Steve Miller is not a grumpy guy. Miller, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 9, has been at the center of a media cyclone ever since due to some rather inflammatory comments he made in an interview with Rolling Stone immediately following his induction by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. In the interview, Miller not only called the induction ceremony “unpleasant,” but went on to slam the whole music business. Sample sentence: “This whole industry fucking sucks and this little get-together you guys have here is like a private boys’ club and it’s a bunch of jackasses and jerks and fucking gangsters and crooks who’ve fucking stolen everything from a fucking artist.”
OK, then. In another post-ceremony interview with Rolling Stone, Auerbach told the magazine that he regretted inducting Miller, adding that “the most unpleasant part was being around [Miller].” Hall of Fame CEO Joel Peresman also responded to Miller’s comments, defended the Hall, and said he “felt badly” for Miller. So, this has been fun.
On a follow-up interview with Billboard, Miller is far from unpleasant. He laughs frequently, and doesn’t back down.
However unpleasant his evening was, Miller’s Hall of Fame credentials are undeniable. A native of Dallas, Texas, Stevie “Guitar” Miller became a pivotal figure in the late ’60s San Francisco music scene that profoundly impacted rock and roll. By the ’70s, the singer/songwriter/guitarist had evolved from a bluesy, groove-based sound that would fit seamlessly into today’s jam band scene to a more radio-friendly pop rock style that produced a wealth of hits still ubiquitous on classic rock radio today, including “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Take the Money and Run.” Miller is also contributing his time to serving on the welcoming committee of the Department of Musical Instruments of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as a board member of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he curates and hosts shows at both institutions.
But, this past week, all of the talk surrounding Miller — and there has been a lot — has been centered on his take on his Hall of Fame induction. In an exclusive interview with Billboard, he explains that night, the resulting fallout, and what the proceeding week was like. Not surprisingly, he told us exactly how he feels about the whole thing.
Billboard: So, it’s been a pretty interesting week, no?
Steve Miller: Pretty action packed, yeah.
How would you describe your week following the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?
The last week has been pretty interesting; I played three concerts in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Jimmie Vaughan; I did the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony; and now I’m in San Diego. Tonight will be three shows that I’ve done in the last four days out here on the West Coast. The Steve Miller Band is busy, the Jazz at Lincoln Center projects have been great, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was just one of those things in the middle.
Has the reaction to your comments following your Hall of Fame induction surprised you?
Well, not really. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails from artists and pals and peers just saying, “right on, man, I can’t believe you had the balls to say that,” that kind of stuff. The reaction from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone magazine has not surprised me at all.
I imagine you were aware when you were saying the things you did that some of it might not go over so well.
You have to speak truth to these people. It has really been a long, long slog for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and for some reason, I don’t understand why, they really have made it tough. It’s not a pleasant experience for the people being inducted — at least from my personal experience it certainly wasn’t. The whole process feels like you’re dealing with a company that wants you to give them everything and they’re going to go make all this money and they’re going to do everything with it, and you have no input into it, no say about any of it, take it or leave it. Probably what the general public thinks and what it really is are two different things.
You said some pretty harsh things, do you stand by all of that?
Of course I do, yeah. I spoke the truth as I experienced it, and as I have experienced it over the years. Basically, as everybody that has had a taste of the record business knows, they are gangsters and crooks. The history just proves it. If you’re naïve as a musician when you go into it, you learn your lessons quickly. I remember when I was a kid and signed with Capitol Records I thought, “boy, this is great, I’m going down to L.A., I’m going to record at Capitol tower.” I went in there and the engineering staff walked out because they didn’t like me because I was a hippie [laughs]. That was my first experience. I was thrown into a pool of sharks, where all the bands were fighting for the same resources, managers were wheeling and dealing, and it was a lot more than I thought. I was pretty naïve when I started and, over the years, my record companies have grossed over $1 billion from my work, and I’ve spent 50 years auditing them to force them to pay me what my contracts call for. I caught them illegally selling hundreds of thousands of my records in markets worldwide. They’ve broken their contracts, they’ve broken their word. They have built-in theft in all their accounting. I’ve had to threaten to use the RICO statutes against them. It’s a business with built-in theft and cheating, that’s just considered normal, and I’m just not the kind of guy who tolerates that, I don’t go for that. If it’s not fair, and if it’s not clean and clear, then I’m going to work to make it that way.
