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Originally published Sunday, February 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Bono's pitch to help poor still leaves him time to build business empire

During the final concert of U2's world tour Dec. 9, Bono, the Irish rock band's lead singer, launched into one of the band's signature songs...

Bloomberg News

During the final concert of U2's world tour Dec. 9, Bono, the Irish rock band's lead singer, launched into one of the band's signature songs, "One."

"Did I disappoint you or leave a bad taste in your mouth?" he sang to 47,000 U2 fans at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

At Bono's command, some fans held aloft their cellphones and sent text messages of support to ONE, the U.S.-based group that's lobbying the government to donate an additional 1 percent of the federal budget to ending poverty.

Bono made the same tie-in for the group during most of the 131 concerts on the band's Vertigo tour, which began in March 2005 and was seen by 4.6 million fans in Europe, North America and Asia. They sent about 500,000 text messages of support to ONE, according to the group.

While Bono was making his appeal, U2 was collecting $389 million in gross ticket receipts, making Vertigo the second-most lucrative tour of all time, according to Billboard magazine. The first is the Rolling Stones' current tour, which by the end of 2006 had received $425 million.

"Bono's campaigns reflect a great amount of concerns that U2's audience also has, such as AIDS and malaria in Africa, and that can't help but have a beneficial effect on record sales," says Simon Garfield, author of Expensive Habits: The Dark Side of the Music Industry (Faber & Faber, 269 pages, 1985), a book about the business of rock.

U2 has sold about 9 million copies of the album linked to the Vertigo tour, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," for which it owns all rights.

In addition, U2 sells merchandise at the concerts, such as a $30 T-shirt with a photo of the band on the front.

Access to power

With his trademark wraparound sunglasses and cowboy hat, Bono, 46, is as famous for exhorting world leaders — from President Bush to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern — to give money to Africa as he is for his music.

He was awarded an honorary knighthood in December by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, and his name has been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize in the British and U.S. media.

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Bono last month joined British Prime Minister Tony Blair and South African President Thabo Mbeki at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for a panel discussion, "Delivering on the Promise of Africa."

The native of Dublin, Ireland, whose birth name is Paul Hewson, declined to be interviewed for this article.

"We can move into business, and let's bring our idealism into whatever piece of the world we happen to be standing in," Bono told interviewer Michka Assayas in the book "Bono on Bono."

The most recent example is Product(RED), a marketing agreement with a half-dozen companies selling a special RED line of clothing, cellphones and other merchandise, and donating 40 percent of the profit to a charity that pays for AIDS drugs for HIV-infected Africans.

Still, Bono has critics.

Tax move, literally

One of them points to the band's decision to move its music-publishing company to the Netherlands from Ireland last June to minimize taxes.

The move came six months before Ireland ended an exemption on musicians' royalty income, which is generally untaxed in the Netherlands.

"This is somebody who's exceptionally rich taking the opportunity to shift his tax burden to somebody else, but then asking governments around the world to spend that tax take in the way that he would like," says Richard Murphy, a British-based adviser to the Tax Justice Network, an international lobbying group.

U2's move to the Netherlands is wrong, says Dick Molenaar, senior partner at All Arts Tax Advisers, a Rotterdam-based tax-consulting firm for artists and musicians.

"Everybody needs to pay his fair share of taxation to the government, and therefore we have roads and education and everything," he says.

But U2's manager says there is nothing wrong with what the band has done.

"We pay a great deal of tax around the world, and in Ireland we don't pay any more taxes than we have to," says Paul McGuinness. "We're like any other business."

"U2 were never dumb in business," Bono says in "Bono on Bono." "We don't sit around thinking about world peace all day."

Bono's empire encompasses real estate, private-equity investments, a hotel, a clothing line and a chain of restaurants.

Along with fellow band members, he also owns a stake in 15 companies and trusts, including concert-booking agencies, record-production firms and trusts that are mostly registered in Ireland.

U2 was one of the first successful bands in the world to have obtained all rights to its own music.

In addition, Bono shares three homes with his wife and four children, including a house near Nice in the south of France, a duplex apartment overlooking New York's Central Park that he bought from Apple's Steve Jobs, and a gated estate in Killiney, 10 miles south of Dublin, with a panoramic view of the Irish Sea.

Critics say Bono's foray into private equity, via Menlo Park, Calif.,-based Elevation Partners, has at times clashed with his ideals.

Elevation's first investment was a stake in two computer-game companies, Edmonton, Canada-based BioWare and Los Angeles-based Pandemic Studios.

BioWare makes a war game, "Destroy All Humans 2." Pandemic's catalog includes a war game, "Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, depicting a mercenary invasion of Venezuela.

"We don't think this fits with Bono's image and we're trying to get him to recognize this fact," says Chuck Kaufman, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the international Venezuela Solidarity Network, which backs President Hugo Chávez.

"It's hard to understand why anybody was upset about this game, because keep in mind the Venezuelans in this game are actually the good guys," says Roger McNamee, a managing director and co-founder at Elevation.

While Bono promotes charitable causes, he doesn't disclose whether he personally gives any money to them. These include Amnesty International, the Burma Campaign UK; DATA, which stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade and Africa; the environmental group Greenpeace and ONE.

"It's actually, I think, more honest to say we're rock stars, we're havin' it large, we're havin' a great time and don't focus on charity too much — that's private; justice is public," he told the Dublin-based Sunday Independent newspaper in June 2005.

Bono's greatest value may be as a spokesman, not a donor.

"Bono is the most extraordinarily talented lobbyist," says Jamie Drummond, DATA's executive director, who helps organize the ONE campaign.

"He's got extremely persuasive, charming interpersonal skills that can appeal to the thing in a politician that reminds them of the spark that got them into politics in the first place, and the idea of public service."

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