We talk about all sorts of artists who really seem to "get" the internet, and how it can be used for good, rather than something to freak out about. It's worth noting that the band Wilco really was one of the earlier ones to embrace the internet in all sorts of ways, going all the way back to 2002, when the band's label (a Warner Music subsidiary) "rejected" its album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
and dropped the band. It gave the band the rights to the rejected album... and the band responded by streaming the entire thing live on its website. Today that's nothing special. A decade ago that was a pretty big deal. Eventually the album was released and became the band's best seller. We also wrote about them back in 2004, when the band had a cool reaction
to an album leaking online before its release date. Rather than freaking out, the band said that it's something inevitable and not a problem. Later that same year, frontman and founder Jeff Tweedy explained a philosophy
that will sound quite familiar to folks reading this site:
A piece of art is not a loaf of bread. When someone steals a loaf of bread from the store, that's it. The loaf of bread is gone. When someone downloads a piece of music, it's just data until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their mind, their subjective experience. How they perceive your work changes your work. Treating your audience like thieves is absurd. Anyone who chooses to listen to our music becomes a collaborator. People who look at music as commerce don't understand that. They are talking about pieces of plastic they want to sell, packages of intellectual property. I'm not interested in selling pieces of plastic.
Anyway, I was just catching up on some podcasts, and listened to an episode of The Nerdist Podcast in which they interview Jeff Tweedy
(bonus geek points: Wil Wheaton joins the Nerdist crew for this one) and they have a good discussion on some of his thinking on these subjects. Wheaton actually brings up the whole Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
story, and how the band's decision to put it online like that made him, as a fan, feel invested
in the band's success because it was so kind
to its fans. That lets Tweedy again make some key points that we've talked about here for a while, but it's always great to hear a successful musician saying similar things:
I'm happy with the amount of goodwill that seems to exist between us and our audience. I can only guess as to why that exists, and I've never been in a band where that didn't exist.... We have our collaborators and our patrons, who come to see us play, and I feel like we treated them as patrons of the arts and collaborators.
And as for the decision to release YHF online for streaming, he first notes that there was no one around to tell them it was a bad idea. It was just a "practical" decision:
We needed to get out on the road, because that's how we make money -- we don't make money off of records. So our business model, if you want to call it that... we support ourselves on the road. And having our new record done and wanting to play those songs just meant, well, let's let people hear them so they'll know what's up. And it'll be more fun to play those songs for everybody....
We just can't look at it as any individual thing is how we're going to be supported by anybody. If they get one record free, they might buy another record. If they get one record free, they might come see the show or they might buy a t-shirt at the show... For us, we've managed to keep our heads above water by not focusing on "the lost sales" but by focusing on the people who are there and are supporting us.
It's an attitude that has worked well for the band for at least a decade, and seems to work for many others as well. It still amazes me that so many others in that business tend to see their fans as criminals and don't make any effort to treat them right at all.