Kenny G on Clive Davis, Blowing for 46 Minutes, and the Future of Music Sales

Categories: Interview

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ophisticated (read: old) people everywhere enjoy the smooth sounds of Kenny G. The world-renowned saxophonist isn't just the vehicle for one of pop music's all-time best hairdos, he also owns several world records, including the most instrumental records ever sold in the U.S. and the longest note ever recorded on a saxophone.

The man who's been the subject of almost as many Conan jokes as NBC's higher-ups is making his way to Phoenix this week, performing at the Celebrity Theatre on November 16. Get ready for the classic smooth sax you (or your favorite aunts and uncles) know and love.

Up On The Sun spoke with Kenny G about artistic freedom and changing the game for instrumentalists.

Up On The Sun: You hold the world record for longest note ever recorded on a saxophone, which is nearly 46 minutes. While that's really impressive, a lot of people don't understand why that would be on your list of accomplishments to tackle. We get it: you can hold a note for a long time. Why did you feel the need to prove it to the world?

Kenny G: Well the Guinness people wanted me to try it, so that was how it started. I don't do it to prove to the world. I just do it because I'm trying to see how good I can be at the thing that I do. It's my own thing. I want to now try to beat my record and do it for an hour, so I'm going to work towards that for the next year.

UOTS: Your albums Classic in the Key of G and I'm in the Mood For Love: The Most Romantic Melodies of All Time, from 1999 and 2006 respectively, were cover albums. The latter featured modern songs, like hits by James Blunt and Alicia Keys, which made the album pretty relevant. Why spend so much time covering the classics when you could've been making original music?

KG: Those were my days at Arista Records. Clive Davis was running the show there, and that was really what he was pushing at that point for me to do, and I trusted him. I think he's smart and I think he's creative. That was kind of the way it was. After doing a couple of those, I really did decide that it was time for me to do original music. That's one of the reasons I'm not with the same record label anymore, so I agree with you.

UOTS: In 2002, you had an all-star duet album, which featured Barbara Streisand, Burt Bacharach, and Earth, Wind and Fire, among others. You've also worked alongside Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. A lot of artists are inspired by other artists of that prominence. How did collaborations with them affect or change you?

KG: [They] didn't affect me or change me at all, to be honest. But it was fun! I enjoyed doing them. They were great. But it's just part of growing and playing music: you play with certain people. But I'm just going to keep on doing my own thing anyway.

UOTS: You do you.

KG: I do me, and they do [them, and] you do you.

UOTS: Breathless is the biggest selling instrumental record in U.S. history. A lot of people might think, "So what, he wailed on the sax for a while and it turned out pretty well, but he didn't write any lyrics." How do you feel this accomplishment affect the community of instrumentalists?

KG: Well that's asking me to say how great I am. I know that because of the success I had that there are a lot of people getting record deals that are a result of record companies [and] radio stations thinking that whatever they want to label my music as is something that would be popular enough to sell. I know that my success has been good for a lot of other sax players that now have record deals.

UOTS: Do you feel that music without lyrics, like yours, can speak volumes more than music with lyrics can? It's like they're in a different playing field.

KG: Yeah, of course I do! I'm a sax player; of course I think that saxophone music is better than anything else!

UOTS: You've created Kenny G Saxophones, your own line of saxophones. It must be pretty neat to have a model of your favorite instrument named after you. What moved you to create a line of instruments?

KG: I think that I know a saxophone pretty well, and I just thought it would be fun for me to provide students with an instrument that's great, rather than just... Usually a lot of student instruments are just not all that great. I wanted to keep my prices down. I created my saxophone so that I could give students a great saxophone also for a great price.

UOTS: You also went multi-platinum with Breathless, having sold over 15 million copies. Nowadays, artists' sales are predominantly digital, which leads to a different kind of recognition. People don't get rewarded with platinum record plaques anymore, they just get verbally congratulated on a number of downloads they've sold like it's no big deal. What's your take on the changing times in regards to acknowledging an artist's accomplishments?

KG: It's definitely a totally different time. I'm not in love with the way things are. I liked the old way. But it is the way it is, so you would have to accept the way things are. It depends on the audience. I'm not young, but I'm savvy with going to websites and Facebook and all that stuff. I can do all of that. But a lot of people that like my music are more of a mature audience, and they're not going to be doing all of the same things that you and I do. It's hurting the artists that have more of a mature audience. It's harder to sell records because that audience isn't really going to go and download and Facebook and find your website and do all of that stuff. So it's a little bit tougher to get the feedback of how successful an artist is. It depends on the age of who's listening.

UOTS: In January 2008, you said in an interview, "I think the future of music retail is really in stores like Starbucks," a company of which you were one of the original investors. Artists like Taylor Swift, whose sales were made up of 59% of large retailers in the first week her album was out, sort of support the gist of your opinion. Do you still stand your ground on that theory?

KG: There are just a few artists that do what she's doing. [Taylor Swift] is the anomaly; that's not the norm for most artists now. So, yeah, there are a lot of retailers that are still doing okay, but that's only with artists like [her].

But when it comes to the mass amount of artists that are making records, you need to be in a place like a Starbucks. Only a few people [have accomplished that]. It's not that easy. Anytime you can get your record at the point of purchase at a Starbucks or a Barnes & Noble or anything like that, you're going to do really well. That's where people are standing around. A person that's buying a book at Barnes & Noble would probably like my music. I'm not saying everybody that buys a book likes my kind of style, but there are chances. If they're sitting there and they see my record there, it's convenient.

It's all about convenience. I think people really still like to buy music; it's just not convenient anymore because record stores are gone. So when you go to a Target or a Best Buy to buy your stuff, you're probably not going there to buy a cd. So it's not as easy for [customers] to say, "Oh, there's the new record" because they're not looking for it. If you're standing at a point of purchase at a Starbucks, then you see it right there, and you go, "I want to buy it. I didn't even know he had a new record," because it's right there and it's right in your face. That's what you want to do.

UOTS: You're wrapping up 2010 with a tour. What can we expect from you next year?

KG: I wish I knew. But you can expect me to keep playing my saxophone, of course. We'll be on the road playing gigs. I'll probably make a new cd at some point. And other than that, I have no idea what next year's going to be like. I'm hoping the economy turns around so that more people will go to concerts. I'm hoping that somehow everybody switches their brain and decides that they want to buy cds again. We'll see what happens.

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