Joe Elliott of Def Leppard talks streaming, Hysteria and label rows


When you have sold over 100m albums and shift more tickets today than you did in your supposed peak in the 1980s – as Def Leppard are – you are “not exactly hurting” for money and can therefore afford to take your time when considering the leap into new, digital revenue streams.

This, according to lead singer Joe Elliott, was one major factor behind the band not putting their entire catalogue on streaming or download services until earlier this month. But there were other factors – notably a very public war of words with Universal Music over the handling and licensing of their catalogue, including the mega-selling Pyromania and Hysteria albums.

Elliott rarely held back in interviews over the past decade when asked why Def Leppard were digital holdouts.

“We’re trying to wrestle back our career and ownership of these songs,” he told Classic Rock in 2013. “Until we can come to some kind of humane conclusion to this ridiculous stand-off, we’re going to say: ‘Fuck you!’ We were offered a great deal two years ago and shook hands on it. And then some other twat at the label put a stop to it.”

He added with aplomb, “Between us and Bon Jovi, we fucking built that company. We built their penthouse sushi bar, wherever it may be, and they just treated us like shit. We can either roll over like little dandelions or we can stand up and punch them in the bollocks. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

The band did re-record three tracks themselves (‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’, ‘Rock Of Ages’ and ‘Hysteria’) to go on iTunes – but these were, Elliott says now, primarily tie-ins for a film that featured their music as well as a Las Vegas residency rather than a “bollocks punch” to Universal.

Other studio and live albums released on Def Leppard’s own label – Mirror Ball (2011), Viva! Hysteria (2013), Slang (2014) and Def Leppard (2015) – have long been on streaming services; so the band is most assuredly not anti-streaming. Their issue was with Universal, but the contractual deadlock was broken last year and the band set about remastering their entire catalogue for streaming.

When Music Ally spoke to David Rowe, co-MD of Universal Music Catalogue, just ahead of the catalogue going online, he was incredibly diplomatic and chose his words carefully.

“It has taken four years of collaborative work – very close collaborative work – between us, the band and their team to get where we are today,” he said. “It has taken some time to make sure that all the commercial, legal and artistic aspirations are aligned; that is not always easy to achieve. But the positive approach from the legal team, the band themselves and the label has been immense and we are absolutely delighted to be there now.”

Rock stars, however, do not have to be so diplomatic and Elliott laid the blame squarely at the door of Rowe’s predecessors in Universal’s catalogue division. However, he was full of praise for Rowe and his team in finally getting everyone across the line.

It’s still early days to call if this jump into streaming has been a success or not, but after less than a fortnight on Spotify, tracks like ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ (3.2m streams), ‘Animal’ (7.1m streams) and ‘Love Bites’ (10.5m streams) show they are off to a very strong start. The albums also went top 10 on iTunes in more than 30 countries, with the band holding the top three spots on the overall US catalogue albums chart to boot.

Music Ally spoke to Elliott about ending the war with Universal, where artists need to stand up for their rights, why they were not worried about missing out on the windfall of the iTunes era, why the days of backing acts for several albums until they break through are gone and how 1987’s Hysteria album (possibly) predicted the streaming age by being all about singles.

What took so long to get all your music on digital services?

There are many different factors. First of all, there are the legalities – the grown-up side. When our record deal with Universal lapsed in 2009, there was no digital part of the deal. That’s because there was no digital in 1979 when we signed it. That had to be negotiated. So you just leave the grown-ups in one room to deal with all of that stuff. That didn’t work out originally because the people in Universal at the time and us just couldn’t meet in the middle.

You made some inflammatory statements about the label in the past and there seemed to be a lot of bad blood. David Rowe was very diplomatic when I spoke to him recently, but was a lot of this to do with a change of management at Universal?

Imagine that light there [points to light hanging from the ceiling] is Universal. Whoever is underneath, it is Universal. As soon as they move and somebody else comes in, it is still Universal, but the people we are dealing with down here are different folk.

The people back then were different folk. The people now like David Rowe [in the UK] and [Bruce] Resnikoff in New York are completely sympathetic to our cause – or whatever diplomatic phrase you want to use. I had dinner with them last night and we had the best time ever. These guys are completely on board. They are fans of music. They are fans of the band. The last crowd in weren’t.

So a management change cleared the way for a deal?

Totally. So that is why we let the grown-ups get on with it. It was not about the money. It was not about the money to the point where we were being greedy. You have got to be fair – for both parties. Which now it is. It’s done and everybody is happy. So that’s that side of it done. The next question is this: why did it take so long? Well, we weren’t in a great rush. We weren’t exactly hurting.

Streaming was something that we were a little suspicious of at first because it’s brand new so there is no blueprint as to whether or not it is going to come and go like the Betamax. Is it really going to take off? Or are we going to go to a lot of effort and it turns out to be a waste of time?

