Advice From Ian Anderson

Pollstar.com 6/30/14
We don’t usually ask for “call backs” for interviews but we did just that for Ian Anderson. A few years ago the Jethro Tull frontman talked to Pollstar about how he’s figured out how to have profitable tours, while some artists can’t seem to make money on the road.
We mentioned that we’d love to hear more about that someday and he was kind enough to chat with us again, this time while touring Homo Erraticus – which, just like 1972’s Thick As A Brick and its 2012 sequel – is penned by the fictional lyricist Gerald Bostock. The 2014 LP is an impressive piece of music with intimidating lyrics (“I came to woo you at behest of Uncle Leo, did my best to charm and flatter, sooth, lay thoughts of scheming Saxon Prince to rest,” etc.)
Although we talked about the album, Anderson definitely had a lot to say about tour management and he’s really passionate about paying taxes.

Listening to the new album, it’s rather Joycian and quite daunting. What’s the feedback been like?
If you’re going to do stuff that is sometimes quite heavy and has serious imagery attached to it and conceptually is a bit out of the comfort zone for a lot of people, whether it’s in Latin or in English … you have to make it entertaining. You’ve got to draw people to it. …
If you’re going to go see a new movie, it’s got to be entertaining. People rarely go to see a movie they’ve seen before. They’ll possibly watch it if it happens to be on television … but generally speaking you don’t get out your house, drive your car, park it and pay the money to see something you’ve seen before.
But in rock music, that rule doesn’t seem to apply. If the Rolling Stones came out with a new album and played it in its entirety on stage, it would be a very prolonged pee break for most of the audience. People don’t want a new album from the Rolling Stones; they want a new old album. They want a clone of Exile On Main Street or something. Frankly, you can’t do that. It’s 30 years too late.
So you’ve got to make it seem like it’s a new movie. That’s what my job is. By making it entertaining theatrically and visually, hopefully I can keep people’s attention for an hour then, after a 20 minute break, play an hour and 15 minutes of the best of Jethro Tull. It may seem like an award for their patience but, in its own right, it’s a lot of fun for me to do. I enjoy the second half of the show just as much as the first. In fact I might enjoy the second half more because it’s easier to play (laughs). There’s much less concentration. There’s not as many lyrics to remember, and the flute playing is easier. I can relax a bit more knowing that in an hour and 20 minutes I’ll be back in my dressing room and … enjoying an ice-cold beer.
There are a lot of lyrics in Homo Erraticus. I would assume that even though you’re familiar with them, it would be difficult for you to keep them all straight!
It’s easy to get tongue-tied. There are a lot of words and syllables and pronunciations. And diction is important. I think it’s true that I will stumble over something every night. Hopefully, the audience won’t know. It’s not so much forgetting a line of lyrics. It’s more stumbling over words because they are fast and furious in places, and you’ve got to make them short and sharp. And you’ve got to enunciate them clearly [so] they can be actually be understood, if the acoustics of the venue permit. It’s quite a challenge to do, but that’s what life is about for me. It’s certainly, at this stage of the game, more important for me to rise to the challenge than settle into the comfort zone and wrap everybody into my cozy, blue comfort blanket that might serve the purpose but wouldn’t achieve anything hugely rewarding for me.
I need the challenge. Whether I rise to it or not has to be the judgment of others, but I’m certainly having fun doing my best.

