Musicians get this trite question all the time and usually have a lame, pat answer.
Not Steve Miller.
Asked during a recent teleconference what advice he would give to young artists, the man behind “The Joker,” “Fly Like An Eagle” and other hits wasn’t joking around. He went off on an angry rant about the current state of the music industry:
“My advice to new artists is to forget about all of this and take acting and dancing lessons and become a video star …
“It’s sort of like the same kind of world for new artists [as it was in my day]. It seems impossible. When I was a kid, I never thought I would ever be able to make records and never really thought seriously about a musical career, because a musical career was being Fabian or Frankie Avalon or something. It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t any possibility to get into that world.
“It’s kind of like that for kids right now …. So, I don’t really have any instant advice for these kinds of kids except that be true to yourself, suffer for your art and hang on and maybe something will change where you actually have a chance. Right now, I don’t think they have much of a chance. I think all of this ‘get it on the Internet’ is all BS and nonsense. You have to really connect with people. There aren’t very many clubs. There’s no place for people to develop and play. It’s a bad time right now for young artists.
“It’s not always about huge giant commercial success. It’s about art. It’s about creativity. It’s about virtuosity. I worry about that because it doesn’t look really good. But, when I was a kid, it didn’t look good either. Big-time success then was to be on a bus with seven other bands doing 90 shows in 80 days. I wasn’t kidding when I said take acting lessons and work on your video because without that [there’s no] marketplace.”
So, is it really that gloomy for aspiring young (and young-ish) musicians? We asked some people in Pittsburgh bands to respond.
Josh Verbanets, Meeting of Important People: “I expected another cranky rant about how ‘Stairway to Heaven’ = GOOD MUSIC and Ke$ha = BAD MUSIC. Instead, I found Mr. Miller’s comments humorous, genuine and still relatively positive. With all due respect to The Steve Miller Band, it might not be too wise to take modern music industry advice from someone who hasn’t had a mainstream hit recording in three entire generations of popular music, let alone the digital era; but he honestly didn’t seem too off-base with his thoughts.
At heart, it seems like Steve Miller loves music and wants other artists (not just himself) to express themselves, grow, earn revenue, and find an audience — and there’s nothing wrong with that. The argument of ‘There’s No Venues For Young People To Play!!’ always drives me nuts and seems to be putting the horse before the cart. Venues pop up and prosper when there’s an audience interested in fostering artists, not the other way around.”
Jim Dunn, Chux Beta: “I suppose my issue with this ‘advice’ would be the working theory that the only acceptable endgame as an artist would be to have a ‘hit record.’ Who gives a [expletive]? I think the issue with the state of music nowadays is that exact mindset. If you are going into writing, recording and performing with the end goal of paying your bills and having that be your main source of income, you deserve to be unhappy and have Steve Miller yelling at you.”
Zack Keim, Nox Boys: Steve Miller has some good points but the dude is 70. Every musician I know who is older is mostly cynical about the music business. For me, music is simply this: If you don’t work hard to network or make connections and just sit there and perform at the same dive bar/venue/city every week, it’s very hard to get anywhere. I’m 17 right now and I can literally walk on the street, and say hi to people I know throughout Pittsburgh. I can do this because I take the time to acknowledge and care about the people who like my music. To say it is ‘impossible’ for young artists to make it in the music business is somewhat of an overstatement. All it takes is networking and social skills, hard work and some kick-ass rock ’n’ roll.”
Joel Lindsey, Boulevard of the Allies: “I think Miller’s view is pretty accurate. You can’t just be a great songwriter anymore and just hope to get discovered. Musicians should do everything they can for themselves: run their own home studio, record their own music, control their own website, be their own tour manager. We can do it all if we’re proactive. The rest is still a gamble, but at least you’re doing all that you can.”