You leapfrogged from the CD to streaming and missed out downloading entirely. Were you worried you missed out on lots of money from the glory days of the download market, which is now in sharp decline?

No, we weren’t concerned. Somebody might turn around in 10 years’ time and tell me that we missed out on this. OK – I didn’t win the Lottery either. You can’t worry about what you don’t have. We weren’t hurting. We were out on the road selling more tickets in the last five years than we sold in the Eighties. We were doing great. We put out the live album and the last studio record on our own label. We own them. We made every penny of every sale. We weren’t even licensing. We own this stuff and we put it out on own label.

We still have a very good business model when it comes to anything that is nothing to do with the back catalogue – if we want. We weren’t so much suspicious [about streaming]. But if somebody comes along with an idea, you are not going to say straight away that you’re totally knowledgeable about it. You have got to wait and see what happens. Then people like yourself [journalists] would come up to us and say, “Lady Gaga’s such and such a song did 127m streams and she got a cheque for $120. What do you think about that?”

def leppard

There was a lot of erroneous information coming out about streaming – notably that example – at the time.

Exactly! Was it true? Was it not true? When something like that is put to me in a 15-minute interview, I’ll go, “I think it sucks.” So that becomes the headline and that’s my knowledge of [streaming]. But that’s not true. That was my knowledge in that one nanosecond of an interview. You let this stuff go and then you think, “OK, this all sounds like a good idea.”

The tour was over, we had finished promoting the last album, we had six months to think it over and we signed off on this deal a few months ago; but then we had the real job to do of mastering the songs. You don’t just hand them over. They need to sound a certain way for downloading and streaming. So they have to be mastered and re-EQ-ed. It’s not massively different, but it is different to how it needs to sound for vinyl or how it needs to sound for CD. And we were doing the entire catalogue – not one record. We were going back to 1979. So me and our sound guy had 200 songs to remaster. That takes time.

While they were doing all that [negotiating the deal], we were preparing. You only just found out we did this a week ago, but we have known for nine months that it was happening and we had been working behind closed doors so that we could go “Bang!” when it came out.

A few years ago, you re-recorded three tracks and put them on iTunes yourself. Was that intended as a threat to the label?

It was, “OK, if that’s the way you [Universal] are going to be, we’ll just rerecord them.”

Was it trying to call their bluff?

Yes and no. I don’t like to say that now because the people that are in [at Universal], it wasn’t them lot whose bluff we were calling. We were calling the bluff of the ex-wife! There were a number of reasons for doing it. One was that we could, so we will. We didn’t do it just out of spite.

We only did it as a celebratory thing because when the Rock Of Ages movie got made [in 2012], the two major factors of that film were that the rock star that Tom Cruise plays sang ‘Pour Some Sugar One Me’, so we did a re-record of that song to tie in with the release of that film. And it was called Rock Of Ages, so we did ‘Rock Of Ages’.

We also did ‘Hysteria’ because we were doing Viva! Hysteria in Vegas [a residency playing the album in order in 2013] – which is what we’re going to be doing in December in the UK. So we did the title track of the album to tie in with the fact we were doing a run in Vegas – so we put a 2013 re-record of ‘Hysteria’ up. So they were all tied in with specific events.

It wasn’t just a case of, “Oh, we need some money.” We didn’t need any money. And we weren’t really doing it to go like this [flicks Vs] to Universal. We were doing it because we could. Because the thing with Universal wasn’t in place. But now it is, we won’t be doing any more re-records. We didn’t really want to do them [to begin with]; but we did them as events. The same way you would do a live album.

You say you “weren’t hurting” and could take your time to make your mind up about streaming. But if you were starting out again today, would streaming alone be sustainable for you?

I was recently in New York and when I was leaving somebody told me they had just heard a rumour that Greta Van Fleet were just about to be put on the front cover of Rolling Stone. So, yes. Absolutely you can. It just depends who you are. Now there is heat on them and there is heat on The Struts – they are my two favourite new bands. Even though The Struts have been around for about four years, they are still new to me! Yeah, it can be done […] I don’t know if it’s better now or worse; it’s just different.

It took you until your third album (Pyromania) to break America and your fourth album (Hysteria) to break globally because you had a label behind you and investing in you. Are those days – where a label will stick with you through four loss-making albums – now gone?

That is a very good point. I have always said that the blueprint that we worked to in 1979 when we signed our deal was not that much different to Elton John’s when he signed his deal in 1969. They signed this guy and they gave him a six-album deal. And let’s be honest, we didn’t hear about Elton John until album five [Madman Across The Water].

When you bought that fifth album, there was an advert in the paper [telling you about his previous albums]. All those albums had already been released. But they didn’t sell and nobody knew they existed. Now all of a sudden you had his entire back catalogue. That’s hardly likely to happen anymore.

You have to be big straight out of the gates today.

