Steve Miller still loves the music, still hates the business

by John J. Moser

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

6 July 2007

Singer Steve Miller will perform July 7, 2007, at Mountain Laurel Center for the Arts in Bushkill, Pennsylvania. (Handout/Allentown Morning Call/MCT) 

At age 63, rocker Steve Miller, who had his biggest success in the mid-1970s with the albums “The Joker,” “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Book of Dreams,” still loves the business of playing music.

It’s the music business he doesn’t like so much.

“The record business, the radio business, all of that is fairly tedious and boring,” Miller said during a break from his current tour. “You make a new record, then you have to go beat your record company up, then they want you to go to a mall and hustle it for them. That doesn’t appeal to me at all.

“Performing is what I like to do and what I want to do and what I’m best at, and so right now it is something that I do with a lot of joy and a lot of energy and take it very, very seriously. ... It’s really the most important part of my musical career at this point.”

While it has been 30 years since his three biggest albums sold a combined 12 million-plus units and produced three No. 1 hits, Miller said fans can expect to hear him play songs from those discs, and more.

“Sometimes if you (tell a crowd), `Here’s a new piece of music we’ve just done,’ 5,000 people will get up and go get a hot dog `til you play `Fly Like An Eagle,’” Miller said.

“So it’s our job to educate our audience and nudge them along. People come to see us, they want to hear `The Joker,’ they want to hear `Fly Like An Eagle,’ `Take the Money and Run’ and `Rock’n Me’ and `Jet Airliner’ and `Jungle Love.’ There’s about 14 songs they really, really want to hear.

“But at the same time, we slip in some jazz and we slip in some blues, and there’s about nine other songs that we do. Recently we’ve been doing things from the earlier part of our career. I think the other night we did `Going To Mexico’ and `Motherless Children.’”

Miller has to depend on hits and early material because he hasn’t put out an album of new material since 1993’s “Wild River.” He said he continues to write songs, but piracy through the Internet and other means has diluted the reward for releasing new music.

“We’re working on a record right now. We were in the studio last night and I sang a bunch of things,” he said. “And I have no idea whether I’ll release it, or whether I’ll even be interested in releasing it, `til I can find a way to just sort of go directly to my fan base - people who want to buy the records. You know, people steal records. There’s no sense in spending money and making stuff and just putting it out and having it just ripped off and stolen.

“So I have no idea when I’m going to release another record, or if I ever will.”

Miller said his last release, a 30th anniversary edition of “Fly Like An Eagle” a year ago that included rare outtakes, a remastering of the disc in 5.1 surround sound and an accompanying DVD with interviews and a two-hour live concert, exemplified the problems with the record industry.

He said Capitol Records “came to me and said (he effects a desperate voice), `Oh, man, you know, 30th anniversary, blah, blah, blah.’ Basically, what they’re saying is, `Uh, we can repackage this for more money’ period, right?

“Then I said, `Well, I’d like to do a little bit more than just repackage it because we’ve got this nice video we shot and we want to do this.’ And to the record company’s credit, the guys that were working there, they wanted to make a good package.”

But, Miller said, “then they mis-manufactured 120,000 of them. They were all out of sync and they had to throw them away. It’s nuts.

“The record business is an airplane with twin engines and the engines are on fire, the plane is spiraling and it’s about a quarter of a mile from the ground right now, going as fast as it can go,” he said, chuckling.

Miller said a recent project - a 2006 collaboration with the University of Southern California’s jazz band - also has run into record company problems.

“We’re in the process of starting to mix it,” Miller said. “I’m finishing up some vocals (but) the guys who were the president and vice president of Capitol Records all got fired. They’re the guys who approved that project, and one day I just called up and they said, `Oh they just all got fired and 30 percent of the work force is gone now. There’s a new guy from New York who’s gonna come out some day.’”

Miller said the reason his best-known recordings sold so well - a greatest-hits package sold 13 million and he said his catalog continues to sell up to 700,000 units a year - was his attention to quality.

“Most groups at that time would maybe write one good tune and then they’d put like 11 crappy tunes on their album; they’d hustle their album out as fast as they could,” he said. “I was trying to make 12 or 14 of the best songs I could do. ... My goal is to make an album you couldn’t take off your turntable.”

Miller said his profile went from a respectable blues-rock artist who started in 1968 and made critically acclaimed but medium-selling discs to a chart-topping artist, not coincidentally, with 1973’s “The Joker” because it “was the first record that I produced myself and the first one where I had really complete artistic control.”

“I didn’t have somebody else telling me what they thought I should sound like or what I should do. Really, from that time on, I pretty much was able to run my own grid the way I wanted to.”

“Fly Like An Eagle” in 1976 became Miller’s signature release, staying on Billboard’s albums chart two years with three hit singles. “Book of Dreams” followed with several more hits, and 1982’s “Abracadabra” and its No. 1 title hit marked his final Top 10 appearance.

Just as Miller’s songs have remained a mainstay of classic-rock radio, his tours have continued to sell well.

“I look forward to playing every evening and we’re practicing and working and trying to be better all the time. That’s the beauty about being a musician, you know? You get to be the age of 30, it’s not like your life is over, your career’s ended `cause you’re 30 years old. You can keep getting better as you age. And you should if you keep working on it.”

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