Lesson 4: A View from Both Sides of the Fence: Steve Lukather on What’s right & what’s wrong with the music business

Steve Lukather. Where do I begin to tell you about this guy? As a guitar player, there’s no denying the inspiration and soul that pours from his fingers to the six strings of his instrument. His playing has and still influences untold numbers of people all over the world. Yet, if you ask Luke, as friends call him, he’ll tell you he’s not that good and he’s one lucky mutha to earn a living (albeit a good one) at playing the guitar for people.

Luke, of course, is a co-founding member of the band, Toto which sold over 27 million records. As a solo artist, he’s sold many records on his own.

Then there’s that little thing he did in his life called doing sessions. In the course of Luke’s studio journeys, he’s played on over 1,000 records, including hits by almost every major musical artist in the last 30 years. For all his musical accomplishments, he’s been nominated for a Grammy twelve times, and has won five of those little prized statues.

But all of this means little to a man who values family and friends above all, is thankful every day for the gift of Life, and whose philosophy encompasses such feelings as “Live for today,” “Enjoy every moment,” “Deny yourself nothing,” “Have a great time,” “Try to be nice to people,” and always “Try to leave a little love behind.”

Luke is a guy who’s been around the block a time or two, and he has the unique perspective of the music business and being a successful recording artist on both sides of the fence, having won Grammy’s as an independent and major label artist. He also knows how to put things in perspective on how the old music business works (or doesn’t), why music is where it is today and most importantly, why you need to be thinking and doing things differently in today’s new music business.

As Luke likes to say, “I’m old school,” and it’s his old school education that’s about to teach you some new school lessons on becoming the success you were meant to be.


Luke on the music business, yesterday and today

When I was first starting to play music, it used to be that people practiced and tried to get really good at whatever instrument they played. Nowadays, it seems most people could give a rat’s ass. All my peers, Van Halen, Satriani, Vai, Landau, all the A-level cats, all practiced their asses off to get really good and today, hardly anyone cares about being a great musician anymore. I wish someone would’ve told me this 25 years ago so I could’ve stopped all the hours of practice and had more fun (laughs).

Right now, I still get up and practice everyday because I still care and it’s because I love playing the guitar and what I do. I mean, I do it because first and foremost I care about it for myself. I don’t care how many years I’ll play the guitar, I’ll never have it all figured out. Not even close. And that’s what I like about it because it’s always a challenge to see if I can become just a little better today than yesterday. God gave me whatever talent I have – and thank God it was playing the guitar because I ain’t the prettiest mutha you’ve ever seen – and I try each day to make the most of it.

I have a recording studio where major record producers work, and would you believe that the most important person on the gig is not the musicians? It’s the Pro Tools guy. These young muthas come into the studio with the attitude that ‘I’m all this or that’ and yet, they can’t play four bars in time. And when it ain’t working on the session, they’ll say, ‘Screw it. Go ahead and Pro Tool it and it’ll be cool.’ That’s their excuse for not becoming a good player.

When I was a kid, I spent ten hours a day trying to get my shit together just so I could be good enough to get asked to play on one record, which maybe might get me a second record. And now, people who practice, people who truly care about the music and less about technology, are considered a bunch of old assholes.

Let me tell you something, I was in Toronto jamming with an old pal named Jeff Healy and I got invited to a Rolling Stones rehearsal. These sixty-year old players started their rehearsal at midnight and there I was sitting there watching them like a kid with cotton candy and a hard on (laughs). When I heard them play Satisfaction and Start me up, those sixty-year old guys sounded better than anything I’ve heard in the last twenty years. They had the fire, they had the attitude, they were laughing, they were partying, they were just groovin’.

Say what you will about my man Keith, but he was playing his ass off. And when Mick sang, I actually called my home answering machine and held up my cell phone to record how great they sounded and to have a memory of being there and inspired.

I’ve been doing sessions since I was seventeen years old. Back in the old days, they didn’t have machines that did everything (like they do today) and you actually had demo sessions. There’d be singers, songwriters, piano players, acoustic guitar players who were trying to get record deals, and there were lots of demos going on. I was making twenty-five dollars a tune and that was great money then.

