Ian Anderson: When he who pays the piper doesn't get to call the tune then who's as thick as a brick?
He still isn't too old to rock 'n' roll and he was never too young to be wise about business. Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson talks to Maggie Lee
Sunday 26 August 2007
The only thing I regret about my musical career is the name of the band," says Ian Anderson, frontman and flautist of Jethro Tull, the progressive rock band. "We were given the name by a booking agent in the Sixties. We probably wouldn't have agreed if we'd realised we'd been christened after an 18th-century agriculturist who'd invented the seed drill. It's hardly rock 'n' roll!"
Now, 40 years on, the irony is not lost on Anderson. Alongside his musical activities, the multi-millionaire rocker has managed a separate business career investing in country estates and cultivating fish farms. It has been a lucrative journey. By the Nineties, Strathaird Salmon, the fish-processing company based on his Isle of Skye estate, was reportedly worth £10.7m. He sold part of the company to the Macrae Food Group in 2001.
Anderson, who still tours around the world, is one of a tiny band of rock stars whose grasp of the business side of the industry has arguably helped them stand the test of time. He retains control over his artistic and entertainment activities as a director and shareholder in four privately owned UK companies. And, as a director of Skye Salmon, he retains an interest in the operation of fish hatcheries and farms. In addition, he owns properties in Switzerland and the UK, including a 400-acre estate in Wiltshire.
"While I may have a Swiss bank account," he says pointedly, "I pay taxes here, in the US and wherever they're due."
As the author of such Seventies prog rock standards as Thick as a Brick and Too Old to Rock '*' Roll: Too Young to Die, Anderson's place in music history is assured. But his appetite for self-management is less well known.
"My interest in controlling my own destiny, artistically and financially, goes back to the beginning of my career when I met Chris Wright and Terry Ellis [the founders of Chrysalis Records]," he explains. "It was a lucky break for us all. As the industry evolved, we learnt the business step by step. Knowing the business side gives you artistic freedom; it's a myth that it emasculates creativity. No artist should be afraid of the commercial stuff, especially these days when there are so many information sources."
Born in Scotland, the son of a hotel manager, Anderson later moved to Blackpool (where he studied fine art), leaving there in the early Sixties with his first group, the John Evan Band, which evolved into Jethro Tull.
"We were signed by the Ellis Wright Agency, who secured a residency for us at the Marquee Club," he says. "Terry and Chris also had a licensing deal with Island Records, having agreed they could establish their own label if they sold enough hits. Getting on John Peel's playlist was our next big break, helping us reach the numbers that Terry and Chris needed to launch Chrysalis."
Over four decades Jethro Tull, under Ellis's initial tutelage and with Anderson at the helm, have assembled an impressive back catalogue, including 30 albums. "We've also performed at over 2,500 concerts in 40 countries, and these days do around 100 concerts a year," says Anderson. A prolific and controversial songwriter (he was one of the first musicians to write about global warming, in the Seventies), he has also produced four solo albums and performs independently with classical musicians.
Regarded by fans as a "Renaissance man" (a label he dislikes), he describes himself as "an eclectic musician dabbling in the witchcraft of jazz and classical, along with folk, taking a bit here and there and turning it into this year's party frock. I know what I'm good at and what I'm not."
A flamboyant stage performer, he is also a master of self-parody; his antics have included strutting around in a codpiece and dressing as a country squire. Stage frippery aside, friends attribute his success to his work ethic and shrewd avoidance of the wilder trappings of rock life.
Anderson, who has just turned 60, is philosophical about his longevity as an artist. "I saw the dark side of rock 'n' roll early on. This can be a soul-destroying and deeply disappointing business. My role models weren't famous or in the game to strut around in dark sunglasses, but were musicians who turned up every day for a gig and worked till the end of their days." Such sobering insights fuelled his determination to learn the commercial side of his industry.
Politically astute, he has lobbied the Government and Gordon Brown in the past five years on the extension of UK copyright laws. "This isn't about making Cliff Richard or Elton richer. It's about protecting the UK's cultural heritage and taxable income to the Exchequer. This country has produced around 40 per cent of the world's greatest music recordings and we shouldn't squander that resource."
Perfectly at ease rubbing shoulders with world leaders, Anderson believes that "... Mikhail Gorbachev got it right when he said that the new oil is water. Nations will be going to war in 50 years' time for access to water."
Similarly, he believes, as resources become scarcer, the issue of over-population needs to be discussed intelligently. "Sadly, the people always hardest hit are the poorest. But you don't need me prattling about this – we can all do our own personal bit for the planet. I leave the campaigning to Geldof and Bono."
Private equity firms are currently hovering over music companies but he is sceptical about the benefits of such deals. He is equally pessimistic about the City's clamour for growth. "Far too much emphasis has been placed on trying to achieve big numbers, on trying to stay ahead by turning out hit singles to the detriment of music publishing and back catalogues. What's it all for – the gratification of a businessman and his pension fund? Most people are content with modest demands."
And, finally, what of the future? "I'm blessed. As a musician you can carry on going as long as your mind and dexterity hold out. Look at Beethoven," he laughs. "But I wish I'd learnt history – we'd never have got our name."
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