- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2016

Phil Collen, lead guitarist for Def Leppard, has a message for millennial musicians who just want to be rich and famous: Don’t do it for the money.

“Don’t do this if you’re just [out for] fame or money,” the 59-year-old said, “because it very rarely happens. The reward should be the artistic expression.”

Mr. Collen, whose English band will be playing Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Virginia, alongside Tesla and REO Speedwagon Wednesday evening, knows he has been lucky to enjoy both artistic fulfillment and fiduciary compensation in his career. But too many young artists now, he says, want the rewards without putting in the work.

“Their motivation for doing it is usually narcissistic. It’s usually I want to be on YouTube; please recognize me,” Mr. Collen said. “As opposed to when we started. A lot of other artists like Prince would just be writing songs, and he wouldn’t really care” if they found an audience. “That doesn’t really happen now.”

When Mr. Collen and his Def Leppard bandmates were first coming up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the recording industry was indeed a place to get rich — often quickly, and frequently obscenely.

That era, just like its friendship bracelets and Atari games, is long since gone.

“Because of the decline of the record industry, obviously touring is way more important,” Mr. Collen told The Washington Times, adding that the current corporate climate has all but eliminated independent labels and promoters.

“There’s two promoters basically: There’s AEG and Live Nation,” he said. “Before you’d have all these independent promoters around the country [and] you could do it independently. That isn’t [the case] anymore.”

What bands have lost in corporate backing, he says, they have gained in social media and a do-it-yourself ethos to better connect them with their fans.

And touring. Always, always touring.

“The fact that we don’t have a major label and we’re still succeeding despite that means more,” Mr. Collen said. “I’m proud of the fact that we have integrity; we never split up.”

Def Leppard formed in England in 1977. High-intensity rock albums like “Pyromania” and “Hysteria” made them famous the world over in the 1980s during a resurgence of metal music. The band has seen its ups and downs, including drummer Rick Allen losing his left arm in a car accident in 1984. Despite the setback, Mr. Allen has continued to pound the percussion with the band ever since.

“A lot of these venues we play are the same venues we’ve been playing for 30-odd years,” Mr. Collen said of the current tour. “We’ve always been busy.”

For nearly as long as he’s been Def Leppard’s guitarist, Mr. Collen has maintained sobriety. He recalls his first tour as the band’s guitarist as “a little bit hazy,” but that sobriety makes him appreciate the rock scene all the more.

Mr. Collen has his own brand of guitars, and he’s even gotten to pick the brains of some of his heroes, like Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

“I went out for dinner with him one night and grilled him about vocals, and he was so gracious and wonderful,” Mr. Collen said of Everly, who died in 2014 at 74. “And he’s talking about [playing with] Buddy Holly and Elvis.

“It’s a great position to be in when you can actually humbly go up to one of your idols and grill them as a fan. They give you a little more credence that you’ve sold so many records and they’ve become a fan of yours as well.”

Mr. Collen said there is never any competition between Def Leppard and the other bands they tour with. In fact, Mr. Collen is producing the next album for their co-headliner, Tesla, and wrote that band’s new song, “Save That Goodness.”

But just as the model for releasing an album has changed, so too has it become difficult for even a new single to find an audience.

“With Phil, I said, ‘Hey, when you [get] a a million downloads” for a single, “do you get an award for that?’” Tesla lead singer Jeff Keith told The Times of working with Mr. Collen. “And he says, ‘No, they just don’t do it like that anymore.’

“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you’d make the record, they’d give you the plaque — the gold [or] platinum. Everything’s different” now, Mr. Keith said.

“Save That Goodness” is an upbeat, rocking track that is reminiscent of the ‘80s metal sound. On the current tour, Mr. Collen will often join Tesla on stage to play the song he wrote for them.

“They’ve been our big brothers,” Mr. Keith said of Mr. Collen and Def Leppard, “so it’s great to be out there with them again.”

Mr. Collen, who has a side band called Delta Deep, said he is flattered when young musicians come up to him for advice, but he remains steadfast in counseling against pursuing rock full-time if you can “live without it.”

“Do you have to do this, or is it something you want to try because you want to get attention?” Mr. Collen tells advice-seekers. “You have to ask those questions.”

That, and a little persistence, can go a long way. Mr. Collen points to another band from his native land who were, at first, passed over by a major label.

“The Beatles got passed by Decca,” he said with a little chuckle. “And then all of a sudden they became ‘The Beatles.’”

While not as old as the remaining members of the Fab Four, Mr. Collen, pushing 60, says that he is healthier than ever before, and that playing is even more fun now than in the big-hair days.

“The fact that I can still jump around like a 20-year-old on stage, to me I find it remarkable,” he said. “It’s like someone giving you a fountain of youth for stuff that you couldn’t do back then but you can do [now] with more energy.”

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