Fame & Fortune: Steve Winwood

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In this age of flash-in-the-pan pop stars, the steady longevity of Steve Winwood can be hard to fathom. Now 60, Winwood began performing as a teenager, scoring his first hits at the age of 17, when his band The Spencer Davis Group rocked the charts with “Gimme Some Loving” and “I’m a Man.”

Over the next decade he formed the supergroup Blind Faith with Cream refugee Eric Clapton, then followed it with the popular ’70s act Traffic, releasing classics including “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

The ’80s saw Winwood emerge as a solo act, remaining vibrant with the likes of “Back in the High Life Again,” “Roll With It,” and “Higher Love,” and he has continued playing and recording ever since. Winwood has just released his latest album, “Nine Lives,” which features the same sort of slinky grooves he built his career on, as well as guest star Eric Clapton on the bluesy “Dirty City.”

Bankrate spoke to Winwood about his new album and the crumbling record industry.

Bankrate: The last record was released on your own label, and this one came out through Columbia Records. Why the change?

Winwood: It’s kind of the wrong way around, isn’t it? Obviously the music biz is in a fever: Things are going downhill very quickly; records don’t sell. Everything is changing. The media, radio stations, nothing seems to be safe in this industrial revolution, which actually I don’t mind because, in the end, the music itself can only benefit from it.

But to answer your question, I obviously want to reach as many people as possible. The last album was on our own label, and it was a success for us, although in terms of a commercial label it would have been a big flop.

But I’m still striving to try and reach more people with this music, and as the record industry is undergoing such grave and big changes, obviously the major record companies have to be at least trying. We just took a gamble, really, and I guess we’ll see how they do. It’s a licensing deal for this one record. It doesn’t in any way tie me up. It’s not like a marriage with Columbia, but we’ll see. So far they’re doing quite well.

Bankrate: There’s a big difference in the percentage of the money you get to keep when releasing it through your own label and by going through a major label. Considering the career you’ve had, is money even a consideration when deciding which way to go?

Winwood: Yes. It’s always a gamble. I can’t pretend it isn’t. All I’m trying to do is make the very best record I can and hope for the best, really. That’s all I can ever do. It’s no good trying to second guess the market and say, “Well, I made this kind of record with that record company because in the past that’s always sold well and made mega bucks, therefore if I do it, it should lead to the same thing.” That’s certainly not the way to go — that’s fraught with disaster for anyone who goes that route.

The retention of the money that is kept by the major record labels has been a bit of a bone of contention for me over the past. In some cases I’m still living off very, very old deals that were made in the ’60s, which means that I wind up getting a miniscule amount of the revenue of which the record company gets the lion’s share, which I’m not particularly pleased about. That did prompt us to go to the independent solo licensing deal.

We’ve actually licensed this record to Sony/Columbia, so it’s not exactly the same as being signed to a major record company for me. If you get a small amount of a record and sell 500,000 copies, it’s probably about the same as getting a large amount and selling 100,000. It’s all a bit of a gamble.

Bankrate: You recorded this record at your own studio. Was that for comfort, or a business decision?

Winwood: It’s much nicer to be able to work at home. It can have disadvantages and distractions, but I do have a good facility where I am, and the technology has changed so much that many of the major recording studios, like with the major record companies and retailers and radio stations, are going under.

Several major recording studios here in London have closed, and the mastering suite where we mastered “Nine Lives” is struggling, and I think they wouldn’t mind me saying that things aren’t very good for them.

Of course, the technology makes it much easier to work in a confined space or home studio environment. The equipment we can get is the same as in any studio. We configured the studio about 10 or 12 years ago, and now it’s as good a facility as any other. Not commercially, just for myself and some other odd projects. Mainly, it’s not a business.

Bankrate: You started in this business as a teenager. Given how the music business and the media have changed, do you think you could have enjoyed the same types of experiences if you had been starting out as a teenager in this business today?

Winwood: No, although there are some similarities to what it’s like over the last two or three years as to when I started. Bands can build a reputation playing live and take it from there. But what happened during the ’70s through the ’90s is the industry got much more corporate, and that was led by the major record companies being led by people with legal and accounting backgrounds, which meant there were very few executives with real vision or music lovers with the vision some of the executives had when I was starting.

During the ’80s and ’90s, the executives did have vision, but it was very much a marketing vision rather than one of the craftsmanship of the music itself. I don’t think an artist today would be able to release a 20-minute track like Jimi Hendrix, or Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” unless they released it on their own label.

Bankrate: When you’re not recording, what is your life like these days?

Winwood: I’ve got a fairly young family. My youngest is 12, and I’ve got a 16-year-old boy and two teenage girls. I do several things. I have a small farm. I do some conservation work on the farm. I find that very relaxing. And I do some consultancy to schools on recording and music.

Bankrate: Is the farm a business or a hobby?

Winwood: We did grow some stuff, and it did go to market sometimes, but we turn lots of it over to conservation work.