Ireland's best ever pop svengali clearly has the X-factor in spades
Louis Walsh – music titan, workaholic, manager – has a playful sense of mischief that belies a serious business head. He tells Niamh Horan how the industry is changing
Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30
LOUIS Walsh is in the clutches of an elderly lady when I walk into the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin. "Thank you, thank you," she gushes. "For all that you've done for Irish dancing in this country."
I look at him, perplexed. "She thinks I'm Michael Flatley," he chuckles, as soon as she's gone.
Save for one very confused fan, there is no one in this country who doesn't know who the man sitting in front of me is. Music titan, workaholic, the manager with the Midas touch – he is one of the most influential figures in the Irish entertainment industry, which it is predicted, will be worth €4.6bn by 2017.
For those who are clever enough to make the most from it, music is all about numbers. Bums on seats, ticket stubs and records sold. And long, long ago, Walsh got the magic formula right, translating light entertainment into cold, hard cash.
Since the Nineties he has been the mastermind behind some of the most successful pop artists in three decades, with more than 100 million record sales in total.
He is reported to take a 20 per cent management slice from every pie – and when you do the sums on that, it's no wonder the mogul from Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, is licking his lips.
There's a sense of playful mischief about him. Always looking for the latest gossip or laugh, he makes what he does look tantalisingly easy. But only because he put in the Gladwellian hard graft. So here is the secret: never, ever let his lighthearted nature fool you into underestimating him.
That changing landscape also means that record companies, promoters and managers like Louis Walsh have had to refocus their laser-like attention elsewhere.
"Now it's all about live touring, merchandise and endorsement. It's not in album sales anymore. Yes, you still need to sell records and make hits to have a career. But touring is where the future of music is at. Concert sponsorship too. It's like rugby – all the big companies want to get involved now. If they offered enough money I would go down that road too."
"Do you tour with your acts?" I ask.
"No. I'm not a babysitter. The tour manager is paid well to pamper and pander to them. But I'm on the phone all the time," he smiles.
"Look at all the concerts in Ireland at the moment, there's pages of pages, it's amazing – and they are all selling out. And record companies are like banks, they loan you the money but they want it back. That's why some bands are dropped after one album because they are afraid of losing any more money. They want a slice of merchandising and touring too.
"You could spend anywhere between €10,000 and €500,000 setting a band up. Between videos and recording. The artist pays for half of everything at the start, and then as they make it big, it's all recouped. That's the way it works."
I ask how the euro is divided up between the record label, promoter, manger and band, but Louis is slow to be drawn on figures: "How long is a piece of string? Everyone is different.
"But make no mistake, I'm always fair, you have to be, otherwise you're going to get your percentage cut when it comes up for renegotiation. But I'm not interested in it, it's all about the money – I mean music," he corrects himself quick as a flash.
Freudian slip? He laughs.
"I don't just sit back. I'm always looking for something for these people. I get the best people around them from accounts to agents, but they have to work hard."
One of the men he has taken into the fold is Livewire accountant Alan McEvoy, a low-key Limerick man, who is now the calculator and books behind The Cranberries, Cheryl Cole, One Direction and Westlife.
"Westlife did 44 million albums and 16 number one hit records. They were a bigger export than Baileys or Kerrygold for a time. But the other products go on forever, I have to find a new act to push now."
He has two phones constantly hopping during our chat. The vibrations and beeps of record labels and top producers all looking to share in his next creation. They're knocking on the door, wondering if the finished product is ready yet.
They're in luck.
His latest venture, five boys from Ireland, have been plucked from thousands of hopefuls, prepped, trained and preened by Ian Kelly. They were flown over on Friday morning where the final product was unveiled before record company bosses from three different labels. They're called Hometown.
"Incredible. The best yet. They are going to be huge," says Louis, who is a master at drumming up interest. But his gift is his curse. He makes it look so easy, everyone thinks they can do it.
"It's inevitable. It always happens. I can almost pinpoint when they're about to walk in and kick up murder.
"The early part is really good when they are getting up the ladder, then the middle period when they've made it, they say, 'Why should we do more interviews and signings and promo?' and then finally the greed comes.
"Sometimes their families, wives, girlfriends, get involved – and that's a disaster. There's a lot of Yoko Onos out there. Every band has at least one or two Yoko Onos, trust me. The world is full of them."
He ponders for a moment as to why he keeps coming up against the same problem.
"I think I make it too easy for them. Then they take it for granted. I create a lot of monsters and they are never loyal. One of the biggest agents in England, John Giddings, told me once, 'If you want loyalty in this business then get a dog'.