Since the last time we talked, are you still managing your own tours?
I don’t have a tour manager because I don’t want to have another guy who will spend my money and do things differently to me. I know exactly where I want to stay. I know exactly which airline and what time I’m going to fly, and what aircraft I’m not prepared to fly and, in a few cases, which airline I’m not supposed to get into for fear of dying.
There comes a point where you really don’t want to let somebody else mess things up when they’re going perfectly fine the way they are. Happily, let’s say in the last 15 years, the Internet has provided me with the opportunity to do the research of a tour, anywhere in the world. I can find how I’m going to get there, where I’m going to stay, what I’m going to do – every aspect of the whole thing can be ascertained by internet access. And while you’re there, you might as well press the button that says “buy flight” or “pay for hotel now.” There’s little point in doing all of this if you then give it to somebody else. It will take you twice the time and cost you a whole lot of money. And there’s always a chance that somebody screws it up. I’m perfectly happy being a Sunday afternoon travel agent.
That’s one of my hobbies. On Sunday afternoons, if I’m not on the road, I sit and book flights and hotels and travel arrangements, and do tour itineraries. I find it a lot of fun. It’s a hobby.
You mentioned in our last interview that you were giving Mike Rutherford advice about making touring profitable. Can you elaborate some more as to how you know touring strategies rather than a tour manager – allegedly the person who knows all this good stuff?
Well, a tour manager isn’t going to do tour budgets and have the experience or the ability to deal with all the aspects of withholding tax and issues that are perhaps way beyond his remit. A tour manager is essentially a shepherd with an unruly flock. A tour manager is a guy who probably has some experience of travel more than anything else, but his role is fundamentally to be traveling with the band and escorting them through airports and train stations and on and off buses.
But I don’t work with sheep. I work with musicians. My experience has always been that if you give people the responsibility of behaving like professional musicians, they will rise to the occasion. If you treat them like sheep, they very quickly become sheep. Having a shepherd is not an ingredient that is part of my way of doing things. …
You have to imagine the majority of people in rock bands probably do sit down once in a while and say, “I’m going to take my family to, oh, the Carribbean,” and they’ve got to go online and check out some hotels, flight options, whatever, or maybe they’re so incredibly inept and boring that they call their travel agent and say, “I want to go somewhere nice! Send me some tickets!” I’m guessing but I think most people are capable of booking their own holiday for themselves and their family.
And that’s the way I look at it when I’m booking tours. It’s me. It’s my friends and family. It’s my musical family and I’m looking out for them, making sure they get safely from A to B, that they all have access to their flight booking reference numbers, and they can check in online, choose their seats and so on, all of which they’re very capable of doing. And I see them on the plane! I don’t have to escort them through an airport. They’re grown up lads; they know what to do.
That’s interesting considering the number of tour managers out there – even artists that visit our office, in a van, will have a tour manager.
I can think of one young lady who’s extremely famous and successful, and she just turns up on her own at a radio station, sits down with a guitar and plays and sings, and does an interview. She doesn’t go with a minder. She can remember what it’s like when she did have to travel alone and get on a bus or train and, like me, she likes that independence. She doesn’t want to be chaperoned everywhere she goes. … If she can do it, I’m sure I can.
So there are people like me who just get on with it and don’t like the fuss and bother of being treated like someone special. I use public transport wherever possible [rather than] traveling alone in a motor vehicle to having a private jet or something absurd. It is a very costly way of traveling [as far as the] environmental impact. It’s a really selfish thing to do.
Public transport unfortunately doesn’t apply in America except on flights [because] you really don’t have the world’s best train network (laughs).

