Def Leppard's Joe Elliott on Battle With Label: 'We Don't Want to Work for the Man, We Want to Be the Man' (Q&A)
As the '80s megaband fights for a bigger share of digital royalties, its singer breaks down the issues at hand, how acts like My Chemical Romance could suffer in the future and the state of today's music: "It's blasé."
One by one, Def Leppard's arsenal of hit songs will get a modern-day shining. No, we’re not talking about a newly mastered version of Pyromania or an anniversary edition of their greatest hits package Vault. Rather, the band members are rerecording the classics -- starting with 1983’s “Rock of Ages” and 1987’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” -- as a way to offer their fans a digital option while at the same giving a giant middle finger to their longtime label Universal.
Def Leppard can do this because they are, well, Def Leppard. Having sold more than 100 million albums in their 34 years together, the band, fronted by Joe Elliott, were able to negotiate a sweetheart of a deal wherein they have approval over everything that’s done with their songs -- from special collections to licenses for movies, TV shows and games and their very availability online.
Right now, you won’t find the original “Photograph” on iTunes, nor will you hear the decades-old “Pour Some Sugar on Me” in the just-released movie Rock of Ages. That’s because the band is rejecting all of its label’s requests in a power struggle aimed at reassigning digital rates in their favor. Will the strategy work? The Hollywood Reporter looks at the issue as a whole in this week’s print magazine, and below, Def Leppard’s singer goes deeper in an extended Q&A.
The Hollywood Reporter: Is this fight with Universal more about money or controlling your musical destiny?
Joe Elliott: It's about principle. I'd be lying if I didn't say it was about money because the problem we've got is, they want to pay us what we think is a ridiculously low rate. It’s a well-known fact: Artists throughout the years have always been shafted by record companies. … The reason we're being so sticky about it is because two years ago, we made a deal with a gentleman at Universal who was pretty much on our side -- he was a fan, a smart businessman and a fair guy -- and we shook hands. Fifteen days later, somebody above his head said the deal's not going through. To an Englishman, when you shake hands, it's a binding contract, and Universal reneged on it. So we dug in our heels and said, “We're gonna say a blanket no to anything that you ask for.”
THR: And Def Leppard is in a unique position because you’re one of few bands to have veto power. How does that play out?
Elliott: They can't release our back catalog, we're not going to let them put a song on a compilation unless we want it there, and they'll never be able to license. They won’t be able to do anything without our permission because that’s in our contract.
THR: Explain the crux of the band’s argument.
Elliott: We want to get the same rate for digital as we do when we sell CDs, and they're trying to give us a rate that doesn't even come close. They illegally put up our songs for a while, paying us the rate they chose without even negotiating with us, so we had our lawyer take them down.
THR: And what would be a fair split in your view?
Elliott: When you do your own recordings, you're making about 85 percent and 15 percent goes to iTunes or whichever particular digital domain you put them up. Something along those lines would be fair. But they were offering us the opposite -- a quarter of what we get paid on our CDs. So we thought if we can't get them to pay us a decent rate on the digital, then we're going to go in, rerecord them and pay ourselves decently. Because we're not fighting against our own back catalog. If we put rerecords up against the originals, nobody would buy the rerecords. So what we're trying to create is what they know by making as close as we can, forgeries of what we did in '83, '81, '87…
THR: What about the inevitable argument that you guys are just being greedy.
Elliott: I'm obviously aware people are going to say that, but we made a decision years ago that we would try and wrestle back control. And I think that's something to be applauded. We are just trying to own what we've done. We own our T-shirt deals, our own staging, and our own rights to make whatever decisions we want. We're not trying to milk our back catalog for billions of dollars, we're just trying to get paid a fair amount. The one thing I'll say about this band is that we actually perversely enjoy the fact that if there's going to be a major screw-up, we can't blame anybody except ourselves. We don't like saying, “I told you so,” or pointing fingers at people going, “You've just ruined my career.” If that’s going to happen, we want to be the ones to do it. We want to be in charge. We don't want to be working for the man, we want to be the man, if you like.
THR: Bands fighting with their labels goes back to the earliest years of the music business …
Elliott: And you hear so many horror stories about the early royalty rates of The Rolling Stones, where they supposedly don't earn a penny of anything from before “Brown Sugar,” or Jimi Hendrix, who died with eight pounds in his bank account. These are legendary, iconic people without whom we wouldn't exist. But the music business has caught up, it's gotten sensible, where it doesn't have as many sharks anymore. Plus, we've got our own lawyers that are as pit-bull as theirs, so at least we can go into battle with an army that’s even-sided. And again, we’re not looking for [Universal] to give us a leg up or to keep us in the lifestyle that we've become accustomed to. We are well prepared to work for it; we're just not prepared to give them money for old rope when they give us nothing in return.
THR: So far this year, catalog is outselling new music. Can you live comfortably off your catalog? How profitable is Def Leppard on its own?
