Rock troubadour John Hiatt welcomes music biz woes

By | June 11, 2008 at 6:06 PM

As the recorded music business seemingly careens toward oblivion, John Hiatt is standing on the sidelines having a good laugh.

It’s not as if the singer-songwriter has been unscathed by the industry’s decade-long capitulation to piracy. Each of his last three albums sold 30,000 copies less than the one before.

His last release, 2005’s “Master of Disaster,” moved 78,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

But as he sagely pointed out during a recent breakfast, “I think I’m not the only one. I think we’re doing OK.”

That very day his 18th album, “Same Old Man” (New West Records), debuted at No. 84 on the U.S. pop chart after selling 8,100 copies, a modest drop of 6 percent from the opening round for “Master of Disaster.”

The top slot went to R&B singer Usher, whose new album sold more copies in its first week than Hiatt’s biggest album has sold in its lifetime. But Usher’s sales were off 60 percent.

“An artist like myself, us old dogs who have an audience kinda feel like we’re in the catbird seat because it’s about the music again,” said Hiatt, not exactly old at 55.

That’s because the demise of the major labels allows independent record companies — such as Los Angeles-based New West, Hiatt’s home since 2003 — to fill the breach. These nimble operations sometimes have longer attention spans than their lumbering, larger brethren.


“People have to be ‘record men’ again,” Hiatt said. “They actually have to earn a living. You get a record out there, it sells 50,000 copies over the course of 18 months. You have to work it, because they don’t buy 50,000 the first week. It’s great to see people who actually love the music back in business in these smaller concerns. I’ve never seen people take more vacations than these big record company people.”

It also helps that Hiatt keeps his overhead low by recording his albums at his 97-acre (39 hectare) Tennessee farm. He spent about 10 days recording the basic tracks for “Same Old Man” a year ago with guitarist Luther Dickinson and drummer Kenneth Blevins. Since Hiatt owns his masters and his publishing, he has complete creative control.

“If I’m a little flat here or a little sharp there, I just sort of left it,” he said. “If it felt good, I just kept it. No gussying up, no fancy stuff.”

That’s pretty much been the modus operandi of his 34-year recording career, which has spanned rock, folk, pop, blues and even new wave. He never sold many records — his biggest hit was 1993’s “Perfectly Good Guitar,” with 351,000 copies — but other artists did well covering his songs.

Satisfied customers include Bonnie Raitt with “Thing Called Love” from her 1989 smash “Nick of Time”; and Eric Clapton and B.B. King with the title track from their 2000 collaboration “Riding with the King.”

Still, Hiatt’s lack of blockbuster success riles some fans.

“If you like John Mellencamp, why don’t you go get the real deal, John Hiatt?” asks Los Angeles radio comic Adam Carolla, who is partial to his 1982 new-wave album “All of a Sudden.”

“Why listen to a crappy substitute if that’s the kinda music you’re into? It drives me nuts that John Mellencamp is a household name, and no one’s heard of John Hiatt.”

A gold record remains elusive, sure. But 18 albums and two Grammy nominations must count for something. Hiatt also is a popular draw on the touring circuit, playing about 90 concerts last year. He launches a new tour on June 26 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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