Jasmine Tate, singer-songwriter: “As an artist, it’s ultra refreshing to read a realistic perspective. Steve Miller didn’t leave our generation with any room for wishful thinking, only a desire to see the current reality changed. While times are not ideal for an artist like myself, I truly believe we are hitting a wall within the music industry and in society in general. The artists that truly care about what they’re saying and how they’re saying it seem to be falling through the cracks quickly. A lack of compromising for that commercial success is costing us resources and access to listeners in many ways. However, in the age of social media, accelerated strides in technology and crowd sourcing, it seems that the game is simply changing. I absolutely agree with Steve Miller in saying that ‘it’s not all about huge, giant commercial success’ Most of the artists that carry that value are the ones writing music that everyone should be hearing. So, we can either throw the baby out with the bathwater and completely give up on the industry, or figure out a way to turn the tides. Some of us are already scheming. I believe there will be a turnaround.”
Chet Vincent, Chet Vincent and The Big Band: “I agree with him totally about music being about creativity and virtuosity, success doesn’t have to be measured by fame or riches. I’m not sure that I’m convinced there was a time the music industry was easier, or that it’s more difficult now — if anything technology has opened recording and music distribution possibilities to people that would have been excluded in previous decades.”
Johnny Saint-Lethal, The Show: “Steve is dead on, and clearly being satirical. He’s daring us to make art that can’t be ignored. At the end of the day, it’s not evil if it’s on a major label and it’s not worthless if it’s ignored. We have the equivalent to a two party system in the music industry where the labels and radio control everything... and the money goes so deep that it seems hopeless to break through... But if your songs are real enough and you’re doing something that is true to yourself, and not copying other sounds or trying to be someone else, someone somewhere will eventually take notice. But he’s right, the whole industry is a sham ... if you don’t want to play the game, then don’t play at all. It takes extreme dedication and hard work and perseverance to ‘make it.’ unless lightning strikes for you... and what are the chances of that?”
Nathan Zoob, Wreck Loose: “I think Mr. Miller’s advice is solid but his diagnosis is flawed. Sure, learn how to act, learn how to dance. No artist ever went broke by becoming a better and more well-rounded entertainer, but he’s shaking his head at an industry that’s evolving, not dying. The Internet isn’t the great Satan any more than it’s the great democratizer. It’s zine culture writ large. It’s the parking lot before a Grateful Dead concert — a place where like-minded fans can circulate their favorite tapes and turn each other on to new and exciting discoveries.
“It’s true that the industry has been decentralized and destabilized, making it harder to find the mega-success that defined Mr. Miller’s era, but that level of success in the music industry is and always has been an anomaly. For every Bob Dylan selling out stadiums there are hundreds of Dave von Ronks staking out a quiet claim to their own little scene. Thanks to the Internet it’s easier than ever for a talented artist to find or build that scene, and for those with their eyes set on an artistically fulfilling career that’s a very positive thing.”
T.J. Connelly, Chrome Moses: “His advice could be given in any era of the music business. There will always be the dichotomy between suffering for your art and taking dance lessons to make it. However, it looks especially grim given the modern state of popular music — dance lessons may not help. And, by suffering for your art, I don’t think he means making a video that begs your family and friends for money.”
C.T. Fields, Lovebettie: “Steve Miller makes a very honest and albeit jaded point, but it is missing a lot of personal knowledge about being on that up-and-comer level in today’s music industry. Being from a band like Lovebettie that tours 150-250 dates per year all over the country, you really get to see firsthand what the beast really is. And yes, it is brutally harsh, depressingly oversaturated, and almost impossible to navigate… just like it was in every other era of music.
The difference now is that everything is more accessible to the independent artist. The music industry has toppled in on itself and has gone from hundreds of major labels to only a handful. The watering hole has dried up for corporations who have manufactured artist stereotypes and have held all of the keys for so many years. The reality is that things are more hopeful now than hopeless.
All of the doors have opened to the independent artist. If you want to book the largest venues and festivals in the country, just send them an email (seriously try it). If you want your own major sponsorships, you can contact them directly.
If you don’t have money, you can use crowd-source funding like Kickstarter. If you don’t know how the music business works, you can go to music conferences and learn for yourself. The industry is now dominated by entrepreneurs and cowboys. Anything you want to do as an artist, you are capable of achieving on your own. I appreciate Steve Miller’s tough-love comment, but the reality is that this is the best time for a band to come up. But it is the best time for a band that is accountable for their careers and willing to work really hard for what they want.”