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TCM Archives > Sunday Business Post > 2000/04/09 > The man who has pulled the strings for the boyz

Sunday, April 09, 2000 :
The man who has pulled the strings for the boyz
Sunday, April 09, 2000

By Simon Carswell

Name: Louis Walsh

Age: 47

Appearance: Casually dressed, boyish looks, with mobile phone permanently in hand.

Newsworthiness: His band Westlife made pop chart history last week when their fifth single entered the British charts at number one.

It's all about making and breaking records. Last week, Louis Walsh's latest boy band, Westlife, became a statistic in the Guinness Book of Records by being the first band to have five singles enter the British charts at the top spot. It took Boyzone two years to top the charts - Westlife have had five number ones in that time. Now America beckons. As part of Walsh's well-oiled pop machine, the five boys have had little time to celebrate their achievement. A jet whisked them off to New York to capitalise on their success by breaking millions of young American teenage hearts (and piggybanks) - and hopefully to crack a previously unknown territory that has eluded Walsh's other acts, the US pop market.

Comparisons have been made with the Beatles, but this latest record-breaking achievement is more a result of Walsh's careful orchestration of market forces. The man from Kiltimagh in Mayo understands the pop market well, and knows what strings to pull.

Last week, Walsh mobilised his publicity troops to prevent lone Spice Girl Mel C beating his boy wonders to the top spot. Not one to give up without a fight, he organised last minute appearances on Chris Evans' TFI Friday on Channel Four and a GMTV Mothers' Day special, featuring the mothers of three members of the band.

However, it was the band's appearances in two record shops in London and Birmingham that achieved the final crucial record sales. Police stopped the Birmingham signing because of the size of the crowds, so Walsh had Westlife sign 3,000 CDs for the frantic fans. More than 5,000 singles were sold by both shops, and Westlife edged in front of Mel C by 1,400 singles, pushing their record Fool Again to the number one spot.

Landing the highly-coveted Christmas number one at the end of 1999 was an indicator that this could be Westlife's year. A three-week introductory tour of the US, which began on Monday, is topped and tailed by European television appearances. Apart from maintaining their highly-profitable Asian market and building on any American success, Westlife will also find time to record a second album with Britney Spears' songwriters in Sweden and Britain during the summer.

Walsh has already sold more than 122,000 tickets for a series of concerts at the 12,000-seater Wembley arena next March, and is also planning ten shows at the Point. And, just to remind the fans that Westlife is not the only boy band around, Walsh and co-owner, John Reynolds, are planning a Boyzone greatest hits tour next year.

Walsh might attribute last week's achievement to luck. But friends say he was knocked so many times during his days managing Irish showbands and Eurovision winners Johnny Logan and Linda Martin that he's learned to master the industry.

Inspirational, energetic and genuine are the words most use to describe him. "He just doesn't tolerate bullshit," one contemporary said. Walsh's efforts to get paid by stingy dancehall managers in his early days taught him to be straight in his own dealings - and that has helped transform him from showband booking agent to one of the most successful managers in pop music.

Industry sources put his personal worth at about 5 million but say he had "some very lean years". One source said: "He was an overnight success 20 years in the making". Although he has an interest in Irish property, his friends say he has little time to look around with a view to buying places. He lives in a bachelor pad in Ballsbridge and has recently bought an apartment in Galway.

Together with John Reynolds - who helped him launch Boyzone's career with a loan of 10,000 - Walsh is a director of War Management, which showed a loss of just over 1,000 in its 1998 figures. The company's auditors noted on the accounts: "There were no satisfactory auditing procedures which we could adopt to satisfy ourselves that all income due in respect of the financial period has been received and recorded by the company".

Another company, Postale, of which Walsh and Reynolds are also both directors, seems to be a pension vehicle. It owns life assurance policies in the names of more than 50 individuals to the value of 2 million, all due to mature within the next ten years.

But it's Walsh's encyclopaedic knowledge of the music industry - not pensions - that has made him the godfather of pop. Working from a rather primitive office, he takes pride in the fact that he even sends his own faxes. His contacts book is an essential cog in the machinery, and his mobile phone is almost part of his constantly busy body. He's a solo act who "defies the law of how every other office works", said one publicist in BMG Ireland, Westlife's record company.

One colleague said Walsh refuses to delegate work to middle managers, for fear of not hearing what's being offered to his acts. He loves the hands-on approach, and - to mix the metaphor - believes that keeping his feet firmly on the ground has kept him at the forefront of his trade.

His success is as much down to his wooing of the media as to his eye for talent. He is calculating in his comments and understands the impact of everything he says as he says it, recognising the purpose of interviews in promoting record sales and concert tickets.

Walsh's flirtation with the media has on occasions angered his band. Shane Lynch of Boyzone was particularly critical last year when Walsh announced that the band was splitting up. Close friends who are journalists played a part in devising his plan to launch a new boy band called Boyzone one night in Lillie's Bordello in 1994. While the manager and the journalists have a mutual respect, Walsh can react strongly when crossed, and he has been known to shun TV and radio shows that have criticised Boyzone.