So that billion dollar figure you used in the Rolling Stone interview you didn’t just pull that out of thin air?
[Laughing] No! And that was when a billion was a billion, not like today. Millions and millions and millions of records worldwide, it’s just been 50 years of auditing and arguing and lawsuits. I’m just a walking library of what it’s like dealing with a business that’s designed to cheat. It always has and it always will.
So when you looked out into the audience at the induction ceremony, the crowd kind of represented that to you?
Well, the audience that I saw was just a bunch of people at tables. I looked out there and I didn’t really see any friendly faces — I basically saw people I had been suing and auditing for years.
Maybe that had something to do with why you said what you did when you walked off stage and someone stuck a microphone in your face?
The whole experience is not like what you would think being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would be. You’d think it would be a wonderful experience. You’d probably imagine someone from the Hall calls you and congratulates you for being nominated and inducted, and tells you you’ve been voted in, and you’re invited to a series of events culminating in the actual induction ceremony. I imagined there might be a dinner party to introduce all the new inductees to each other, and the past inductees, an evening of congratulations and toasts. Maybe the director of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would welcome the new groups and discuss the goals and projects of the Hall, ask the class of 2016 to pitch in. You might even think there might be some performances given by kids who have benefited from music lessons provided by the Hall. Maybe a speech from the museum curator and the head of the nominating committee, or something to explain the importance of the Hall’s work, to thank the inductees for doing a concert to raise funds for the museum. Then you’d be pretty surprised to find out that none of that happened.
And you would have participated in those sorts of things?
Of course I would. The way it all went down was it was basically I found out from a friend that was nominated that there was public voting going on online to decide the public’s nominees, and their 100 million votes counted for less than one vote in the nominating process. That’s pretty cynical. What it really was was an argument over their documentation and contracts for the gig, no input on anything, you have no choice as to who’s going to induct you. Here’s what the experience was: there was a sound check the day before, where I was told to hurry up, do my sound check, and get off the stage. Then the next night I came over and went through like four security checks. A hired handler, a very nice young lady, said, “OK, we’re going to put you over here in the holding pen,” so I went to the holding pen, then we did another quick sound check. Then I was pointed to where my table was, told to go out there and sit down. I didn’t know anyone at the table, no one said hello, nothin’.
I wanted to talk to Dre, I wanted to find out why they weren’t performing; they pit everybody against everybody; you’re having this thing like, “OK, when are we going on, what’s going to happen, when are we in the show? [And the response is], “Oh, that’s all a surprise, it’s going to be this way, Deep Purple’s going to play then you’re going to play, then this is gonna happen,” then it’s, “no, it’s changed now, NWA is going to play after all,” and this is all happening as you’re going into it. There’s really no concern for you as a musician or artist, or congratulations, it’s “we’re making a television show, it’s our show, we’re making money off this to run our museum, shut up and do what you’re told to do.”
And there really wasn’t ever any contact with anybody from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, other than, “wait a minute, this contract is way out of line, what are you talking about?” I spent from February reviewing the contract until today, and it still isn’t signed. Their paperwork is vague and demanding and they want you to give them your guitar, and anything you have that’s really special to them, and they just treat you like, “hurry up and do this stuff and get out of here.”
So, for me, my experience was a sound check, go sit at this table — it turned out I was sitting next to the drummer in Chicago, and we did have a good chat. Then I was called up to do my little talk, I did, then I went over and played three songs. Then they take you in the back and there’s like 20 little tents and all sorts of people with cameras and stuff. I think the first [interview] questions was, “wow, Steve, what do you think?” [laughs] So I said, “Here’s what I think.”
You mentioned a lot of things, but anything else specifically you would suggest that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame might do to improve the induction ceremony, and improve as an organization?
I think they need to stop dividing people and being so dismissive of some acts, and they need musicians on the board. The people who are doing the nominating are the opposite of the spirit of rock and roll. They’ve turned it into a very elitist little group of people deciding who is important, who isn’t.
I wanted to ask Elton John to induct me, because Elton knows my music and loves my music and we’re friends, and I thought he would probably have a good historical perspective. But they said, “no, the Black Keys are going to do it,” and I said, “well, OK,” and they said “there’s no negotiation on any of it, that’s the way we do it, that’s the way we’ve always done it, that’s the way it’s gonna be. It’s all gonna be a surprise; you’re not gonna know what they’re gonna say, you’re not going to know anything about that.”