That was where we all got our practical knowledge about how you play on sessions, how you get your sound, and all that good stuff. There was a wealth of work back in those days from 1975-85. During that ten-year period, I played on over 1,000 records.

When I was doing sessions, each day that I’d come into the studio was always a surprise. I’d ask, ‘So who’s playing on the record today? Steve Gadd is playing drums. Awesome! Anthony Jackson on bass. Who’s on keyboards? David Paich. David Foster. Incredible. Lenny Castro is playing percussion and me and Ray Parker or Dean Parks or Jay Graydon or Larry Carlton is playing guitar? Excellent.’ The exciting question each day I walked into any studio was always, ‘Who am I playing with today?’

And it was fantastic, as many, many times, we’d immediately begin writing this record for whoever singer/songwriter we were working with who came into the session with three chords on a piece of paper and no demo and we’d all write and rewrite the song just like that. We were arranging and rewriting this guy or gal’s material every day. That was what we got hired to do. And even though being a studio musician was a thankless gig, it was still fun.

I played on records of every musical heroes in my life, from the lamest singer/songwriters to Miles Davis to Paul McCartney and every major artist that’s been on the music scene in the last 30 years. And you know how it all started? I began doing those twenty-five dollar a song demos and those led to a bigger gig which led to a bigger gig and it just sort of snowballed from there. It was word of mouth.

I was lucky enough to grow up with the Porcaro brothers, and Jeff Porcaro (the late legendary drummer) was doing Steely Dan sessions when I was in high school. Guys I grew up and began playing gigs with, like David Paich and Jeff Porcaro’s fathers, were A-level studio musicians, and that was a powerful influence and inspiration. That inspired me to learn to read music and do whatever I needed to do so I could play on everybody’s records.

I could go on and on about the incredible experiences I’ve had playing on records. I remember one record date with Elton John where Elton and I are sitting at the piano drinking cognac and there he was playing Levon for me. I was twenty years old and having the time of my life, and you know, I’m still having the time of my life playing music.

Early on, I got hooked up with some great people like Boz Scaggs, and did his world tour and all the records that followed. Of course, there were many times in the studio when we were tested when the unexpected happened. Like the time when we played on Michael Jackson’s Beat it and Eddie Van Halen had come in and cut the tape and screwed up the whole SMPTE code and Jeff Porcaro and I had to put the whole record together without producer Quincy Jones (a guy I truly love working with) in the room, and would you believe, that record ended up winning record of the year.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times we pulled producers’ asses out of the fire. So many times we were doing all this arranging – and not getting credit or money for it – while this or that friggin’ producer was in the bathroom snortin’ blow or taking Quaaludes or passed out on the studio couch.

Or… guys who will remain nameless - who were the head of record labels for the biggest record companies in the world – didn’t even show up to their own sessions when they were producing. They’d walk into to the studio when we were finished and say, ‘Wow, that sounds great. Where do you want to go for dinner?’

Many, many times they’d come into the session early or late and after one or two takes, they’d say, ‘Great, that sounds perfect… next’ when in fact, we were just getting things started and could’ve given them far better takes. Meanwhile, they’re up there on the stage accepting their Grammy awards with the attitude ‘I’d like to thank no one because I’m a genius.’

These are the same people whose asses we’d pull out of the fire time and time again. Guys who never gave us any extra taste (i.e., money) or credit for what we did. I’m talking about guys who are heads of major record companies right now, that if you put a gun to their friggin’ head and told them, ‘You play me a C scale right now or you’re dead,’ you’d have a bunch of dead record company people, because they couldn’t do it. And these are the people who are in charge of the music business and the music that gets made today, and we wonder why the record business is so screwed up.

Think of it: If you’re the head of all the doctors in a hospital, chances are you’re going to be one of the best doctors. You’re the go-to guy. But if you’re the head of a record label, chances are you’re not only one lucky bastard, but you’re also not the best guy for the job, you’re also not a musician, you also don’t have much of a musical background, and your typical plan of action is ‘Let’s fire 5,000 people, so we can show shareholders great numbers and a profit and while we’re at it, why don’t we give ourselves millions of dollars as a bonus.’

I’m old school. I mean I was crushed when I found out The Monkees didn’t play on their own records. That’s when I found out about studio guys like Tommy Tedesco and all the others who played on those records. Then I found out about the Motown guys. Do you know who played on all those records? Those Motown session guys and they got twenty-five bucks a tune!

