The importance of being Wilco 

Now, can we please stop whining about the music industry?

The death of rock has been greatly exaggerated. And, despite what you've heard over the past six months, so too has the death of the music business. For an alarming number of Chicken Little pundits, the math reads that declining sales + corporate conglomeration = disaster. And the numbers do present a bleak picture: Sales were down about 5 percent last year, and this year, it might be twice that. Mergers have caused massive layoffs within the industry, and file sharing is one of the most polarizing issues in recent memory. Yet invariably left out of the doomsday equation is the unprecedented amount of musical choice, which suggests a beating heart under the morass. The Internet and the reduced cost of recording and duplicating CDs have put a lot more crap on the shelves -- tens of thousands of releases a year. But surely, with that kind of volume and access, there's more than enough good music to go around.

Still, cynicism reigns supreme, along with a very shaky sort of nostalgic revisionism as well. When music mogul David Geffen tells the Los Angeles Times, "There is some great music ... but there was more great music prior to this period of time," he sounds a lot like the grandfather who walked five miles uphill in the snow to get to school.

The lack of perspective is astonishing. For every suspicion of corporate radio conspiracy at Clear Channel, there's a case of rampant payola from the '50s, or mob involvement in the '80s. For every skin-deep musical phony being pimped to the masses, there's a hundred more that dominated the bubblegum charts in every previous decade. And for every Courtney Love fighting with her label -- or worse, Michael Jackson -- there are hundreds of artists from previous decades with more legitimate cases, and without the money or clout to buy justice. And through it all, musicians are still lined up with stars in their eyes, waiting for their turn at the trough, five well-documented decades into the history of so-called record company exploitation.

The relatively abrupt change in technology over the past five years is a convenient way for labels to rationalize failure, blaming it on piracy or something like it.

Of course, there are other factors that more convincingly explain the downturn: The drying up of the buying boom thatstarted with the advent of CDs, as buyers replaced their vinyl collections with discs. The shrinking of the 18-34 demographic, as baby boomers entered middle age. Even, to some extent, the raising of the drinking age, which limited the exposure of young bands to young audiences. And, of course, there's also the embrace of the two-hits/10-filler formula by the companies focused on profits but missing the bottom line of long-term growth.

But what does all this really have to do with the creation and dissemination of good music? While the heart of Napster may in fact be theft, the cultural signal that distinctly resonates is how much interest consumers still have in music. Sure, free beer is always going to be popular, but if no one liked the taste, it would go stale on the tap.

The alleged evils of the major label system have been popular cocktail talk for years, and not entirely unearned. But what about the legions of fans who happily hand over their time and money for the Britneys of the world? The real story might be that, despite thousands of bands on the menu, children by the millions (and their parents) still choose the fast food of the Top 40. Even with the Internet offering a free buffet line for nearly every imaginable sound, the most popular stolen -- uh, shared -- songs inevitably come from acts on the corporate teet. As they say in the playground, when you point a finger at someone else, you're pointing four back at yourself.

All of which finally brings us to Wilco. The group's new album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is notable as a fine piece of creative pop -- even if it seemed to earn some of its genius status by default. But just as interesting is the way Wilco proved everyone wrong -- the companies who thought they knew what people would buy, and the whiners who think good music doesn't stand a chance these days.

As the now familiar story goes, when Wilco turned in the finished album to Reprise, the label said it "needed work," according to frontman Jeff Tweedy. (It was reported a Reprise A&R guy went so far as to say Yankee was "so bad it would kill Wilco's career"). When the band declined to change anything, Reprise advised Wilco to consider whether it wanted to leave the label.

Needless to say, Wilco was happy to leave, especially when offered what turned out to be a sweetheart deal: Apparently for the asking, the group acquired ownership of Yankee and got released from its contract. Knowing its fans better than the label obviously did, Wilco streamed Yankee from its website while it searched for a new record company to release the album.

After a bidding war, the band landed on the small but highly reputable Nonesuch (owned by major label Warner Bros., the very same parent company of Reprise). And despite having made the record available online for free, Yankee went on to sell more than 200,000 copies, earning the group artistic and financial freedom in the process.

Unfortunately, amongst all the opportunity that technology has afforded, the self-possessed voice of cynicism garners the most attention. While the current doldrums deserve someone's attention, the fundamentals of what makes music exciting have changed preciously little. Each passing year brings the promise of more great music to discover, and if the sky is falling on the music industry, then so be it. How is it that with each passing year I find more and more music to love? It may be the end of their world as they know it. But as a fan, I feel fine. u


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