We all want to support the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the public takes it seriously. It needs to be transparent, and it needs to be fair. They should rotate the nominating committee, they should have musicians on the nominating committee, they should have a dinner for the inductees, they should spend some time explaining who they are and what they do to the inductees. They shouldn’t consider it, “you don’t have time to do that, you wouldn’t come in for a dinner, why would you want to do that?” They’ve turned it into a really cold, hard-ass deal.
Some of your comments made it sound like you might not be recording any more, or at least releasing records?
I’m not sure which interview that was, but actually I just signed a deal with Sony/RED, and we’re recording new material all the time. We just recorded the shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Jimmie, we’re recording all of our concerts, we just finished a seven-camera shoot on a bunch of stuff. We’re working on a documentary on the band, our own, so there is a lot of work going on. It’s just a question of how do you release it? The record business has really, really changed, it’s a difficult thing for anybody to release records now. What’s it cost, $5-6 million to release an album seriously? It’s difficult to know how you want to release things, or what you’re going to do. Streaming, we had half a billion streams last year, I think we got paid $7,000, it’s nuts.
How do you listen to music?
I listen to music on vinyl, a lot. I really enjoy it. I’m 72 years old now, and I’m working on these projects for Jazz at Lincoln Center. I’m thrilled to be doing that, because it’s a great institution with three of the best venues in the world, and a pool of great musicians and leadership. I’m working on creating a blues pedagogy for Jazz at Lincoln Center, they want me to help on their blues program, and that’s really what I’m listening to. I’m doing a couple of shows there at Rose Theater, two nights in December, and it’s gonna be all about T-Bone Walker. I’ll have an orchestra and we’ll have some guests, sort of an historical look at T-Bone Walker. That’s what I’m really listening to and what I’m working on.
And, I’m doing 70 cities a year, we’re going to wrap up this little run we’re doing now, then take about five weeks off, and then boom, we go back out. We do about 70 cities a year with the Steve Miller Band, and we have for the last 25 years. That’s what I love to do. A lot of people, with the record industry gone, record royalties gone, publishing royalties gone, it’s unfortunate, and you have to tour to make a living.
Anything you’d say to the Black Keys or Dan Auerbach after reading his take on the evening in Rolling Stone?
I think their experience was as bad as mine. It shouldn’t have happened, and if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would have had good enough manners to at least introduce us, we’d probably be friends. We have a lot in common, and I think they’ve been played pretty good by Rolling Stone. I don’t know them, and I don’t have any bad feelings about them at all. I feel badly for them, because they’ve got to think, “welcome to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, kid, here’s how it works.”
If you had it to do over again, knowing what you know now, would you go?
I came with an open mind, but I just don’t tolerate rudeness. This is important, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is important, and it needs to clean up its act. Yeah, I’d go back, if it changes the way it operates. It’s important to the public, they really believe in this institution, and man, it could be cleaned up in one day. If they had dealt honestly and openly; it should be a union gig, we had to give up our union rights, our health payments, all that stuff. I had to pay my band myself out of my pocket to bring them to do it; they paid for the travel and hotels, but it’s just crazy the way they do all these things. They should re-write their contract, it should be clear and simple, it should be the same for everybody. You ask “what does everybody else agree to?” they won’t tell you. They’re like the worst record company in the world. They’ve got the worst, vaguest, contracts in the world, and they’re rude about it. Then you get a guy like Joel talking about you like that. Jann trying to smear you around a little bit. But that’s nothing new.
Weren’t you friends with Jann Wenner in San Francisco back in the day?
I knew Jann. Jann and I met early on, when he was just starting the paper [Rolling Stone]. We spent some time together, we weren’t really great friends, we didn’t hang out a lot. I don’t think I’ve spoken with Jann in 15 years.
So you haven’t spoken with him since the induction ceremony?
No, Jann didn’t show up. He sent me an email, said, “congratulations,” and that was it. We’re not like really good buddies.
For the record, do you consider yourself a grumpy guy?
[Laughs] Well, Ray, how about you, are you grumpy?
I have my moments.
Actually, I have my moments, but I don’t consider myself a grumpy guy. I’ve spent 60 years performing and recording music and trying to grow as an artist. I never set out to be a rock star, I set out to be a working musician. I’ve demanded respect for myself and my band and my peers, I’ve demanded full artistic control for my music, I advocate for artists and music education wherever I can. And I’m a nice guy.