I mean c’mon, where do you want to start with the Motown shit? There were 25 guys in the studio and everything was going down live. It was when music was real, instead of today of ‘Let’s Pro Tools everything into oblivion.’

You can hear Pro Tools on the radio today. I can hear the shit. I mean they auto-tune this or that to the point as soon as you hear some dude singing, you know that mutha couldn’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in tune if his friggin’ life depended on it. What the hell is that all about?

I keep going back to the old school because that’s where the inspiration and soul still is. Listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They were playing live. Those records are what happened when they pressed the red button and heard ‘One, two, three, four.’ Compare that to today. You go and see those artists on MTV live and few of them can play. I’m talking about ‘play’ their instrument. My kids and their friends come back from these concerts and say, ‘Dad, it was weak.’

Today, there is no session scene. It’s dead, it’s gone. Today, all you need is Pro Tools in your house and if you can’t play it, no problem we’ll fix it. We’ll tune it. We’ll make it in time and we’ll cut and paste your parts so you don’t have to play them again and possibly mess things up.

The day of the session player is gone. Bye-bye, nice talking to you. Unless you’re doing TV & film, you can forget about all those big recording dates like we used to do not too many years ago. Even top call A-list players are not making a living being session players. They’re taking high paying road gigs.

People often ask me how has music changed and I tell them that it’s no longer necessary to become a good musician anymore. Seems like some people who are making music today will accidentally trip and fall down on a sound, and if that sound turns into a hit record, then you’re labeled a genius.

Whereas, with the people I grew up with, we actually sat in a room for hours at a time -- with fingers numb and bleeding -- as we took vinyl LPs and lifting the needle off the record to learn Eric Clapton solos from Crossroads, all the while driving our parents crazy from lifting it (the needle) up and down just so we could learn every freakin’ lick.

Today, people who do that kind of shit are considered pompous old pricks because the attitude of today’s musicians is that all that shit really doesn’t matter ‘cause you don’t need to do it to create a hit. Technology and not talent is their crutch and solution.

It is getting so hard to find good musicians anymore. It really is. Perhaps that’s why I have more affinity for jazz musicians than I do for rock musicians, even though I’m not a jazz musician because I’m not good enough. Call me a rock guy with jazz aspirations.

I look up to cats like Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, Michael Landau and these kinds of great players who set the bar a little higher, but aren’t household names because we live in an Eminem world. Jazz guys may not make a million dollars or sell a million records but they can inspire you. For jazz, it’s always been the old joke, How do you make a million dollars playing jazz? Start with five million.

For years, people have believed that if only you could have a hit record, then life would be wonderful, but thinking like that is going to get you in big trouble. You see, it’s not as hard as people think to have a one hit record. But let me tell something, having one hit record is NOT going to make you a millionaire, and you’re still going to be in debt to the record company. And even if your record hits gold (sale of 500,000 units), you’re still in debt to the record company. Make that deep in debt.

To give you an idea of how things work, let’s go back to ‘old school.’ Old school in my day is when they had big budgets for records. They’d give you half a million dollars to make a record. That’s when we used to play on sessions and when they used to hire human beings to make music instead of computers to play on records.

We used to get double scale rates to be in the studio and come up with ideas while the drummer took two or three days to get a great drum sound. It was shameless display of wealth, the total opposite end of the spectrum, whereby there was too much money to make records. Nowadays, people do records in their house for one hundredth of the budget.

However, even though the way music is made has greatly changed and the pendulum has swung from excess money to do it, to now doing it on a budget in your house, what cats today are missing is the human element and soul in their music and creation.

That’s what’s going on right now. Record companies are dying and it’s a dead scene. And you know what? They (the record labels) deserve to go out of business because they make too much friggin’ money for doing friggin’ nothing and promoting the mediocrity that we call ‘music’ these days.

And the negative influence of many of the magazine music critics on promoting the music we have today isn’t any better. I ask you, why does it seem that the magazine music critics seem to like the music of artists that they can play themselves, which is why they almost always critique the lyrics, as opposed to the musicality or musicianship of the records they review?

