CMT Insider Interview: Toby Keith (Part Two of Two)

Country Star Discusses Grammy Politics, Illegal Downloading and Label Decisions

In the second half of a two-part interview with CMT Insider host Katie Cook, Toby Keith discusses the politics of Grammy performances, the reasons songwriters need to be protected and the challenges of breaking a new country artist.

Katie Cook: I was looking at the numbers and last year you were played more than Pink and Lady Gaga, and you’ve sold more records in the last decade than Britney Spears and Jay-Z. Sometimes it seems they get more press on a regular basis. Does it feel that way to you?

Toby Keith: The whole country music business is that way. The Grammys don’t respect country. The Grammys would take the four biggest artists in this genre and ask them to come to a show, perform on the same song at the same time and not do a country song. They’d want you to do a tribute to a Southern rock band or something. They absolutely don’t take country serious. But my decade will stand with anybody’s, you know that. That’s all you can do. You just go do your thing. The people at home, sitting listening to music, don’t know the difference. … It’s New York and L.A. driven. And it’s all politics and it’s all agendas and things like that. If you try and fight and politic your way into that, you’re going to waste a lot of creative time doing what you do best. So I quit a long time ago trying.

Speaking of award shows, at the People’s Choice Awards, Keith Urban said something controversial during his acceptance speech: “I don’t even care if you guys download my music illegally. I really don’t care. …” You’re a head of a label. How does that strike you?

Maybe he don’t care. I care. But it’s his call. You have to be able to protect your copyright. The people you do have to protect in copyrights are the songwriters. So, you come to this town and you write. For 20 years, you work at Spaghetti Warehouse and you bus tables, and all of the sudden you’re 38 years old, and you’ve been here 18 years, and all the sudden you write a song and Keith Urban goes and records it. And it’s a smash. You get paid on that. If everybody downloads it for free, you don’t get paid on that. So all you become is unpaid. You’ve offered a treasure, a piece of history to the public and they’re using it to fill their dancehalls and fill their dance floors and listen to the music in their car. Put it on their iPods and all that. And if it is all for free, this guy is still at Spaghetti Warehouse. He gets nothing for it. Keith Urban gets paid. The guy at the bar that plays his music to pack the dance floor gets paid. So artists get paid because they go work and sell the T-shirts, but that songwriter won’t get paid. That’s the guy you have to protect.

Plenty of artists say they want to take control of their music and head a label, but they haven’t been as good at it as you have been. What do you think you’re doing different that is working so well?

We didn’t change anything. The same formula we had at DreamWorks was do what you do best, work all year long, and at the end of the year, make your music, take it to your fans and hope for the best. It’s always worked out for me. I am very blessed with that. Where it gets complicated in running a label is trying to please everybody. But it is your money you’re spending. … I try to give my artists two or three shots on their own for success and failure, and I try to help them as much as I can. Basically I am betting my money on them to be successful. Whereas in this town it’s usually done the other way: We’re spending our money on you so you’re going to do what we tell you to do. And that doesn’t allow the artists to go be into it and sell it unless they’re in complete agreement [with the label] with what they’re doing.

Like right now, I know Trace Adkins has an album and he’s having a difficult time getting his label that he’s been on for years [Capitol Nashville] to agree on what singles to put out. He’s been out on tour with me, and he’s watched my audience work. He sees that there is an audience there that he longs for and he wants to deliver to them what I deliver to them. And they [Capitol] don’t see it like that. It’s too far away from the way that they want to go. We don’t do things like that. We let the artists go sell the thing and give the artist a chance to fail on his own or have success because he knows the audience better than I do.

And now you have Trace Adkins. Of course he is a very established artist. Maybe that will make things easier. Is it really hard to break a new artist? That seems to be one thing that you still haven’t totally mastered.

Yeah, that’s impossible. It’s impossible to break a new act. You have to absolutely have a song that goes out on its own and just takes over, that needs very little promoting. The whole industry will tell you. Reason being, it takes a lot of money — a ton of money — to break an artist with overall record sales across the board like they are. Not just me. Any label in town has a difficult time breaking acts like they used to and taking all those wild shots that they take because you’re going to get beat up. You’re never going to see the returns on record sales. You have to get in that 250 to 500,000 range to even break even. So if you have three or four acts and you’re spending a million dollars on each one of them, you can just kiss it goodbye. It’s not going to happen and you’ll just start over next year. That’s what makes it so difficult to break a new act.

Trace being established gives me a stamp of approval and gives me some strength from a visibility that this isn’t just Toby’s vanity label. We instantly become a power, not just by joining with Trace, but by having Mark Wright and Universal on board. We didn’t say, “We’re going to bring your guys over and my guys are going to downsize” — to cut costs, half and half. We added his label to my label. I lost two people. We changed out some duplicate positions, like you can’t have two people answering the phone. You can’t have two assistants to the promotions department. Those little things went away. As far as my staff, my staff stayed right intact. And his staff stayed intact with the people he wanted. They just doubled the size. So instead of having five regionals and a head of promotion, now I have head of promotion, assistant head of promotion and seven or eight regionals. So it’s like a monster staff.

Finally, you have as good an idea as anybody about how the economy is affecting the music business. What do you think might happen with the economy?

In the music business? Unless there is a new way to box the sales up to where you can’t be pirated, I don’t think there is any way record sales will ever be meaningful again. They will continue to decline wherever they are going to bottom out at. They will be what they’re going to be. They may decline forever. There may be a new way to deliver music in 10 years that we haven’t even thought of that will surface. There may be some kind of digital fingerprint that doesn’t allow pirating to go on. But as long as those things go on, people won’t buy albums anymore. It’s what some people call a “free 99 cent world.” It will never be what it was, but with that being said, you have to have a promotions staff promoting your records at radio because you want to sell your brand. You want to go on tour, where you make your hay at. They can’t box that up. They can’t sell that “free 99-cent” [at a concert level]. That’s what it is all about, is keeping that going.

Read part one of the Toby Keith interview.