Patrick Carney of the Black Keys has rarely been one to hold his tongue, when it comes to matters of the music business, and rock’s most garrulous gadfly did not disappoint when the duo appeared on an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast that is going viral in industry circles. The three-hour-plus interview allowed him plenty of time to tackle the Grammys, streaming services like Spotify and Tidal, and even some friendly fire aimed at SiriusXM (where both members host programs) and the group’s record company.
Cohort Dan Auerbach also took part in the interview, but Carney did nearly all the talking for the two. The interview slightly predated the Black Keys’ controversial move to have Ticketmaster shut down entry for resale tickets on the first night of their tour, so that isn’t addressed… but music biz types fascinated by Carney’s candor would surely welcome that and other topics being brought up if the duo ever get around to a Part 2 with Rogan.
Bundling: The practice of bundling — or including a digital download in the sale of a concert ticket, T-shirt or product — is just a way to goose the charts, Carney insisted, explaining that the band’s motivation for turning down the bundling offer presented by Warner Records was a matter of dollars and sense. Carney said Warner, which distributes their label, Nonesuch, “asked if we were interested in a bundle, which is when you include your record with a ticket, and give five dollars from each ticket back to Warner Brothers and then you would get a record sale. That doesn’t make any sense to me and to Dan. But we’re being told, ‘It’s only way you’re gonna get a No. 1 record. … So in other words we would pay $10 per sale on Nielsen SoundScan. By giving the money back that we’ve sold on tickets to Warner Bros., to a record label. F— that. If Dan and I were just our own record label, we could give ourselves five dollars per ticket. … And it’s all based on fear. Like, do you want to be relevant?”
Woodstock: When it comes to music festivals, “I think we’re one of the few bands with a drum set” that’s still playing them, Carney said. On being the first band to back out of Woodstock, long before its troubles became apparent to all, Carney admitted it had less to do with the cited scheduling conflicts than other issues. “It was more money than we’d ever been paid for a show. Our agent was like, ‘What the…? Are you sure you want to?’ I was like, ‘Cancel it.’ It took ‘em four days of him checking in: ‘Are you sure?’ We’re like, ‘Cancel it. A, it’s not gonna be cool. B, I don’t want to play that as our first show back’ [after four and a half years away from touring]. He’s like, ‘Well, there’s a good chance it’s gonna get canceled, and if you cancel it, you’re not gonna get paid.’ I was like, why would we want to headline a festival that gets canceled?’… I don’t feel comfortable taking money like that.”
The Grammys: Recalling a time when the Black Keys were invited to perform on the awards show in 2013, Carney admits to having been conflicted about the appearance. “Playing music on stage with all this pop stuff that has nothing to do with what we’re about,” Carney said. “But we couldn’t say no; we couldn’t knock it till we tried it. But we had sat through the Grammy performance before and it was atrocious. I mean, it really is like so alienating.”
Ultimately, Carney said they’d return if asked, but to hear the drummer tell it, there’s not much reward at the end of the line. As Carney told Rogan: “None of my favorite bands have f–ing Grammys. The Clash don’t have a f–ing Grammy. … What is a f–ing Grammy? Like, what is this sh–? We’re just j—ing ourselves off and congratulating ourselves. Does anybody watch this sh– that really cares about us? I don’t think so.”
He also said that Warner Records told the group when they were up for record of the year for “Lonely Boy” that if they won, a plan was in place to cross the song over to top 40 radio — which he’s thankful didn’t happen. “If we would have won that Grammy, it could have f—ed our whole band up. I’ve seen it happen with lots of bands. You become playschool level. We wouldn’t have changed, but the thing is, you start acquiring a fan base that’s more fickle and maybe more annoying.”
Spotify getting in bed with the labels: Carney says that after “being quoted in Rolling Stone talking s— about Sean Parker and Spotify,” he got a conciliatory email from Daniel Ek, who’s “a nice guy, very intelligent,” which led to constructive conversations. But, Carney added, “He basically, without explaining it directly, was saying that he’s paying our label to get our music. What they do with the money, he can’t control. At that moment, I realized, oh yeah, there’s some stock being floated to these companies. Which there was — billions of dollars of stock was sent.” Warner Records, he said, “gave us like a couple hundred thousand dollars of the billion. They paid it to us in the way the label does: they paid it as an artist royalty and took all these deductions out of it, and it was a made-up number.”
Spotify’s royalty rates: Carney’s bigger complaint with Spotify remains that “they treat almost every stream the same. There’s a royalty rate if you pay for Spotify, and a royalty rate for if you’re listening on the free service.” But he thinks royalties should be adjusted for listeners like himself who choose quality over quantity. “What they need to do, in my opinion, is say, ‘This guy Joe has good taste in music. He follows 500 bands, which means there’s no possible way that he’s gonna be listening to all 500 of those bands in even a six-month period of time — but when he does choose to listen to a song, it’s worth like 10 times, versus this person who’s listening to ‘Old Town Road’ a thousand times a day. Because Joe is actually engaging with our thing, not just streaming a song for free, like a Pavlov’s (dog), mouth salivating every time he hears ‘Old Town Road.'”