I can say this shit now, because I’ve been in the game close to thirty years and the critics already hate me for telling it like it is, so what am I going to do, piss them off? Who cares? If they’d be honest and tell things like they were, then you wouldn't be hearing me rant.

But it’s not just me, some old school geezer, that knows the story. You should hear my teenage kids and their friends. They read so many of the bullshit magazine music reviews about this or that artist and where time and time again they say, ‘Man, that magazine and the artists they promote is so lame.’ They know the difference between who sounds good and who doesn’t and they know the reality of what’s happening in music right now, and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

[Most] People today don’t have an idea of how the music business works. All they see on TV is reality shows where people are turned into stars in weeks and given million dollar recording deals if they win the show. They see other music stars display excesses of wealth and think the music business is the easy road to big money. My friend, it ain’t true.

Let me give you an example. I love this MTV show called Cribs. Let me just say that I don’t like MTV, as I think it’s one of the big reasons for music’s downfall, but the show Cribs is a powerful wake-up call for musicians who want to be stars.

First of all, I would bet you that half the people featured on Cribs rent the fabulous house for the day to show off their shameless grotesque show of wealth. Then, after the cameras are packed up and gone, these “stars” go back to their two bedroom apartment and wonder why they aren’t making any money from the record label.

And I’ll go a step further. I’d also be willing to bet that most of those ‘stars’ has yet to see the bank statement from the record label that says you’re making money. For the handful of them that are making money, I’ve heard story after story of them living the good life for a few years and a few years later, they’re friggin’ broke, they’re back in their little apartments and people saying, ‘Who the hell were you?’

Musicians and their craft

Let me give you a little advice: As soon as you have a little success, get ready for people to start bashing you and your music. It happens to anyone. But always stay true to your music and your art and you’ll be fine. Over the years, the press hated our group, Toto. They’d make up stories about the band that weren’t true and they were gunning for us.

Maybe it was the name, who knows? The reality is, between 1980-84, our band Toto, was the house band that won the album, song, and producer of the year at the Grammy’s. We also played on more than 100 of the records that were nominated for Grammy’s within those three years. We were the go-to band to hate. I laugh at the shit now because even though people hated us, we were good enough to play with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Miles Davis and a discography that people tell us is staggering.

And even with all the press and critic bashing, talk about musicians who loved their craft. Even all these years after his passing, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my buddy, Jeff Porcaro.

Not only was his charisma so deep, as people would call him ‘God’s drummer’, he would walk into the room and the room would light up and everything got better. He always had the coolest clothes, the coolest music, he was always the guy that found the newest shit to listen to.

His groove was so deep. He could take a piece of shit tune on a session and turn it into something you could really groove with. And he could turn something that was great into something that was really great. He was just special in that way.

Everyone looked to Jeff for the okay and direction. I mean the biggest friggin’ record producers in the world would look to Jeff and ask, ‘Is that the take?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s the one man.’

I’m telling you, we’d be on sessions playing some suck ass tune that wasn’t going anywhere, with all of us were just wanting to leave, and we’d look over at Jeff and he’d get a groove going and get that big smile on his face and wink at me and say, ‘We’re out of here in like ten minutes’ and we’d know he always find the right groove that everyone loved.

I’ve worked with a lot of really great famous people, yet I still get giddy like a kid when I see and hear greatness. I mean, I was once sitting next to Miles Davis and he was playing one of my songs and my weenie was so hard I could cut diamonds with it (laughs). I was listening to greatness.

But today, thanks to the record labels and who they and radio promote, we have rock stars and wannabe rock stars, who, if they’re lucky, will have five years of fame. Check back in five years, when there’s a good chance you’ll see them down at the club or bar, drinking to forget their problems and telling anyone who’ll listen, ‘Yeah, my wife took all money and I’m not really good enough to play with other musicians and I used to be a rock star, so screw you all.’ None of them are good enough to make a career as a musician, but they’re rock stars.

Anyone can be a rock star. In one day, I taught my son how to play the guitar. Gave him a drop D tuning, plugged him into a little mini Marshall amp, gave him some distortion, showed him a few chords and one riff and an hour later, he was playing everything he was listening to on MTV. He’s a rock star I tell ya.

