AQ Interview: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Marking half a century since first touring North America, Jethro Tull returns to New Jersey on March 9 at the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, and March 12 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. Fronted by founder and master flautist Ian Anderson, Tull remains one of the biggest selling progressive rock artists of all time. Their anniversary concerts will feature a broad mix of material, much of it from the band’s formative period. Recently, AQ spoke with Anderson about the group’s long and storied career.

The recent theatre shows are a far cry from the extravaganzas of the 1970s. I recall seeing Jethro Tull at Shea Stadium in 1976, where the screens were as large as the stages you’re now appearing on.

Jethro Tull has always been a theatre band. We started off in the clubs, playing in rather dark, smelly, windowless places with all of the claustrophobic conditions that that imposed backstage as well as onstage. You call them “performing arts centers”—we just call them theatres. But that’s always been my preferred place to perform. I like a proper backstage with a working toilet; I like the theatrical entrance of walking onto a stage and being able to run away again when I feel so inclined. It’s much more enjoyable. In places like Madison Square Garden, you feel cornered. There’s never a moment of contemplation during a concert. I remember watching Led Zeppelin—we were supporting them at Madison Square Garden, and I was standing in the back watching these tiny little matchstick men. They were just so far away. People remember it fondly because that was the stage of the art of the day—not very good sound systems, not really impressive lights, and apart from glitzy stage costumes, you really couldn’t make out anything. I don’t really enjoy doing that. It’s not really theatrical. I was so disenchanted by the end of 1972, when the Thick As A Brick tour was over, that I said to our manager when I got back to England, “I’m done. I just don’t want to do this anymore. It’s not music. It’s just a spectacle.” I came close to quitting. But, of course, we continued to get booked in the bigger venues for years to come.

You once said, “Jethro Tull is a concert band and the albums are just souvenirs.” Maybe you were just being glib. But now the entire way of delivering music has changed.

I had the first MP3 player that was produced, and I thought it was definitely a step up from cassettes. It was certainly a whole lot better than the world that we had in the ‘70s when people were listening to music largely on cassettes or vinyl. Music came into its own in the digital age. But Spotify and Apple Music and the like have really spelled the death knell for the major record companies who are holding on by a thread, as well as for most musicians today who might hope to make a living from recording. There’s always going to be somebody who becomes an enormous success and for whom the cumulative effect of hundreds of millions of downloads around the world will grace his or her bank balance, but I rather think that the rank and file of artists are lucky to sell a few thousand records these days. Things don’t favor the young recording artist in these last 10 years or so. It’s a tough, tough job. You’re better off studying to be a check-out person at a supermarket, I think.

Authors have been profoundly impacted by similar changes in publishing. The once vaunted mid-list has all but disappeared and it’s no longer feasible for publishers to take a chance on new writers.

Even worse for music writers, I imagine. Anyone can now be a music critic because everyone has a blog. I get these requests from people all the time—people claiming to be this and that—just people trying to bluff their way into an interview. Perhaps they have a website and post it, but how many people actually read it? The rock magazines of the ‘70s had colossal readerships. In fact, I’m working with one of the writers from that era on a Jethro Tull book. There are still people around doing it—people with that passion for music—but most don’t have the vehicles anymore to be able to publish their work.

We lived in an era where we were blessed with an economy that placed value on creativity. You paid money to buy a movie ticket and to go to concerts and to buy records and to buy books. But entertainment now has become relatively cheap. In 1976, a copy of Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young To Die was retailing for $6.98. If you go online today, it’s $6.95—almost exactly the same figure, but after inflation of perhaps 400% or 500%. Not only that, Amazon will deliver it to your door. So, for a lot of people, this is good news—music and entertainment are cheaper than they’ve ever been… unless you want to go to actually see your favorite musicians perform. You’re paying hundreds now for a ticket, and not necessarily a very good ticket. But you can’t actually do a show cheaper. I think if bands could sell a $10 or $20 ticket, a lot of us would do that. We agree that tickets are way too expensive. In the UK, the cost is about the equivalent of $45 for a top ticket, but that’s less than half of what it will cost in the USA, where people are used to paying more. Why? Because we have to work with commercial promoters, agents… everybody wants their piece of the action, and we pay much more in the way of costs than when we control the economics by producing our own concert tours in the UK. But I can’t do that in the USA. The unions would kill me.