UPDATE: A revised and expanded version of this post
is included in the new Radio To Go ebook, Survivors
It took Judas Priest a decade to start getting a fair share of their money. KK Downing tells a cautionary tale.
Judas Priest are one of the most storied of Midlands hard rockers. Formed in 1973, with the odd strategic hiccup, they came to define quintessential British classic heavy metal. They were louder than anyone else. They had way more leather, studs, pyro... and Harleys... onstage than anyone else. It’s been said that without Priest, there wouldn't have been Kiss.
Priest launched their first album just about when I first went on air as a rock jock at the old BRMB. It wasn’t a big success. In fact, it took Priest quite some time to hit their stride - Wikipedia makes oblique references to unfortunate management - but when they did, they scored big time.
I’ve done gigs with them (smoked out at Barbarella’s), interviewed them lots, seen them grow to enormodome stadium status in the US, and even wound up programming some of their more crossover material daytime at radio back in the day. But all that was a generation ago. Time for a bit of catchup.
Founder member KK Downing quit Priest in 2011. The parting of the ways caused much gnashing of teeth and wailing among core Priest fans - there's even a Downfall of Hitler meme on the topic, in spanish. But that's the sort of fan reaction that happens when band becomes brand.
We talked at Downing's home, Astbury Hall, a splendid rock star mansion on a lush estate outside Bridgnorth. Robert Plant's place is just up the road. Astbury Hall is Downing's post-Priest business, a growing business that he is enthusiastically developing. It's becoming a top of the line... golf course.
Wait a minute. I get the whole rock and roll veteran with a mansion in the country bit – but golf???
Yes! It’s extremely on the 'other' side. We like the wildness, the rebellion… but we also like tranquillity. I think that’s what golf brought to me - an escape, through my career.
We were on tour in the early 80s with Def Leppard. We fancied ourselves as tennis players – me and Glen Tipton particularly. Def Leppard challenged us: it was golf in the morning, tennis in the afternoon. We were… awful. They wiped the floor with us.I'm still surprised. I expect this in the US, where golf is much more of a general sport than it is over here, and people like Alice Cooper and Huey Lewis are famous for their love of the game. I just didn't expect this from a hellraising Priest guitar man.
You'd be surprised! Back in the eighties, when we finished a tour, we’d drop anchor, rent an apartment and start songwriting, wherever we were. One year we finished up in Hawaii, so that’s where we stopped off. So I got to play golf on all the Islands… not sure how much songwriting I got done though…You’re no longer a member of Judas Priest, and you’re very clear about that. It’s all bluntly definite, polite, courteous and above board. What happened? This was a long, long partnership. Why did it come to an end?
Look – in relationships, even personal relationships, it’s a challenge to hold things down for a long period of time. In a business relationship with four other guys, over 40 years - lucrative years - things change. You start to ask yourself the question, when is the time to release yourself from that relationship? Just over a year ago, that time came for me. I listed 30 reasons for that to happen. Some of the reasons were very simple. I wanted to feel I was English again. I wanted to see the seasons change in my home. Simple reasons like that. There were other reasons: the big change in the music industry…Well, let me jump in here and ask - is there still the same demand for Metal? Is there still the same demand for the great veteran bands like Priest?
Yes. It’s never going to go away. The big thing that’s changed is the product - CDs, MP3s, streaming, websites - and how it’s affected the industry. That’s why now, pretty much the only way you can make money is to go out and play live. So now you will see a lot of bands coming out of retirement. Royalties are drying up…and that’s the pension pot for a lot of people.
KK Downing in full flight with Judas Priest in 2010I never saw it that way, but now you come to mention it, that explains a lot of 70s and 80s revivals...
I can remember so many times that it felt like a 9 to 5 job. Write, record, tour, write, record, tour… I enjoyed it immensely – I loved doing that – when younger. When you’ve got the energy to sustain that output, that’s great. But then you think to yourself you’ve got less time. So that nine, ten months of writing a recording a record – you ask yourself what is the point anyway, when people are going to acquire the product…… and you’re not going to see anything from it?
That’s one aspect. It’s not all about the money, though. But it’s easier to down tools if there’s not the incentive to do it.But it’s a scary prospect for you if your previous work no longer makes money. The new model’s not doing recording artists any favours.