I gave a clinic at MIT (Musician’s Institute of Technology) and I asked the people there, how many of you want to be rock stars? They all raised their hands. Then I asked them, how many of you want to be working musicians who do studio gigs, play Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, club dates and everything else that blue-collar musicians play? Would you believe only two of them raised their hands?

I never wanted to be a rock star or some guitar guy that people put a pedestal. All I ever wanted to be – and still want to be – is a working musician. I’ll play on anybody’s record. Call me up, pay me, I’m there.

Signing with a major label or an independent

People often ask me what’s the difference between being signed on a major label or doing the independent label thing? First of all, if you are signed to a major label, they will bleed you big time. If you sell two million records, you'll still be in debt to them for three million dollars, because you have to pay for the record, pay for the producer, pay for the rehearsal time, pay for the musicians, pay for the video, pay for tour support and pay, pay, pay.

The testimony that Courtney Love gave about the record business (see Lesson Three, pages 48 to 62) is absolutely a fact, and she spoke for a lot of people. Hey, a platinum record (sales of 1 million units) means nothing. It’s like a friggin’ bowling trophy.

I know because I’ve lived it. I’ve sold over 27 million records in my life and the only thing I can say about that is ‘Show me the money! Where’s all the friggin’ money?’ People think that by selling that many records I should be wiping my ass with hundred dollar bills, but I’m still waiting for that day to happen.

People mistakenly believe that if they can have one hit record and sell a million copies, then they’re going to have money and the good life and I’m here to tell you, if you’re playing the major label game, it ain’t going to happen. It’s a lie, and anybody that buys into that is a fool.

Don’t tell me there’s no payola out there when it costs you a million dollars to get on the radio. The record business is the most corrupt business -- next to politics – in the world. C’mon, cats that are running the business can’t play music, yet they think they know better than anyone else how to sell music!

They actually believe they know what’s going on and they buy into their genius. Yet, look what all that genius has done to record and music business. Guys that know nothing about the music business are getting promoted onward and upward. It’s because of them that music sucks now, and the record business is in the shitter and my prediction is, in five years, the record business as we know it today will not be around.

Look at what happened with recording artist Robbie Williams, where they paid him in the neighborhood of 80 million dollars. His record label fired more than 1000 people, yet the record executives gave themselves a bonus. Meanwhile, their quarterly profits are down and their losses are in the tens of millions of dollars.

The artists never see the money. Robbie Williams means nothing to them except over in Europe where he’s a big name. They can’t give the shit away in Asia and the United States, but that 80 million-dollar deal to sign him and fire all those people and have the company willing to go bankrupt because of this guy was deemed a good deal? Who made that decision? I want that guy to manage my career, that is, if I’m looking to quickly run it into the ground. The whole friggin’ record business is smoke and mirrors.

Anyone who is signed to a major label right now is a fool. What you need to do right now is become independent. You make your record and then you license it to a major company who can help you get it into the stores. You will make ten times the royalty rate doing it the independent way and you own it at the end of seven years.

I was signed to Sony Records for 25 years, and I had a 1977 royalty rate when records cost seven dollars. When record prices bumped up to fifteen dollars, guess what? Our royalty rate didn’t get bumped up. We were still making the 1977 royalty rate of $1.20 a record.

And we still owed money for all those videos the record company made us shoot and pay for that no one would ever see. All shit that still had to be recouped from any record sales. And we had to do it and we had to pay for it because the record company was afraid of not having a video they hoped MTV might play.

If you’re a musician and you want control of your career and your life, then you need to make sure you own everything you do. You mark my words that five years from now, major record companies will not exist anymore. They will become major distribution outlets for independent music.

All these rap guys got it right a long time ago. Guys like Master P own their shit and they’re making five bucks a record. They sell 100,000 units and they make five hundred thousand dollars. They make enough money so they’ll have the money to promote themselves and their artists so that people you’ve never heard of can enter the charts at number one.

These guys are smart. My respect, my thumbs up, goes to all these cats, these rappers, who said, ‘Screw the white man and his record company games. Why is that mutha making more money than me?’

These guys figured it out and they took their music and message to the streets where they were telling everyone, ‘Hey, dig this new record.’ By the time the record hit the stores, all these people were already hip to it and were already playing it in their cars. These rappers gave the shit away just to get the word out. Now that’s smart. They know how to promote. They know how to work it. They are the really smart ones and I have so much respect for them.

