘Even if Roger McNamee’s interests in Wikipedia really are entirely altruistic, they do make him ideally placed to be around at a time of any great significant change at Wikipedia.

‘If I was trying to track the digital mass media market and I was involved in venture capitalism, I would want to be best mates with Jimmy Wales.

‘I’d want to be near him when he comes up with an idea but, by the same token, I would like to be near him if I had any of my own.’

Perhaps Mr Murdoch should start thinking about retirement.

Bono’s burgeoning business interests come at a time when it is increasingly obvious that not all members of the band want to keep on the rock industry treadmill.

Drummer Larry Mullen, whom band manager Paul McGuinness recently referred to as ‘the squeaky wheel’ of U2, was recently quoted as saying he is ‘bored to death’ with the music business.

As Bono prepares to flex more of his corporate muscles in the months ahead from his New York base, and the Edge concentrates his attention on his multi-million land development in Malibu, who knows how long Adam Clayton and Mullen want to wait around for their colleagues to return to the fold.

But if the sheer scale of Bono’s outside interests are anything to go by, they could be waiting a long time. Perhaps Mr Murdoch should start thinking about retirement.

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