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Toby Keith: Believe and invest in yourself

Country superstar Toby Keith, 42, is a man who stirs up emotions, and none so passionate as those about patriotism, free speech and artistic expression. Love him or hate him -- and the Dixie Chicks have famously weighed in on this one -- the Oklahoman is a man who's confident in who he is and what he stands for, including financial remuneration in the record business.

Signed to Mercury Records in the early 1990s, Keith, whose new album is "Shock 'n Y'all," was a quiet hit-maker who never really found his niche until he switched labels to DreamWorks. There, he began writing and recording "attitude" songs that put the fun back into country music and made him a superstar. His current album, "Unleashed," has been certified triple-platinum.

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But even in his days as a B-level star, Keith watched his money. Before his terrorist-baiting "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" made him a household name, he had already amassed a fortune worth an estimated $25 million from his songwriting, recordings (10.5 million albums sold), and investments, which include a 160-acre farm outside Oklahoma City and some 40 thoroughbred racehorses. Just recently, Bob Baffert, who's trained three Kentucky Derby winners, offered Keith $1 million for his horse, Cactus Ridge. Born and bred and raised on Keith's farm, the horse is said to be the fastest 2-year-old thoroughbred in America. "Thanks, but no thanks," the singer said. "I'm having too much fun watching him race."

We asked Keith, who was nominated in 2003 for seven Country Music Association Awards, about his circuitous career and how he's navigated those financial waters.

Bankrate: Why do you think it took you so long to start winning awards?

Toby Keith: I think it was a combination of things. First of all, the regime at Mercury that was in place when they broke my record out had divided forces. So I got shifted around to the point I was on three different labels in the same company. You can't get the votes without continuity.

Bankrate: In many ways, you're a survivor, then. You ended up losing your Mercury deal and going to DreamWorks and becoming a major headliner.

Toby Keith: When I was last with Mercury, I was old hat. The regime had changed. And the new one basically said, "We're going to do it our way." And I mean, I'm a songwriter. A very successful songwriter, I might add. Everywhere I've been, no matter how bad it's been, or how good it's been, I've had No. 1 records and consistent hits. But I was told they wanted me to listen to some songs for the next album. So I knew I needed to do something different. Now, it's almost impossible to get out of a record deal. You're sentenced to life and a day when you sign. But everything I would do, they would reject. I had cut 14 or 15 songs. I brought these guys into the studio and they sat down and listened to eight or 10 of them. They only liked one, a tune called 'Getcha Some.' They wanted to put it out as a single to get some instant airplay off it, and throw a "Greatest Hits" album out behind it and see what happened. Then they wanted me to work more on my album.

Bankrate: How much did that hurt?

Toby Keith: Well, it hurt real badly. They didn't push the thing as hard as they could have. The record died at 19, but it got enough airplay at the station that we sold 600,000 or 700,000 units of "Greatest Hits" in a short amount of time. And then I turned in my "How Do You Like Me Now?" album, and they rejected it. At the gold party for the "Greatest Hits" album, they told me that they didn't hear what [producer] James [Stroud] and I were hearing. Then they pulled the next single after it got to No. 33 in four weeks. They said there was no way it would make it [to No. 1]. I never, ever, had a single pulled. So I said, "You don't believe in anything I've got going on here, so let me go. Just let me take my music with me." They said if you'll pay for the sessions, we'll let you take the masters. So I bought my masters back for $110,000 and took them to DreamWorks. We added two songs to that album ["How Do You Like Me Now?"] and stuck it out there. It was Album of The Year and I was Male Vocalist of the Year. Mercury comes right in and packages their "Greatest Hits" album right beside it in the stores. I was their second biggest-selling artist and I wasn't even on their label.

Bankrate: Long before the Dixie Chicks sued their record label, you were critical of most record company deals.

Toby Keith: New artist record deals are practically illegal. They are almost a full-fledged rape. The label holds so much in reserve, and they tell you in your contracts that you have to pay for an audit to get your money. And if you fail to do it every two or three years, it is just money you have lost. And when you show that they owe you, you have to fight them to get it. The percentage points are so low for new artists. What you have to do is come out, hit it and renegotiate it. I've got a greater record deal than anybody in the business. But see, I negotiated with a great president who believed in me, and with a great label that believed in me, at a time when I was at my lowest, so the expectations weren't as high. You know, "So what if he reaches a million? We'll give him a little more, but his chances are pretty slim." So I got a real good deal.

Bankrate: A lot of people assume that most people who have record deals are doing really well. But despite what you're saying, after you've had a bit of success, can't you make decent money on the road?

Toby Keith: The worst artist in our business has a better life than about any plumber. Anybody with a record deal that has any kind of a hit can go get $4,000 to $5,000 a night at a bar. I mean, doctors don't make that kind of money. How many doctors work 25 days and make $125,000? So we've got it really, really good. The weakest of our rosters still makes probably more money than a blue-collar guy. As long as you've got a deal and you're getting records out there and you can tour, you're doing very well -- that is providing you've got somebody handling your money good. Below that, in the bars and the training ground of America, it's very poor. The jobs pay nothing, and you buy your own guitar and strings and equipment. You have to work five and six nights a week at bars. In 1988, we worked 51 weeks. We took off for Christmas. Worked five and six nights every single week of that year, and it was just paying the bills. We were bringing home $300 to $325 a week, cash take home, and you only have six guys doing that. You just fight and you struggle and keep dreaming your dream. No matter how good you write, or sing, or perform, until somebody opens the door for you and gives you the opportunity, you're going to be making $300 a week so. There are no guarantees in this business, and there is no minor league.

Bankrate: What were you known for as a high school kid?

Toby Keith: I had a pretty good job in school. I was just working for a guy who put on weekend rodeos. About 10th grade, I knew that I was going to go to work for my Dad when I got out of school. He was in the oil field. They had such a good operation. There were guys going to Saudi Arabia and making $150 an hour. It was ridiculous how much money they were making. When the boom started, there wasn't enough housing for everybody, and people would just come to Oklahoma from all over the U.S. and pitch tents or live in mobile homes. It was like a gold rush. But three years after I got into it, the oil field died, and the boom was over, and I was left going, "Oh, oh." People were living under underpasses. All of a sudden, the music business made more sense.

Bankrate: "How Do You Like Me Now?" became a sort of rallying cry for the underdog. What kinds of stories do people tell you?

Toby Keith: Oh, everything. One person told me, "My teacher said that I would never amount to anything, and now I am the principal at the high school, and I fired her the other day." You wouldn't believe the irony involved in some of these "How Do You Like Me Now?" stories. And what could have been better than my Album of the Year being called that? Did we know it was going to be the Album of the Year and sell a million and a half records and head for platinum? No. Did we know that song was going to take me from a $25,000-a-night act to a headliner? No. We didn't name it that thinking we were so smart. It's just that the stars all lined up. It just happened.

Alanna Nash is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.

-- Posted: Nov. 7, 2003




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