Elliott: It's really expensive being in a band -- ask Pete Townshend, he said it’s why his hair fell out -- and especially if you're not working. If you decide to take a year off, you've still got outlays without any inlay, meaning income. Like there are retainers, and money goes into storage. Of course, it depends on the lifestyle that you've become accustomed to. We never asked for Rolls-Royces from the label. Other bands that sold a billionth of what we did get a free car every Christmas; we got nothing. We once got a plastic cassette box that you could buy in CVS for $1.99, having just sold 10 million copies in Syria. That was their gift. It had PolyGram written on the lid -- like whoopee f---ing do. … But if I were to pack it all in tomorrow, I won’t die destitute. But I'm pretty frugal. I'm not one of these guys that rents a private plane to fly off for three weeks in the Bahamas. I fly commercial like everybody else, as most of us do. We have to work really hard. Don’t forget that it’s a fashion industry.
THR: What do you mean by that?
Elliott: In the same amount of time that you become cool you can become super uncool. So you’ve got to take your chances while you can. This is not McDonald's, which is always there because people are always going to be hungry. I get it -- every generation wants to kill the one before, but in the '80s we wanted to mimic our heroes. And by the time we came to where our idols were, the band communities wanted to kill us. I’m not going to name any names, but let’s just say most of the bands that came from the Seattle region of the world wanted to stomp on our heads. We didn’t want to kill Queen, we wanted to join Queen, or AC/DC or Led Zeppelin.
THR: How do you see yourself in the context of those bands now?
Elliott: I’m on the coattails of people like Pete Townshend and The Who. We’ve been around for 30-plus years, and that’s enough to be in his club. We can’t be in Green Day’s or Foo Fighters’ club; they’re 10 years behind. But do you honestly think that in 2050 we’ll be talking about a band like My Chemical Romance? Will anybody care when they’re 34 years old? And I’m not knocking the band, but my point is their situation is not as good as the one we were in when we became big. Because their videos, I’m sure they get millions of hits on YouTube, but it’s not the same as 1983, when the world stopped to turn their telly or radio on and watch the new single by Michael Jackson and not just listen to it. It’s blasé today. I fear for My Chemical Romance. They might survive because they’re good, and Muse will survive, but there are loads of bands that sold a couple million records in the '80s and were on MTV that are now playing in bowling alleys -- or worse, serving in bowling alleys.
THR: Back to the rerecords, does your motivation to re-create these songs have anything to do with sound fidelity?
Elliott: Not really because what we're trying to create are doppelgangers. You're never going to get them exactly the same. Somebody actually put the two versions of “Rock of Ages” up on YouTube, and you can hear the difference. But it's not like it's worse, it's just different. You can't re-create 1982 because the machinery that we recorded on doesn't exist. So you have to get it as close as you can. What we had to do is study them like a forger would study a Monet or a Dali.
THR: How long did it take to do each song?
Elliott: A few weeks. We did it like the originals -- you go in and do a couple hours here and there when you've got the energy and the ability. They're not costing us a great deal of money to rerecord because we're doing most of the work in my studio, and I don't charge the band for my studio. They just pay the electricity bill, which is pretty minuscule. So it's a win-win for us. We get to record them cheap, but we get to make the maximum amount of it.
THR: You didn’t approach original producer Mutt Lange to rerecord. Why?
Elliott: It wouldn’t have worked. Mutt helped us create those sounds and taught us how to achieve them, but we now have left college and know how to get on in the world. … Your career goes in a different track, and to try and pick up where we left off, neither party is the same person. It's like remarrying your first wife -- you could go back for a quick bonk up the hotel room. We’ve never ruled out working with Mutt again, but I don't think I'd do an entire record with him. You can’t unscramble an egg. If it was a case of he didn't like it, that’s tough because we are legally allowed to do this. But I have to stress that it’s not the case.
THR: How many rerecords are you planning to do?
Elliott: We have two done, we've got two more on the go, and we'll just keep doing them in blocks of twos and threes until we've pretty much created Vault and we won't have our own back catalog to fight against. We’ll have our music up digitally, but we will be in charge of our career. Anybody -- whether it’s Pearl Jam, Nirvana -- would do the same thing if they saw what we were offered. We’re not going to make a great deal of money off the rerecords, but it's the principle: If you're going to f--- us around, this is what we're gonna do. There is nothing wrong with being a capitalist. We want to be paid a fair and decent wage for the work that we do. And we work really hard.
THR: Your band has made some smart moves, chief among them the right of approval. What else has paid off?
Elliott: We own the videos. That’s the one thing we were smart enough to do in the '80s -- when we made videos, we paid for all of them. And that’s the thing: I want to own my own house; I don’t want to rent. I want to own my car; I don’t want to lease. I want to own the clothes that I’m wearing and the music that I make. Or if I legally can’t, I want to be paid a fair amount of money when people buy it, rent it, lease it, stream it, whatever. I hope to God that [Duran Duran's] Simon Le Bon, [U2's] Bono, Jon Bon Jovi, [Iron Maiden's] Bruce Dickinson, etc. don’t have to go in and rerecord their stuff. To us it’s a bit of a novelty -- it’s funny and getting a lot of publicity. People say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and I would argue that point, but it’s a talking point right now.