Exactly. There was a band signed to Madonna’s label Maverick called Candlebox. Their first album [in 1993] sold 3m copies – mostly from the fact that they were touring with Van Halen so they were exposed in front of hundreds of thousands of people that year. That album did OK. The second album didn’t do so well. The third album didn’t do anything. The fourth album never got made. [They did return in 2008 with a new album.] Now our fourth album was Hysteria. U2’s fourth album was The Unforgettable Fire.

If the bean counters don’t see profit on the first album, there might not be a second album. That’s sad. That’s really fucking sad. But if people are smart, they will make their own records. They will borrow the money from their parents or from a bank manager. They’ll find some Svengali or they’ll make the album on a laptop for 10 grand. It’s doable. It’s a lot different. Was it better back then? From my point of view, I’m glad we had the safety net of a six-album deal and a record label to pick up the slack and cover the tour support.

By the time we put Pyromania out, we were so in debt that we didn’t see a penny from that until the end of 1983. That meant we had gone three years as a recording band on the dole.

Hysteria cost a stupid amount of money to make and we probably had to clear about 3m or 4m copies [to break even]. But it was the Eighties! Everybody did then!

The template for Hysteria was that every song should be a potential single – which was seen as unusual at the time because albums had a few singles and the rest were “album tracks”. Now we are at a point where it’s only about the single because of streaming. Do you think you were prescient?

We had always been that way. Every song did have to count. From the first time we ever wrote a song, we were never just going to write fillers. That was never our ambition. When we first got together to write Hysteria, we hadn’t seen Mutt [Lange, producer] in a year. We got together in a house in Dublin and we were sitting around just doing what you do – talking.

Someone mentioned Michael Jackson and how he had kept [Pyromania] off number one for four months. Someone said that was because he had six hit singles. And one of us – probably Mutt – said, “Why can’t you guys have six hit singles?” We were sitting there going, “Why not?”

So that set a precedent about where that album was going to go. That was great because all we ever wanted was to write songs that went into the charts. Because all we ever knew was chart music as kids. We started off with things like ‘Get It On’ and ‘Jeepster’ and ‘Ride A White Swan’. Then that went through to ‘Starman’ and ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’ and ‘See My Baby Jive’ and ‘Virginia Plain’.

As kids, we were fans of this kind of stuff. We might sit up and watch The Old Grey Whistle Test but we weren’t really bothered about Robbie Robertson and The Band or Neil Young. We wanted Slade and The Sweet and Bowie and T Rex. It was three-minutes songs with big guitars and big choruses. And that’s what Def Leppard are. So you can see where we’re coming from […] We covered David Essex’s ‘Rock On’ on our covers album [2006’s Yeah!] and we still play it to this day because it’s a great song. That’s what we do.

Your music has been on Spotify and Apple Music for a week now [at the time of the interview]. Are you streaming millionaires?

Apparently not! That Gaga quote we were talking about earlier – I haven’t seen anything to contradict that yet. All I know is that we are getting streamed and the great thing is you can look on an app [and see the data]. Our social media guy said recently, “Check this out. This is where you’re streaming and this is who you’re streaming to.”

The three biggest cities for us right now – cities, not even countries – are Mexico City, São Paulo and Santiago. Coincidentally three cities that we played in September and October. They are streaming and they are huge. And it’s boys between the age of 18 and 26. Not the girls, who I thought it would be, in Denver, Colorado and Phoenix, Arizona. It has just gone off over there because all they have is one of these [holds up smartphone]. They don’t have laptops or CD players – they can’t be bothered. This is it. Am I a [streaming] millionaire? No!

To me it’s just about furthering our career and keeping it going. We will never in it for the money. Which is why, when the money came, we felt it was honest. Because we literally just wanted to be Marc Bolan.

Eamonn Forde

Read More: Analysis News
3 responses
  • Andrea Pinky Berg says:

    This article was Awesome and insightful! I live on a small Fixed income so I Can’t afford iTunes and the like But I Love Spotify and it’s Awesome to have So Much of the Def Leppard music I’ve Loved since I First heard them in the #80’s on there now to listen to! Thank you Joe and #DefLeppard!!

  • Pete says:

    These guys are really level headed and the fact they’re still touring strong after starting in the late 70s is testament to a hard working attitude. I’d say they outdid Michael Jackson in 1987 with Hysteria. More hit singles on their album than his. The follow up Adenalize was also full of hits. Just a bit unlucky the music scene changed in 92 and left them out of the spotlight. Had they matched the reception of Hysteria with Adrenaluze then I think they would have gone to the next level were few ever tread. Mutt Lange is the Quincy Jones of stadium rock music. His input was invaluable and his legacy lives on despite his low profile and keeping away from the limelight.

  • Linda Lange says:

    I have followed these guys since I was a kid and feel blessed to be able to turn on my computer and follow them even closer. I am sure what ever choices they make are the right ones. Stay strong and keep rockin guys!!!

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