26 November 2010
Bette Midler: I wouldn’t make it now
By Sinead Garvan
BBC 6 Music News
Bette Midler has seen the music industry change beyond recognition since she began her career
She is one of the most successful artists of all time, with three Grammy awards and two Oscar nominations, yet Bette Midler believes if she was to start out in the business today, she wouldn’t “have a snowballs chance”.
“I don’t think I fit the mould,” she says. “It seems like it’s much more formulaic than it used to be – and I’m not in the formula.”
For someone who has sold more than 30 million records during her 40-year career, this might seem unbelievable. “It does feel a little crazy,” she agrees.
“You know, that old (song) Video Killed The Radio Star is really true. And I think the video stars have pretty much been killed by the internet.”
The singer and actress is in the UK to promote her new album Memories of You. It is a collection of her favourite songs from the Great American Songbook.
“It is a kind of a look back on my ballad career, they go all the way back to my second record,” she explains.
“I have a weakness for saloon songs and those heartbreak ballads, and it’s a record full of them. They are slow, they are magisterial, they are mostly done with strings and horns and are really quite beautiful, very atmospheric.”
This is her 14th studio album – so what is the secret to survival in such a notoriously fickle business?
“I think you have to have started in the 60s,” she laughs.
“I think the system in which I arrived has been completely dismantled. The support the record companies used to give no longer exists. People are very much left on their own.
“People had much more patience [in the past], they were willing to give you a chance. If you had one bad record they didn’t throw you out totally. If they really loved you they would keep you on until you started having hits again.”
She is not a fan of TV talent shows, either. After appearing on American Idol, she described it as “one of the worst experiences of my life”.
The 64-year-old believes the shows can produce good solid singers, but not artists. Midler is aware she could sound bitter about the current state of the music industry but says it comes from experience:
“After you’ve lived so long, you see the way it works. Things pop up and then they fade. It’s fascinating to see what stays in the audiences heart.”
Midler’s theory is that connecting to audiences is the key to a long career. Once you win them over, they will stay with you forever, she says. And it’s something she feels may be lacking in today’s musicians.
“I don’t see people reaching for the heart and the soul of their listener, that is distressing because that is what music is about, it is supposed to move you and I think if people don’t achieve that, they can’t really call themselves artists.
“That’s sour grapes, I guess, but I don’t mean it to sound like sour grapes,” she laughs.
That is not to say she won’t listen to the current crop of singers. “I listen to just about everything,” she says.
“I have a lot of respect for musicians because I know how hard it is. I never say ‘I will not listen to that kind of music’. I never put those barriers up.”
However, it is another veteran that has provided her current source of inspiration:
“I read Keith Richards‘ book,” she enthuses. “It’s fabulous, what a life!”
“The way he talks about music, his love of his guitar and his love of the sounds he creates, that was truly inspiring.”
“Those last two years in Vegas were really tough and, even though I was very excited to have the opportunity, it was hard and I’m glad to have a little downtime.
“It’s good for me to sit at the piano and plunk around and meet people.”
For the moment, she is studying music and waiting for inspiration to strike, something she was unable to do in the early days of her career.
“When I was with my label, they would call you up every year and say, ‘it’s time for another record’ and then you would have to scramble,” she says.
“But since the system no longer exists, you have a little more time to pick your way, go back onto the road, play clubs here and there, just find your sea legs again. So that is what I will do.”
Memories Of You is out now.