He entered the rock 'n' roll pantheon as a joker, smoker and midnight toker. But sitting in a gray business suit in front of 400 corporate...
ATLANTA — He entered the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon as a joker, smoker and midnight toker.
But sitting in a gray business suit in front of 400 corporate executives, Steve Miller’s message had more to do with knowing how to take the money and run.
“I love playing, but you can’t get to the good stuff unless you keep an eye on the business,” said Miller, immediately after speaking at a business conference put on by The Hackett Group, an Atlanta-based corporate research and advisory firm.
The singer — known for hits like “The Joker,” “Fly like an Eagle” and “Take the Money and Run” — was part of a roster of presentations that included “Benchmarking for Competitive Advantage” and “Generating a Return on Compliance Efforts.”
Miller’s speech underlies a truth that’s become more obvious recently — rock ‘n’ roll is big business and, hard-living stereotypes aside, the rockers who succeed over the long run are the ones paying attention to their finances.
With traditional revenue sources like album and ticket sales continuing to slide, music-industry experts say selling out — once the ultimate insult in rock circles — has come to mean much less.
Brit-rocker David Bowie startled the rock world in 1997 when the man who once took the stage as a space alien Ziggy Stardust announced he would issue bonds backed by royalties from the future sale of his music. But the shock died down and other acts, such as the Isley Brothers and James Brown, have also issued bonds.
“It’s a whole different kind of world we live in now,” said Doug Brod, executive editor of Spin magazine. “Artists want control over how they’re getting paid; a lot of them just want to take it into their own hands.”
Experts say changes in the industry are requiring artists to be even more mindful of ways to market themselves, and their music, to the public. Thanks to Internet downloads, album sales have been dropping steadily for the past five years. Concert attendance has seen a similar dip.
“With less (record company) money to promote them, the onus really falls on the artists to promote their own careers,” said Matt Hatau, vice president of Signatures Network, a music marketing and licensing company that has worked with artists like KISS, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and U2.
“They’re not just looking to the labels and saying, ‘Hey, run my business and hand me a royalty check,’ ” Hatau said.
If any band has carried rock’s hippie image into the 21st century, it’s Athens, Ga.-based Widespread Panic — whose shows pack in legions of tie-dye wearing “Spreadheads” reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s traveling carnivals.
Behind the scenes, though, the group, which is playing at the Gorge Amphitheatre July 2, is a $14 million-a-year corporation with profit-sharing, a pension plan and health-care benefits for its employees.
“We have a board of directors and board meetings; we have conference calls,” said Buck Williams, the group’s Nashville-based manager and agent.
The band’s six members play an active role in the business, Williams said.
“There are some that are more involved, more vocal than others,” he said. “But I promise you at the end of the day there’s not a single one of them that doesn’t want to know where the money’s going and why.”
During his recent speech, Miller traced his business impulses back to Dallas where, as a 12-year-old, he mimeographed letters to fraternities announcing his rock band was available for bookings — but only for a limited time. Those marketing skills would lead Miller to become one of the first rock artists to earn a sizable cash advance on an album from his record company and among the first to negotiate for complete artistic control from the label.
“I never found anybody who could manage my career any better than I could,” Miller said. And he will not apologize for licensing his songs for commercials, such as the U.S. Postal Service’s use of “Fly Like an Eagle” for TV ads.
Warren Hudson, a music-store owner in downtown Decatur, Ga., defends artists who lend their music to commercial uses, saying sometimes it’s the only way to get noticed or stay ahead in the crowded industry.
“I don’t necessarily consider it a sellout,” Hudson said. “It all depends on how you approach it.”
The results, though, can be unsettling to some.
“It’s kind of funny that the music that was our rebellious music is now being bought and sold wholesale by corporations,” said Frederick Noble, who edits Degenerate Press, an online music and pop-culture magazine out of Atlanta. “I would rather support somebody who’s still having to flip burgers or make burritos somewhere … than somebody with a corporate jet and a beer sponsorship.”
But Williams says bands like Widespread Panic have a responsibility to play the money game — not just for themselves, but for their fans.
“It’s not just about us and what we can do,” he said. “We have to make all the numbers work so we can grow and keep enhancing the value for those fans.”