So what can other tours do to help their budgets?
The economy of scale is everything. If you end up with four guys in the band and 20 crew, you’re probably doing something wrong. I mean, there may be an artistic reason for doing that but it’s most likely that you’re way, way overemploying people. And, of course, people will make themselves indispensable … and therefore make [musicians] dependent on them. That’s what I mean when I say if you treat musicians like sheep they become sheep.
So yeah, I think you’re probably talking about a ratio of 1-to-1 depending on a few variables. But if you’re planning on a lot of production then you’ve probably got twice as many crew because you have lighting guys and sound guys and drivers and buses and trucks. But for an average rock band, think in terms of one truck and one bus. That’s probably all you really need, unless you’re Madonna or Lady Gaga.
So you’ll find a bus is the most economic thing in the USA. It’s for sure the best way to do it as long as you don’t give everybody the luxury of hotels as well, except on days off.
In my case, try to play five nights a week on average. Otherwise your days off will be very expensive. … You’ve got to make tours cost-effective, it’s economy of scale, do enough dates to make it worthwhile. It’s about sitting down and planning it in the first place. A simple spreadsheet gives you the answers.
Someone comes up to me with an offer for a show, or two or 10, the first thing I do is a quick trial budget. Say we’re going to Australia. It’s only going to take me five minutes to check out the flights. It might take me a quick double check to see withholding taxes in that country, how I might offset it with expenses and so forth. Maybe 10 minutes to do a trial budget based on the information. Let’s say 20 minutes, half-hour tops I know whether that tour is worth pursuing. I can go back to my agent and say, “Frankly, it’s not quite worth it for me to do this.” Or, “Let’s go ahead with it. Maybe they can pay another 10 percent higher fee than what they’re offering. See what you can get.” Or I can say, “I think they’re paying us a little too much here and I think they’re taking too big a risk so why don’t we try and negotiate, give them a little headroom to try and make a profit and reduce the fee.” Which, on occasions, I might well do.
But it all depends on that first, crucial decision to spend half an hour on that analysis. It’s not a huge chore. I like that I can do it fairly quickly. I can go into my standard insurance costs and administrative costs amortized across the year. All that stuff is built into the spreadsheet. I just hit the return key and see if there’s a meaningful profit at the end for me to put into my bank account before I pay my 50 percent tax that I do in the U.K.
Well, thank you for your time. I have one last question and then …
Wait! Let me throw this one in! At the end of all of it, as a taxpayer, I get pretty tired of people going to the ends of the earth to avoid paying taxes. The richer they get the more they want to avoid paying taxes. Adopt a plan that I learned long, long, long ago, back in the early ’70s. Feel good when you sign the check to pay your tax bill. Learn to feel good about being a contributor to your country, to the economy, to the people who depend on the taxpayer to fund all the things taxpayers have to fund, whether it’s military, schools, hospitals, health care. Frankly, if you’re paying a lot of tax it means you’re earning even more and therefore already in that privileged, wonderful position where you can afford to pay that tax. Don’t feel bad about it. Walk around with your head held high saying, “Look at the tax I paid this year! What a great guy I am!” And the world will clap you on the back and say, “Good man! Well done for doing that, rather than goofing off and trying to hide your money in a Swiss bank or a Bahama offshore fund.” So, yeah, I’m a taxpayer and proud of it.
There are artists out there that will leave their countries to avoid taxes.
Oh I know. And we did too. Back in 1972 we were advised by our accountant to do that. It was the first year of receipt of any real money because our record royalties were beginning to trickle through in 1971. We actually went abroad to take up residency in Switzerland. We were recording the album that was to become A Passion Play and I got a phone call from my friend in Switzerland, Claude Nobs (founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival) who said, “Congratulations! Your residency papers just came through today! You’re now officially Swiss residents!”
And I turned around to the guys and said, “We’re Swiss residents. We’re all eligible now to officially live here and pay almost no tax.”
And we all looked at each other – and I swear this is the truth – 24 hours later we were on the plane back to Britain because of the awful reality of what we were doing. In some cases it was an ethical or moral thing; in some cases I suppose it was the idea of living in a foreign country and leaving your friends and family. For whatever reason, we jumped on the next plane and went back to England and started re-recording the whole album.
We’ve been there, didn’t do it. (laughs) We could have just jumped ship. The lifeboat was waiting. We could have sailed into the sunset rather than stay on the sinking ship, which was the British economy during the early ’70s. But we went home and it was the best thing we ever did.
But Rod Stewart would have a different tale to tell. So would U2, The Rolling Stones and a whole bunch of other acts that really went out of their way to avoid paying taxes. But there are others I think probably have more of a philosophy like mine which is, hey, this is where I was born, grew up, got my career break. This is where I want to pay my tax. I’m guessing Elton John’s one of those. I think The Who are amongst the bunch of acts that said, “Hey, I’m going to stay here.”
I suppose there are plenty of people who want to pay taxes not because of moral or ethical reasons but because they don’t want to be the next Willie Nelson getting harassed by the IRS. Not worth it.
I had a very expensive tax adviser back in the ’70s and I took him out to lunch and he said, “Don’t think that because you’re paying for lunch that I’m going to give you any free advice.”
I said, “That’s not why I’m inviting you for lunch. I just want to ask you a question not about me but about you: If you were earning the same amount of money that I’m earning this year you, as a tax adviser, what would you do? Would you take up foreign residency? Would you try and create an elaborate series of companies to try and reduce your personal tax bill and take advantage of various corporate expenses and everything else? What would you do if you were earning that money?”
He thought about it and said, “I would sit down and write out a check for (whatever the tax rate was at the time). And I would go to bed and go to sleep easily. That’s ultimately what I would do. But my job as a tax adviser is to tell people how to create elaborate schemes to avoid paying taxes. But you won’t sleep easily. You’ll always be worried, for the rest of you earning life, that a tax scheme might be overturned retroactively, that you could be liable to a huge tax bill. My personal philosophy is pay the tax you owe, write out the check, forget it, and go to bed easily.”
That’s the best advice I ever received. That’s from the same guy who literally a few months before had been advising us we had to live in Switzerland. That was a good lesson; that’s the reality of it. It’s about sleeping easy. …
In my case we have a 45 percent income tax rate plus something we call National Insurance that is effectively a tax based on income so I’m paying somewhere in the region of 50-55 percent of my personal earned income to tax. In USA my rate of income tax is about 39 percent. I pay state taxes on top of that. And every year I get a certain refund on state taxes. It’s a complex accounting issue but you do what you have to do. Of course there is a double-taxation agreement, don’t get me wrong. The percent I pay in the U.S. is offset by my U.K. tax liability when I remit the money to the U.K. So it works both ways. A rich American guy in Britain has to remit his money under U.S. law and under double taxation agreement he’ll get his U.K. tax liability to offset his U.S. liability. That’s the way our sophisticated systems work.
But they work for a reason and, by and large, honest people justify those systems being in place whether they’re rock musicians or corporate executives. It’s just that rock musicians aren’t renowned for their, um, financial sophistication. But my advice is try and get there. Pick it up as you go along, talk to people, take advice, ask questions. Don’t just leave it to folks to do it for you. Going back to the tour manager thing – same with your accountant, same with your manager, your agent. You have to get behind what they’re thinking is. Get to know their job. You don’t have to do it for them but understand what the ground rules are and the principals upon which you work. I think all of that adds up to sleeping easy at night.
I don’t have a care in the world when I’m on tour because I know business has been taken care of. I know that because I did it. And I didn’t rely on somebody else to make up all these rules for me. It’s not rocket science. If I can do it, so can the average person. I’m Joe Average. If I can do it, the person making his first garage album can do it too.
Pick up the reins and steer the horse in the way you want it to go.

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