He is also openly critical of airtime controllers at Dublin's two mainstream music stations, 98FM and FM104, for ignoring new Irish talent, turning instead to Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and other American acts. RTE has been good to him, he says, but could go that bit further to break new talent.

The Boyzone success story has been well-chronicled - Walsh is even looking for the right script to film the mechanic-to-pop-star story. The band are a multi-million pound business but, like most pop acts, they have a limited lifespan and Walsh realises theirs is coming to an end. Once Boyzone finishes, he will simply move on to another act.

The godfather of pop was faced with a dilemma recently when his contract ran out with Boyzone. The competition between Ronan Keating and Stephen Gately meant he couldn't manage both of them, so Walsh chose Keating. Gately's new shepherd is now none other than Chris Herbert, the man responsible for bringing the Spice Girls together. The split with Gately seems to have been remarkably amicable.

Keating is currently in Los Angeles recording a solo album - part of the process of moulding him into "the male Shania Twain". Keating's appointment as Westlife's co-manager was purely nominal and another of Louis Walsh's publicity stunts, designed to increase column inches and airtime for the band.

Keating gives the boys invaluable advice on what clothes to wear so as not to clash with studio sets, and not to speak simultaneously during interviews, because people don't like hearing five people talk at once.

If Westlife break America, their workload will increase exponentially and the boys' lives will become quite nomadic. Last week's publicity stunt will be hard to repeat in the US, as American billboard charts are based on airplay, sales and the sheer size of the US market. But Westlife are set to appear on the influential Jay Leno, David Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell chat shows over the coming year, which should boost record sales.

One indicator of Westlife's success is the backing of the band's US company, Arista Records and its owner, Clive Davis - the pop aficionado who signed the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Barry Manilow and Grammy-winning Santana. Industry sources said Davis can change MTV scheduling with a phonecall. It's understood he was so impressed when he first heard the Irish quintet of Sligo culchies and Dublin jackeens that he invested several million dollars in their US publicity tour.

While Walsh is not directly involved in the American invasion, he does retain the final say over what the band does. He will continue to receive his 20 per cent commission on Westlife's five-album deal with BMG, which owns Arista. Industry sources said the company would invest about a million pounds on promoting each of Westlife's albums over the coming years.

To Walsh, record companies are like banks. "They lend you the money and throw the shit against the wall," said Walsh. "If it doesn't stick, you're gone". The Carter Twins were just one of Walsh's failures and the record company abandoned ship. Tomorrow, Westlife will share a stage with Arista's major artists at a special performance bash in Los Angeles to celebrate 25 years of Arista Records. It remains to be seen whether Westlife will look like Boyzone on their first Late Late Show in the shadow of such pop heavyweights.

Swear It Again, one of the band's European number ones, is currently quite low in the US charts but the American company is shooting a new video and tailoring the band's image to be less clean-cut and more "street", in line with the image of rivals, the Backstreet Boys and NSync. Last week's record is now yesterday's news to Walsh; breaking America is everything.

He has never shied away from the fact that he unashamedly loves pop music and is hungry for cash from any source - and he dismisses the expenditure of large amounts on conceited rock bands as a waste of money. He believes the pop industry is a game and, if you win, you take home a rather large cash prize. But he can only win if he believes in what he is selling, and his strong belief in Westlife is evident.

Walsh's brother and accountant, Frank, described him as a "show me the money" type of guy, someone who is not interested in the fine print. Indeed, his advice to anyone entering the business is to find a good lawyer, because they formulate the deals.

He has also been unashamedly commercial, signing merchandising deals with the highest bidders. He peppers conversations with "We're going to take the money and run". Last year, a Westlife promotion to encourage young people to wear poppies was criticised by Sinn Fein. Walsh saw it as an opportunity to get the band's photograph into several British national newspapers which had previously shown no interest in the Irish band.

Walsh's latest products are Samantha Mumba, a 17-year-old Dubliner whose father is from Zambia, and a new girl band, Bellefire. Mumba - who's tipped as the next Britney Spears - is set to release her first single in May, while Bellefire last week signed to Universal Records in Britain.

The chief executive of Universal Records, John Kennedy, said Walsh had "an antenna for finding talent", and a uncanny ability to find the right song for radio playlists.

Walsh believes playlists are vital to the business. To that end, he was involved with club owner John Reynolds, fashion designer John Rocha and U2's The Edge in an unsuccessful bid for a radio licence in Dublin, under the title Storm FM. The group is now taking legal action against the IRTC, and was last month ordered by the High Court to lodge 50,000 to cover the legal costs of the challenge.

So far, Westlife has sold almost four million copies of its only album, compared to Boyzone's ten million copies of four albums. Boyzone opened the door for Westlife, but Walsh's new band could well succeed in the pop world of America, where Boyzone failed. Their success could spell the end of Walsh's involvement with Boyzone and open another chapter in the life of one of Ireland's most successful pop entrepreneurs.


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