“I look at my Spotify. I’m listening to 100 songs, that’s it, because I have so many ways to listen to music. And I’m like, the way to really do this that’s fair is you take my 10 f—ing dollars… and you take those 100 songs and you give everybody 10 cents. But that’s not the way they do it. They’re like, ‘We pay .0005-.0006-.0007 cents per stream… They’re keeping all this f—ing cash but they’re keeping it in a pile, and then at the end of the day, they’re just satiating Rihanna’s $100 million check she gets every year. I know a lot of artists who get checks for like $2.50 for a whole year on a record that would normally have sold like 5,000 or 6,000 copies. But there’s no need (for fans to buy the album) because you basically have to be an idiot to buy a CD nowadays, because it’s a digital file that you ultimately can download from Spotify and have it on your phone forever.”
Tidal: “I pay for all of (the digital services). I have YouTube, Apple, whatever. I don’t have Tidal, but that’s because they gave ownership to like 12 artists and they’re like ‘F— you.’ What the f— is that? Just keep the ownership and pay a higher royalty, you f—ing c—suckers.’ Honestly.”
SiriusXM: Carney pointed out that both he and Auerbach have shows on the satellite service —which didn’t stop him from laying in. “It’s hard because I think that they’re part of the problem, actually,” he said. “Like the way that they program the four or five rock channels — there’s a channel on there called the Spectrum; Dan has a show on there, and it’s like the AAA channel, which would be KCRW here or ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic.’ … This should be a format that’s highlighting music that’s current, that’s coming out, and they were playing a couple U2 songs on there the other day. I’m like, ‘This is a band that’s playing the Rose Bowl; why are you playing them on the f—ing AAA, you f—ing asshole?’ I look to the alternative station, and the alternative station is playing really pop music.”
He also found out he was limited in his ability to call in favors, even as a longtime SiriusXM host. “Man, I have had a show with that company for five years. I do it for free; I don’t get paid — five years, every month. I had this one artist that I worked with that I was like, ‘I really think you should consider this for something you might put on a playlist.’ This isn’t some payola shit — it’s been five years! They were like, ‘She doesn’t have the social media numbers that we’re looking for.’ You know what? That means what you’re adding is just some dumbass that’s good at social media. I mean, if that’s what qualifies you to get on (satellite) radio, then we’re all f—ed.”
Major labels, especially Warner: Major labels as an institution receive no small amount of abuse, but Warner Music, with which both Carney and his wife, singer Michelle Branch, were affiliated, gets singled out. Branch was actually signed to Maverick in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was distributed by Warner Bros. Records at the time, while the Black Keys recently completed their contract with Warner subsidiary Nonesuch.
“I’m married to a woman who’s sold millions and millions records [containing] songs she wrote,” Carney says. “And when she turned in an Americana record, Warner Bros. gave her such a runaround. They shelved a record that cost $800,000 to make, because they said it didn’t have any hits on it — then charged her for it and dropped her. They never released it — that’s how they do this sh–. Their archives are filled up with sh– that’s been shelved.”
Asked by Rogan whether musicians can work within a major-label system, Carney said, “If you can integrate with the industry from the outside, it’s the best. We got offers from majors early on,” he recalls. “But we kept getting strung along, mostly because their contract wouldn’t show up — ‘It’ll be there in a week.’ It doesn’t show up. ‘It’ll be there next week.’ It wasn’t there. At 22 years old, we realized, ‘If we sign this sh– and they can’t get a contract to us in six weeks, if we make a record we’re gonna get so logjammed.’ So we took a risk and signed with a small indie, and later when we went to a major, actually a subsidiary of a major [Nonesuch] with a really supportive president, we were outside, still. We’ve never had an A&R tell us to speed up or whatever.”
While Carney has positive words for Nonesuch, he slammed unnamed executives at Warner, apparently for their non-response to an album by an artist he was working with. “In the last five years, Dan’s produced probably 15 albums for other artists, I’ve done a handful, he’s got a label,” Carney says. “The craziest thing is this: We’ve sold millions of records, we’ve made between the two of us 60-plus albums, and the last time I finished a record that I’m really proud of and sent it to Warner Bros., they didn’t even f—ing respond to the email. When that sh– happens, you know what you wanna do? Tell them to f— themselves. And now we’re in a situation where our contract is done.”
Rogan cut in: “Do you need a major label?” “F— no,” Carney replied. “It’s so infuriating to have been in this business for 20 years and be treated like dogsh–.” He later weighed in on an unnamed executive, presumably from Warner, because he has positive words for the head of Nonesuch. “We had this dude who was president of the label who took credit for our success and he wasn’t even at the label [at the time]. ‘I really take a lot of pride in that band’s success, because I did it by just staying out of the way.’ He wouldn’t even sign a check for tour support. He’s taking credit for not f—ing it up!”
Data and discover algorithms: “I think it’s detrimental to the music industry to pay too close attention to certain metrics,” said Carney, who does give praise to members of “the old guard” like Lenny Waronker or Seymour Stein. “The whole system right now with the majors is signing s— that has the most social media interaction and the most streaming. And you know what, when I was 9 years old, I bought Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and I listened to that shit like 250 times in a week like a f–king idiot. That’s who’s listening to this shit and getting a billion streams in a month. It’s like f–ing 9-year-old morons.”
Carney talked about sitting with indie producer John Vanderslice recently and looking at the list of recommendations Spotify made for further listening, based on their prior listening habits. “And every single thing was something that I had listened to already, except for one artist that was something I didn’t even care for. With all the technology, with all the ways to hear all the millions of songs on Spotify, they still haven’t figured out how to satiate someone’s desire to hear new music… I think that they’ve gotten their ass so far into metrics and statistics that they’ve stopped any sort of actual curation using taste. And the only way you get to something worthwhile is through taste.”