Although the winter is usually a quiet time for the music business, Toby Keith has made two surprise announcements in the past few weeks. In December, he merged his own label, Show Dog Records, with the Universal South imprint. And on Wednesday (Jan. 13), he surprised many people in the business by signing Trace Adkins, who had been releasing hit singles on Capitol Records since 1996. And in the midst of the business deals, Keith traveled to Europe for several shows, including a performance at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Norway. Nice work, if you can get it.
"It ain't a job to me," Keith tells CMT Insider host Katie Cook. "It's a job that I go do, but it is a labor of love. I go out there every night because I want to go out there every night. It's not work to me. Anybody who complains about making their money in music is a spoiled rotten brat because this is the best job on the planet."
In the first half of this two-part interview, Keith discusses his long-awaited international tour, the anger that stemmed from his controversial Nobel appearance and his well-planned media manipulation.
Katie Cook: You did your first European tour. How did that go?
Toby Keith: I did. We've been trying to go over there for six or seven years, and every time we would call the promoters over there, they would go, "If you get a song on BBC2 that's played over here -- we don't have country -- then maybe we would consider it." And I was coming back from a USO tour a couple years ago and I met a Norwegian gentleman in Germany or somewhere and he said, "Are you Toby Keith?" and I said, "Yeah." He said, "You're huge in Norway." So I came back and asked my manager and he said, "Yeah, you had a platinum album in Norway last year." I said, "Why don't we go play in Norway?" So we called the promoters up, out of the blue, and they said "Yeah, where ya been? We've been waiting on you to come forever." So I don't know where the connection didn't happen, but it was wonderful. We played nine shows in six different countries and sold them out. And it was phenomenal.
Did you feel like the audiences were very different than U.S. fans?
No, I expected them to be a lot different. The only way they were different was some of the singles that you have here that are hits are not necessarily hits there. But, to make up for that, they play album cuts too. I played two or three songs in my set over there that I have never played onstage and they sang along with every word, like they had been on the radio. "White Rose Fillin' Station," "Cabo St. Lucas," songs like that, that weren't singles here in the States that were hits over there. That was neat for me, but nothing really changed. You adjust your list, so obviously "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and "American Soldier" aren't going to affect them like the other songs would. They've never played them. But I had a lot of requests from people holding signs up.
You wouldn't leave those out because you think that could offend somebody.
No, I have probably 12 or 15 No. 1's that I don't play in my show ever. So when you go over there ... "White Rose Fillin' Station" was a huge song in London. I had to add that to the show, so I always had to take one out. So the stuff that they never played over there, we didn't play. "Wish I Didn't Know Now" was a song I don't do onstage, and it was a hit here, but it also still gets a lot of airplay there, so they wanted that. I went back and did some of those old songs. The stuff I did in interviews by asking questions, what they wanted regionally that they listen to of mine, is what I played. Obviously, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" and "American Soldier" and things like that, weren't songs that ever get played on their radio. So I tried to play stuff that they recognized me for.
Any particular place you want to take the family to?
They went with me. It was a chance to take your family and go do that now. It wasn't much of a vacation, but my son had to keep a journal to get out of school. He had to use it for education purposes. We visited a lot of museums. I told him to. He saw the whole museum of Pablo Picasso paintings, he saw The Thinker statue, he saw the Madonna, he saw The Scream painting, he saw Vincent Van Gogh's self portrait. So he got to write his journal about a bunch of cool stuff, but there's definitely country music in Scotland, Norway, Ireland, England, Sweden, all through there.
You knew country music was big over there, but were you surprised at how much they knew you and your music? Like you said, they were singing along.
Yeah, "I Love This Bar" was like an anthem over there. The one thing that they prepared me for is, they said audiences are more listeners over there and you'll have to get used to them sitting and listening. But they were up like normal. I didn't see any difference, they were up rocking. And the guy who runs the Apollo told us at the end of the show that they never stand. So I think that is a result of them seeing my videos and seeing me perform and how the crowd reacts there, and they did the same thing, as opposed to what they normally do at every show. But they reacted and responded. Probably 80 percent of the places responded exactly like they do here in the States.
OK, so the crowds were very similar. What about the press? How did you feel you were treated?
They were OK. Obviously there is some anti-America feel to some of those countries and stuff. That goes without saying. Probably any American would get that, me specifically. But other than that, it was few and far between. It wasn't discussed very much, and I did tons of press for it. They just don't have an agenda to commit you politically like they do here.
You are such an American artist. Do you think maybe that was part of the curiosity for some of the European crowds?
It was obvious that in Norway they absolutely love Americans. Now, I went back and played two weeks after my tour was over at the [Nobel] Peace Prize [ceremony] at Norway, again at the same building. Different vibe that time because it was more about politics, more about the President of the United States being there. And whether it was inappropriate for me to be there or not, that was a different take on it. I didn't get that when I went through as an artist.
Did that make you angry?
Yeah, it always makes me angry when there's 12 artists up there and everybody's getting asked about getting the opportunity of a lifetime to perform at something that a gazillion people are gonna be watching worldwide, and the question that you have to answer to the press is about whether it's appropriate for you to even be there or not. Yeah, but I'm a big boy.
Do you ever feel because you're such an outspoken guy that you are opening yourself up to the media to attack you?
That's how I make my money. I open myself up to the media, and if I need to ring somebody's bell and get a little press for something, I can say a couple of choice, cued, preconceived words and dance them like puppets and they'll go right to work for me, for free. So, as ridiculous as that sounds, you have to embrace that and take that approach because you can't fight them all. You can't fight the system like that, so you have to learn to push it in a positive way for you. I know when to call my shots and when to get them riled up. And I've done it very good. I'm very good at it.
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.