When you talk about Blaze, you’re talking about House Music royalty. The legendary duo released almost twenty full length albums, countless hit songs and remixes for Diana Ross, Aretha, Jamiroquai, and more…
But that’s all in the past now. One half of the production duo, Josh Milan, sat down with me to talk candidly about Blaze’s split, the business of music and charting a course for himself, for his label Honeycomb Music, and, more broadly speaking, for the future of Soulful House Music.
So the last time we interviewed you was in 2010 and you had just launched your label, Honeycomb Music. In that span of time, a lot of things have happened to you. What’s changed since then?
What changed for me is that I’ve had a life challenge since we last talked. I was getting my own label together because I’d always wanted to do a soulful style of music that included musicians, not just one guy in a studio with a bunch of keyboards. I’ve always wanted to do music that sounded like a real band.
But I’ve had a serious split with my former partner in Blaze. It’s kinda nasty – it’s not nice. And I learned a great deal about business from this split. It was a very expensive and painful lesson.
All that musicians and singers want is to sing and play their instrument. They want to put their music out and have people like it. That’s their focus. But this is more of a business than it is music. Which is why I was taken advantage of. I was ripped off because I wasn’t paying attention to the business. I allowed my partner to handle the business as he saw fit because I trusted him and we’ve been friends for over twenty-seven years. There’s no way he would do anything to hurt me or take advantage of our friendship, I thought.
And you know what, Czarina? Twenty years from now, somebody is going to be telling you the same kind of story.
It never even occurred to me to find out about music publishing. And that is the biggest dollar you will make in the music industry.
For some of the people not familiar with it, tell us how music publishing works…
As a songwriter, you are entitled to a percentage of the dollar being made on each song that you write. If your song is being played on the radio, then there is a percentage that is owed to you as a writer. If you get your song played one time, you may get 5 cents. But if your record is played one time in Australia, in Africa, one time in Japan, in Italy – and it’s played one time everyday – you stand to make a good amount of money!
So there are publishing companies that will give you an advance on your publishing. I got a publishing deal in 1989 and we recouped on our publishing. The problem is, we had the option to do it all over again. The option was accepted by my partner and I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know we were getting another advance. I didn’t find out until almost 12 years later. The contract was extended like four times – and each one of those times, money was handed over. I saw not one dime of it. And if I did see a penny of it, it was presented to me as though it was a favor or gift to me.
So what kind of amounts are we talking about?
Over the years, I count about $240,000. This is over 12 years… Money changes people. And when it comes to money, everything gets funny. You have to take care of your own business, you have to cross your own T’s and dot your own I’s.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] Soulful House music is not dead and it’s not dying. But we have to find a different way to market it. People will always need to hear somebody’s voice. [/quote]
So how do you deal with something of this magnitude in your heart when someone you’ve worked with for so many years does this? How do you even process that?
It takes a real big man to forgive someone. And when I tell you I was hurt, it was so indescribable, I don’t feel like I’m doing the word justice. We’re talking twenty-seven years of everyday-ness with a guy who I felt was my brother, with somebody I would have risked my life for. And I spoke to him briefly, and his attitude was, “You kinda knew, because I tried to tell you and all you said to me was, ‘You handle it’.” But I didn’t realize he was just going to take my money! How am I going to allow you to just take a check for $70,000 and say, “Just go ahead and do your thing”?
So you know what? I’ll take half responsibility. I definitely should have been more on top of things. It’s hard to be a businessman when there are friends and family involved. It’s hard to be that way.
And you know, I started to see fruits of the money, but I had no idea where it was coming from! I was like, “Wow where’s he getting this money from? And we’re in the same business, we’re 50-50 partners all the way!”
At first I snapped and I lost my cool and all kinds of things could have happened. But I believe – and I don’t want to freak your readers out – but I believe that there is a God somewhere. And I believe that prayer really does work. God has given me a peace that supersedes my understanding. A year before I found out what was happening, I was looking at foreclosure! They didn’t even want my money – they just wanted me out. And I found out my partner of twenty-seven years got me for that kind of money?
But I’ve healed from that whole situation. You know, we don’t talk, but I’ve moved on. I’m very happy, I’m still in my house, I’m still in the music industry and life has moved on!
I remember a quote you once said to me: “If the guys new to the game would stop for a second and learn about the business of this music they’d come out better.” Do you remember that?
Yes I do! Everything starts in the studio. The dream is to end up on the charts or end up on regular rotation on the radio. But we start it in the studio. I’ve gotta walk out of that studio feeling like this is a hit. Like there’s no way people are gonna hear this and not like it. That’s where it’s gotta start.
And the next step is the marketing strategy. Who is my audience? Where are they and how do I get to them? You have to actually get on YouTube and get on all these social networking sites, get yourself a team that will work the product on the sites.
I’m a small businessman, I don’t have $40,000 to go to the radio station so they can play my record. So I have to do things on the real grassroots level. I rely on DJs. Word of mouth is still a great marketing tool. And with the DJs, I’ll hand out maybe a hundred free copies to DJs that I know travel the world. “Play this record, kill it!”
Your achievements and your discography are greater than 99 percent of the dance music artists out there. Are you content with where you’re at?
You know I wouldn’t mind seeing my career blossom a little more in different circles. Because I would like to open up for the Dave Matthews Band or Sting. Because my music is a little bit more wordly than, you know, most non-musical soulful guys. I don’t use a guitar, I’ll use a banjo, I’ll use a trumpet in my music. But most guys speak with keyboards to keep it rocking the club. I’d much rather rock a crowd of 150,000 people, you know what I’m saying?
So how can we make that happen? How do you get to that next level?
It’s very difficult being an independent label. I’m 43. I don’t look like Drake, and I certainly can’t dance like Usher Raymond. I’ve got a little beer belly that I’m getting rid of. So it’s hard to break a guy into those kinds of arenas. There’s millions of guys trying to do it, so I’m just another guy. And that’s the truth.
But you have history, you have accolades, awards…
I do, but – and I’m keeping it real, so I hope you guys are really reading this! – I do have accolades, awards, I get all kinds of applause from people all over the world, but… Soulful House music doesn’t make a strong enough statement financially for major companies to accept it. It just doesn’t make the sales. You and I – we love it! We feel the lyrics, we love the way Peven Everett sings, but in the real world, these people want to know: how many records did you sell?
And in electronic music, that’s kinda tough given the turnaround of music.
You have to do so many records! You really have to put out like two or three records a month to get it all. But if you want quality music, then you’re going to need more time than that! You really have to spend time with a record in the studio to make sure it sounds amazing.
It’s not easy making a good Soulful House song. I think it takes a lot of talent and it’s not just like making a track. I feel like I’ve been fighting the masses telling me that Soulful House is dead.
Soulful House music is definitely not dead and it’s not dying but we have to find a different way to market it and make it palatable for other genres to enjoy. DJs are so scared to step out of that box to play something just a little different. I was in Chicago recently and I think I was in my heaven. I was able to play Edgar Winter’s song “Frankenstein”, it was a rock record from the ’70s and people were still on the dancefloor! There was even a drum solo, and they were still dancing.
People will always need to hear somebody’s voice. You can only go but so far with an instrumental. But if you can hear somebody sing a lyric that relates right to what you’re going through… You’ve been hurt and somebody says, “Hey, I’ve been hurt too and it’s all right you’ll be fine.” If somebody says that in a lyric? You will need that, it will be like food to you. So Soulful will always be here and we’ll always have an audience.