Interview: Melissa Etheridge says tech boom a boon to artists

Doug Elfman The Las Vegas Review-Journal

For decades, Melissa Etheridge topped record and radio charts while picking up Grammys and an Oscar. Today, she isn’t the No. 1 artist on YouTube or radio. But she says she’s on top in her own way.

“The top is in the eye of the beholder,” Etheridge said. “I did a show (this summer) with Blondie and Joan Jett, and it was one of the most rockin’ shows I’ve ever been involved with. It was amazing. And there were thousands and thousands of people there. To me, that’s the top.

“If people are coming to see you, and you’re exciting them with your music, then you’re at the top.”

Etheridge, 54, has radically shaken up her career. She put out an album, “This is M.E.,” on her own indie label, hired a new manager and jumped into social media to enrich her connection with fans.

She’s happy the Internet has expanded the amount of independent musicians who can be heard worldwide, from a number in the thousands, to a number in the millions.

“Corporations are panicking. But it’s a renaissance for artists,” Etheridge said. “You can reach your fans directly. I can do a tweet, and I know thousands of people are seeing it at that moment. That’s very powerful for an artist.”

I told Etheridge journalism is in a similar state as the music business, in that there used to be only a few thousand writers who were read worldwide, and now that number is quite obviously in the millions or billions, depending on your definition of writing.

Lately, I’ve been thinking it’s easy for people like Etheridge and me to cheer for the explosion of Internet rivals when, in fact, she and I already established our (much different) careers during the eras of big traditional media.

Etheridge brought up a better point:

“But still the way it works is, the cream is always going to rise to the top. If you do good work, people are going to want to hear it, and they’re going to want to talk about it, and they’re going to be drawn to you.”

She said an artist can break through to a big audience by creating just one viral thing. And if an artist never gets famous, who cares? They’re still doing what makes them happy.

“Even if you’re not known now, you can do what you love, keep on the path, and you can do it,” she said.

Unlike some musicians, Etheridge digs how connected she has become to fans through social media.

“What’s great is, I can hear immediately what people think of a concert. I used to be beholden just to the reviewer, and who knows if they even wanted to be there that night,” she said.

“I’d have this amazing experience with a show. I’d go, ‘Wow, this was one of my best shows,’ and then the review would come, and I’d think, ‘What show was he at?’ And they’d misquote my song titles.”

I confessed to her my saddest moment as a music critic in Florida years ago. I was assigned to review the band Alabama, and everybody at the Alabama show wanted to listen to Alabama except me.

“Right! Exactly,” she said.

Also unlike many musicians, Etheridge encourages fans to video her shows.

“They can take little YouTubes, and share them, and it really keeps the beautiful energy going in the whole world,” she said.

Unlike many performers, she’s cool with fans taking phone pictures of her.

“Bring it on. If people are going to watch it, the more people are going to watch it. More is more,” she said. “I got tired of seeing (security) yanking people’s cameras away.”

Etheridge has been fan-friendly since she was underage in high school, when her dad drove her to gigs.

“He would always tell me, ‘Melissa, make sure you thank your audience, because they don’t have to be there.’ “

And then, she and I talked about a few music stars who demand that people they work with can’t look them in the eye. Etheridge has heard stories from guitar techs who said stars wouldn’t let them look them in the eye even when they were handing them guitars.

“Us musicians are weird people to start with, and it’s a weird thing to be famous,” she said of such stars. “You have to know how to protect your own sense of self. And if you don’t have a real solid sense of yourself, it can be a frightening place, and you don’t trust people, so it gets weird like that.”

Contact Doug Elfman at He blogs at Follow him: @VegasAnonymous.