Looking around online I found that the whole of the Priest catalogue now is available free of charge. My life’s work, the band’s work, is available for free. And that’s fine.You’re fine with that?
Fine in that there’s nothing I can do about it, but I can look on it as a concession from me – to give something back. And in fact now that I’ve left the band, I can help in other areas. In little ways. And whatever I do, I do for free.But to do it at all, you have to be able to do it from a solid financial base.
If people ask me, then I do. So if I guest on an album, it’s in the knowledge that the people I’m helping will in all probability not make anything from that album. So I’m happy to contribute…The first time I saw you, I was a support DJ, and it was at Barbarellas. You used so much pyro we couldn’t see you for the first half hour of your set...
(Laughing) Yeah, well Barbarellas had a low ceiling, didn’t it?And pretty substandard ventilation with it. But that was around '75, and you really didn’t hit your stride until 79/80, did you? How did you develop that classic Priest proposition?
We were making some good headway through the 70s. But it wasn’t until 1980 and British Steel that things kicked on. Suddenly we were on Top Of the Pops.
1979: Priest whip the TOTP crowd into a frenzy. A remarkable 'live' performance - just like the recordNot what you expect from a classic Midlands Metal Monster band. Let’s talk about control – creative control. British Steel was the album that you broke through with. How much was that Priest, and how much your producer Tom Allom?
It was the quickest album we ever wrote and recorded. We had six or seven songs ready. We know we’d have downtime to come up with the rest of the material,Fast and dirty…
The best way to go. People are coming back to that. The Stones never left. I think it’s the best policy.And what about financial control? At what point do you feel you were taking control of your band’s earnings?
It was really quite late in our career. And I have to add that I always say to people who tell me that they’re a great band with a great guitarist and great drummer and a stage show and all that… I always say: Fine, I know that you’re good, you’ve got your art down. But you need to check out how everything works. I know for a fact that until we got our house in order, we didn’t make any money – until we learned how the business works.
Our first deals were horrible, weighted heavily against us. You have to know what is a good merchandise deal, what is a good publishing deal, what is the normal split, what you’re entitled to. It’s extremely important. If you do get to the point where some money does come in, it can go out the door so fast, you’ll never see any of it.So does that mean you have to oversee every deal?
I missed out one very important ingredient – management. If you’ve got all these contracts coming at you, you have to make sure you’re getting a deal matching your potential. A good accountant from the offset is very important. Don’t get caught out.
Our first contract was very very poor. We were getting like two thousand pounds advance for an album. It got to the point where it was so ridiculous – I’m sure the guys won’t mind me saying – where we were taking on casual labour jobs just to make ends meet, when we had albums in the charts.
That’s the difference. It can go out of control so fast. You’re building a business as a band. When you get momentum, that business can explode, and if the agreement isn’t right, you won’t get the rewards. So be very very careful what you sign.So what are you doing now?
I’m helping out where it feels right, like I said. I’ve worked with a young West Midlands band – Hostile – from Wednesbury. I got involved through an old friend; produced the whole album. The guys have struggled to get a recording deal, but that’s the same for everybody. There are a couple of gigs coming up, which I’m helping to promote. We’d working to create some sort of circuit for young bands to promote themselves – known as The Future Of Metal – which I’m actively behind. So hopefully, in time we’ll get a tour circuit where bands don’t have to pay to play.This is what I find stunning about our local music scene. All the risk – all of it – is on the musicians themselves.
We played at the Cavern in Liverpool one night. Our fee on the day was twenty, twenty five pounds, maybe. Might have been fifteen. The guy over the road ran a Greek restaurant, and his band hadn’t shown up, so he came over and asked us if we’d do a double show. Which we did. A real bonus. We were overjoyed – it meant double saveloy and chips that night!The conversation switched back to the surroundings. Downing wants to take his golf course up to Belfry level, He wants PGA tournaments. That’s ambitious.
Do you take the same pride in this business as you took in Priest?
When I first got going with Priest, I concentrated on not failing, wanting to succeed. Now I’ve set my stall out, it’s the same. Anything I do now, I need to make it work. It’s succeed, or die.
Future of Metal
Future of Metal night at The Asylum, Birmingham, Friday May 17th
Hilton Music Festival, Bridgnorth
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