- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

ATLANTA — He entered the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon as a joker, a smoker and a 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,” Mr. Miller said after speaking at a conference put on by a corporate research and advisory firm.

His speech underlies a truth that’s been around for decades, but became 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 competition increasing and traditional revenue sources such as album and ticket sales continuing to slide, music industry experts say the rock world’s long-blurry line between art and commerce is threatening to fade entirely.

Selling out, once the ultimate insult in rock circles, has come to mean much less, they say.

“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.

With the advent of Internet downloads, album sales have been dropping steadily for the past five years. Concert attendance has seen a similar dip. And with cheaper recording equipment thanks to computer technology, more bands are competing for fans’ attention and dollars.

“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 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,’” Mr. Hatau adds.

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 scene at the Grateful Dead’s traveling carnivals.

Behind the scenes, though, the group 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. “We discuss what we’re going to do, why we’re going to do it, how much it’s going to cost and what we’re going to get out of it.”

The band’s six members play an active role in the business, Mr. 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.”

Increasingly, though, high-profile rock-business mergers have become more visible than Widespread’s number crunching.

Brit-rocker David Bowie startled the rock world in 1997 when the man who once took the stage as a space alien named Ziggy Stardust announced he would issue bonds backed by royalties from the future sale of his music.

The $55 million issue of 10-year notes was bought entirely by Prudential Insurance Co. at an interest rate of 7.9 percent.

And in October, U2 announced an unprecedented partnership with Apple computers, joining CEO Steve Jobs to endorse the company’sIPod audio players — including one specially designed to play every song the band has ever recorded.

During his recent speech, Mr. 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.

It’s those instincts that led the business conference’s Atlanta-based sponsor, The Hackett Group, to add Mr. Miller to a roster of presentations that included “Benchmarking for Competitive Advantage” and “Generating a Return on Compliance Efforts.”

Mr. Miller makes no apologies for always being mindful of the business end of his music career, including licensing his songs “Fly Like an Eagle” to the U.S. Postal Service for an ad campaign and “Rockin’ Me” for a Wrangler jeans commercial.

The same marketing skills he showcased as a preteen would lead Mr. 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,” he said.

Spin’s Mr. Brod said he doesn’t fault new acts for doing whatever it takes to get noticed — even if it means selling the rights to their music for commercial uses, sometimes even before the songs are released on an album.

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.

However, in the end, Mr. 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.”

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