Keeping it real

Whatever you do, however you want to create, record, and promote your music, always keep it real. I love the underdog story. Take Norah Jones. You gotta love this chick. A few years ago she was an unknown and she’s still living in the same apartment, yet she’s a real musician. Same with Diana Krall. She’s great. She’s a schooled musician who loves playing music.

I’m a Grammy-voting member and I left half the voting ballot blank this year because I never heard of some of these people. I mean, c’mon. Are the people who made the ballot list the best we’ve got? I wanna see real shit. Norah Jones. Real. Bruce Springsteen. Real. Arif Marden. Real. I’ve worked with him for years. He’s real, he’s a genius, and he’s a guy that knows how to put it all together.

Friend, how fast or slow or how technical or non-technical you can play means nothing. Whether you can read music or not doesn’t matter. I don’t care if you can only play three notes. All that matters is how you play those three notes and if it’s real and if they come from deep inside your heart and soul.

It’s all about your soul, your sound, your aura, your heart, your spirit and your touch coming out through your music. It’s not about the gear. It’s not about the latest technology. It’s not about being signed to a major record label. It’s all about letting ‘you’ come through in your music. When you do that, you will be in the company of the greats, and you’re going to be someone I’m going to dig listening to.

Making a hit record

If I knew what makes a record a hit, I’d be writing this to you from my yacht taking a colonic, but the truth is no one knows for sure. Half the hit records I’ve played on – and there have been a lot – I’d think they sucked, but lo and behold they’d become hits. Who knew?

You don’t have to be on a major label to have a big hit. I’d say, do it with your own independent label, because you’re going to have complete control of your music, you’ll own your creation, and you’ll make a boatload more money.

And you need to realize that you don’t even need a hit record to be a musical success. If you’re doing what you love to do, perhaps able to make a little money at it, and you’re loving your life, then in my book, you’re already a great success.

By all means, use technology to help you create your own ‘real’ music, but don’t get hung up on technology and worrying about what kind of guitar, amp or little blue wire Mr. Rockstar has in the back of his effects rack. All of that shit means absolutely nothing and almost everyone could care less.

It’s all about the song. Some of the greatest songs the world has ever heard and are still timeless (like Motown or any of the Beatles work) were done without all the high-tech computers and software you have today. It’s not about the technology. It’s all about the song. It’s about the music. It’s about your soul. It’s about keeping it real.

Enjoying your gift of music

The musical road you travel down always turns out to be way different from the one you originally thought you’d take. And in the end, it’s all good, even though at the time, you could be going through some experiences that really suck.

Over the years, I’ve had many great success and many great disappointments, yet through them all, I’ve always kept a few things about life in perspective: Live for today; Enjoy every moment; Deny yourself nothing; Have a great time; Try to be nice to people; Try to leave a little love behind; Small little gestures make you feel you good inside; Respect others. My friend, all the fame and fortune doesn’t matter. It’s about caring for the people who care about you.

My parents thought I was insane in 1967 when I was 10 years old and announced I wanted to be a musician, as I held up Jimi’s (Hendrix) record Are you experienced in my hand. I’ve never wanted to be a rock star, but always wanted to be a lifer who played music from that magical day until the day I die.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an overpaid guitar player who’s a happy guy that’s mystified by my own success and is grateful to any and everyone who has been and will be important in my musical road and this journey and experience called Life.

In the big picture of life, what I do is insignificant. It really is. I mean, c’mon. We don’t know if we’ll be here tomorrow, and a long time ago I stopped caring about the little stupid things that used to upset me. Really, what we’ve got to do is enjoy the moment.

I care nothing about material things. What matters to me is not how many Grammy’s or awards I get or what the critics say. What matters most is my family, my wife, my children, and my friends. Everything else is expendable. That’s my philosophy: Everything in life is fleeting except the people I truly love and care about. I love my wife. I love my family. I love my friends and everything else is just bullshit.

I know I’m blessed and so lucky to do what I do. I mean for heaven’s sakes, I’m a guitar player and able to earn a good living at what I love to do. What more do I need?

Robert Wolff, Bilboard Books, New York, 2004.