Nile Rodgers Talks Making Hits & Not Being a Music Snob During SXSW Keynote Address

Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Nile Rodgers delivers his keynote speech at Austin Convention Center on March 15, 2017 in Austin, Texas. 

Nile Rodgers’ keynote speech on Wednesday (March 15) at South by Southwest was something of a make-good for the Chic mastermind and upcoming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoree.

He explained to the Austin crowd that he last came to SXSW in 1991, less than seven months after Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tragic death in a helicopter crash. “Lemme just say, I was not present,” said Rodgers, who had produced the Vaughan brothers’ Family Style album that came out the previous fall. “I was going around trying to hear bands and trying to meet people, but Stevie had just passed away, so I wasn’t here. So I’m gonna be present as hell today. I’m gonna make up for lost time.”

That he did. Rodgers delivered a warmly encouraging and insightful hour-long talk that took stock of both creativity and the realities of the contemporary music business -- though many who attended or watched online are likely to walk away remembering his fascinating demonstrations of how he constructed the layered guitar parts for Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Chic’s “Good Times,” or the story about Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” being inspired by a visit to a gay club and being in the bathroom surrounded by male Diana Ross impersonators.

Rodgers did, however, offer plenty of takeaways for those in the crowd who want to be the next Nile Rodgers, including…

-- Practice makes perfect. “My jazz guitar teacher asked me one day why I was studying with him,” Rodgers recalled. “I said, 'cause I want to play concerts, I want to make records, I want to do all sorts of stuff -- big orchestral works, films, all these sorts of things. He said, ‘Really? Is that all? You could easily do all of that.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, how can I do it?’ He said, ‘Play better.’ So I started just practicing, practicing, practicing, learning to play better.”

-- Don’t be snobby. Rodgers related that his teacher also chilled out his negative attitude toward top 40 music -- using the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” as an example. “One day I was really grumpy.  He said, ‘What’s wrong, young bood?’ and I said, ‘I got to do this boogaloo gig tonight and we’re playing all these bullsh-- songs…all the top 40.’ He looked at me and goes, ‘Whoa, Nile, what makes you believe these are bullsh-- songs?... What makes you believe you’re the ultimate consumer? Any song that sells and gets to the top 40, gets into the top 10, gets into the top 20, any song is a great composition.’ I said '["Sugar Sugar"] is a great composition?’ He said, ‘Absolutely, especially "Sugar Sugar," because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.' He really berated me; he was trying to teach me how to not be a snob. I was like, ‘Wow…’ and two weeks later I wrote a song called 'Everybody Dance,' ‘cause that was so profound on me. I wanted to learn to speak to the souls of a million strangers. That woke me up to the power of what we call pop music.”

-- Be open to chance. Rodgers noted that Daft Punk released “Get Lucky” as the first single from Random Access Memories to set up “Lose Yourself to Dance” as the expected big hit. “Oops,” he said with a laugh. “'Get Lucky’ wound up being absolutely massive, and as terrific as ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ was, it just didn’t have that thing that ‘Get Lucky’ had -- that thing that spoke to the souls of a million strangers.”

-- You have it or you don’t. “The people who are stars and make it, who have hit records and have repeated hit records, yeah, they have it going on. You can feel the vibe. When I first met Madonna, phew, it was clear as a bell to me. I’ve met Gaga; whew, clear, clear, clear. Daft Punk, I remember the first night I met them was 20 years ago at a listening party and I knew they had something interesting -- well, it wounded a lot like Chic, by the way. [Laughs] When I first saw Bruno Mars, I knew he was the bomb. I knew it instantly. Some people just have that magical thing and you can feel the vibe right away. Others you can actually work on it and develop that magical thing, but some people, they just have that stardust sprinkled on them and you can feel it.” 

-- The future of musical success is in brands and sync rights. “The reason why I believe that our future is going with a lot of brands is because I’ve seen it happen,” Rodgers explained, noting his work for “a gazillion” Nike and Budweiser ads as well as film work, recently including Trolls. “They have the muscle. I know if I get that thing right, there can be another benefit to my career. I may wind up getting a hit record because they have another platform to help ears hear my songs, hear my compositions. So I decided that it was important for me to take advantage of that. I know they have budgets. When I get my royalty checks, they’re not just for records -- It’s for Nike commercials, it’s for films, it’s for television. It’s for everything. Your music should be everywhere in the world. Go do everything. Do anything you can. Honestly, if you’re a composer, you’re a musician, you’re a performer, you just want to be heard. That’s going to be the hookup, with brands who think your music or your sound is where they’re coming from or the audience they want to target. When I started out, doing commercials and things like that was a bad word. But also actors thought that being a television actor was a bad word…Now you want to be on Game of Thrones.”

-- There’s nothing wrong with big hits. “Don’t think your audience is small. Make it big. Spotify sent me a message almost a year ago saying, ‘Nile, you’re over 3 billion [streams] now.’ That must mean I have a check coming for $25. But I didn’t make the music for the $25 check. I really did make the music for the three billion.”

-- Women are, not surprisingly, more important to music-making than they’re often given credit for. “We grew up in an atmosphere where there were lots of women producers -- a lot. During the disco phenomenon I can’t tell you how many times I was hired to go play on records women were producing. There were women engineers. But unfortunately the way the business is structured is sort of like a microcosm of American. Things are hopefully changing and the world is starting to look different…Well, maybe in four years. Right now the world is looking pretty weird.”