Editor’s note: CMT Insider Special Edition: Toby Keith premieres Friday (April 7) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Toby Keith can now add “label chief” to his long list of accomplishments. Six months following its launch, Show Dog Records will release its first album — Keith’s own White Trash With Money — on Tuesday (April 11). After being tossed from label to label throughout his extensive career, Keith talks to CMT Insider host Katie Cook about his business philosophy, including audits, choosing the perfect name and not collecting a paycheck.
Cook: We can’t really talk about Show Dog without kind of backing up a little bit and understanding your experiences at past labels that led you to this point. Can you tell us anything that you might have learned — good or bad — that’s going to help you run a label now?
Keith: Oh, spending wise. When you own your own business, you obviously spend a lot wiser. There are big budgets that are given out to big labels, and they find ways to spend them. Because if you go in and get a $10 million budget, and then you only spend $5 million and you’re good with your money, then next year they’ll say, “Well, hey, we don’t need to send you $10 million no more. We just need to send you five.” So they make sure that they go through their budget. When you own your own business, you tend to watch each payment with close scrutiny.
A lot of artists don’t realize that when they first get signed. When labels spend the big money, artists do pay for it in the end, don’t they?
Right, they do. It comes out of your little pocket. We had our contracts reworked to where it cuts all of that out. … It’s a really simple business contract: You sell so many records, you get paid so much. My goal and dream is to have somebody come audit me and go, “He don’t owe you jack.” I’ve been auditing people 12 years, and I never did an audit that they didn’t owe me a lot of money. It’s just the way they account for things. We try to cut all the fat out of that and just make it a regular business.
Do you feel before now you never really got a fair shake in Nashville?
In the end, I had a fair shake. There are a few things that didn’t come easy for me. But I wouldn’t trade positions with anybody. I really would not. I can’t imagine anybody’s position that I’d switch out with. I’ve been very successful at everything I’ve done. And you get frustrated over some awards or over some recognition here and there, but in the long run, if you look back on it, it doesn’t change what you do in your day to day.
Let’s talk about the name Show Dog. What’s up with the dog theme? You’ve got the albums Pull My Chain and Unleashed. What’s up with this?
My fan club started this right after I won album of the year for How Do You Like Me Now?!. My fan club is called “warriors,” but people think that’s all related to the 9/11 song. Way before the 9/11 song, I had this fan club and I called them “warriors” on the ACM [Academy of Country Music] program. I had won album of the year for How Do You Like Me Now?!, and I said, “I dedicate this entire project to my warriors out there” … because they kept me alive. My core audience kept me alive through four record label changes. I was getting knocked around and getting no focus and getting moved from label to label. I was on Mercury, then I was on Polydor, then I was on A&M, then I got back on Mercury, and then I was dropped. Through that whole time, I could go work, I could go do shows. I could do 150 shows a year if I wanted to. I could still have hits songs. And so I called them warriors. Then when I won, I said, “Who kicked the sleeping dog?” And then this “dog” thing set in. And that’s what we are. We’re show dogs. It says everything I needed to say. It’s attitude, and the only thing we take seriously is the music.
Is there anything that you have sworn to never do as a label head?
No. You can’t say “never.” You can never say “never” because each different obstacle has a different set of circumstances. You just have to take each issue. I would never say “never.” … If you and me go open a record label tomorrow, and we try to sign some new acts, and we don’t have any other income, then we have to live off of our results. It’s going to be hard for us to make it early on. Well, I don’t make my money off my record sales. I make my money in lots of other ways. My label has two advantages. I don’t need to make my living off of it. I don’t have to pay myself a salary to survive. And two is: I don’t have to make any money off the other artists. If they have a little tough time getting started, I can invest every penny that they make back into each artist because I’m not bound to making that check off of it.
Do you feel like your peers in the industry on Music Row feel like you’re going to succeed in this role?
No, they probably don’t, but it doesn’t matter what Music Row thinks. It never has. I’ve got a lot of friends in that town. Just like anybody, you’ve got a lot of friends and a lot of enemies. There are two sides to every coin, so everybody has their own story. I’ve got some wonderful friends in that business, and this business has been really, really great to me. It’s just that I have some principles I have to stand on, and I think people respect that.