"They all come back, 'Why should we pay him? What's he doing?'" he shakes his head: "Hey! I got you there."
He singles out another manager who took four men and made them global: Paul McGuinness.
"I think retirement will be a relief to him. I'm sure he is glad he can get his life back now. He gave his life to U2 and he was utterly committed. He is an incredibly astute businessman.
"But mavericks like Paul are missing in the business today. Denis Desmond and Peter Aiken are other examples. Their passion for what they do makes them successful – they live and breathe it."
He returns to the subject of U2 and the delays in their album. But he says the fans need to be patient: "No one wants to bring out an album until they totally believe in it. They are four great businessmen. They know what they are doing."
Unlike the Irish rock stars, he will never be the man to invest in the next big music app if an investor comes knocking. "It's not my world. My motto is to 'only stay with what you know'."
One investor who did come looking for his financial backing was none other than Derek Quinlan. "Yeah I got a few calls from Derek alright, but I didn't really know who he was," the mischievous smile creeps across his face again.
"I was approached by a lot of people because they thought I had a lot of 'new money'. But I wasn't going to give my 'new money' to those old feckers anyway. It's mine and I earned it so they could feck off," he says, erupting into laughter.
He owns six luxury homes – a beach house in Miami, an apartment in London and four residences in Dublin. He also dabbles in the stock market: "My brother works in Grant Thornton as a tax adviser and he gives me good advice."
Tucking into his sherry trifle, he has turned into the very cat that got the cream. While we chat, a former small- time property developer comes over to tell him he is sorry for disturbing him but that he has changed business and would Louis mind listening to his new swing CD? Louis is tickled, "And to think they all tried to get me into building. Who's laughing now?
"I'm old-fashioned, I still buy CDs. I have thousands and thousands at home in storage, but mostly I download stuff.
"The music business is bigger and better than ever before but the landscape has completely changed.
"Social media is extremely important now. I'll make sure that every new act has their own Twitter account and is accessible to fans. That makes a huge difference. Constantly being in touch. YouTube has been a game changer too.
"I'm always on the lookout for new artists there. If a singer/songwriter grabs my attention and stands out I would sign them in a heartbeat. I'm looking for the next Ed Sheeran or Damien Rice.
"But right now the big acts are Walking on Cars, Kodaline and my new band. They are the ones to watch.
"Not many people know this but another big act coming down the line is Hozier. Caroline Downey [wife of music mogul Denis Desmond] is managing him. And I think he could make it big in North America, that's the place to crack."
If Walsh has one gripe, however, it's with Irish radio stations: "They don't care, they don't listen and don't promote their own Irish acts. You're lucky to get played here. In the UK I have no problem.
"I would call on Minister Jimmy Deenihan to impose a quota of 30 per cent on the amount of airplay given to Irish acts. The whole industry depends on airplay. Studios, printers, tour managers. It's their oxygen and jobs depend on it. If anything needs to change here, it's that. I expect Dan Healy, the new head of 2FM, to make a difference."
It's rare you meet a business mind that laughs as much whilst making money. That usually comes after. But Walsh knows not to take himself or the industry too seriously. And perhaps that is the key to surviving in it so long, when others would have burned out long ago.
His real love, however, is art. And after music, it has become his favoured pastime.
His impressive collection ranges from world-renowned masters including Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. But despite the heavyweights, you can see it's more for fun.
He whips out his phone to show me his new screensaver: A painting of a pug in a ballerina outfit with a frog sitting on his back.
"This makes me smile."
He adds, "I don't keep any of it in Ireland; it's all abroad. I have someone looking after it for me."
His hobby started 12 years ago when the work of Louis Le Brocquy caught his eye. Paintings – such as The Family – by Ireland's foremost contemporary artist have been snapped up for as much as €3m by private bidders.
"I started collecting Keith Haring, David Hockney [whose painting The Splash sold for €3.1m at Sotheby's in London] and Andy Warhol.
"I love pop art. I suppose it's because it's the business I'm in. Mohammed Ali, Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda – it becomes like an addiction, that's what I like to spend my money on."
Sotheby's latest catalogue sits on the table and he flicks through the works he has his eye on. His collection is rumoured to be worth in excess of €5m, but he refuses to be drawn on figures.
He sleeps little. Watching box sets through the night before he's up again to tackle the day. Any books on the bedside table?
"There's no Bible, no pretentious bloody f**king novels by Steinbeck. Oh please. I hate when I read pretentious interviews like that. No, there's no Ulysses on my night stand."
"So what?" I ask.
Quick as a flash. "Sure what else? My chequebook," he quips. And, once again, he erupts into laughter.
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