Monday, November 15, 2004
After being dropped from Reprise Records in 2001 over creative conflicts surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Chicago-based band committed what some thought would be suicide -- they streamed it online for free.
The album's subsequent release on Nonesuch debuted higher on the charts than any of their prior releases. That success gave both band and label confidence to try new internet forays: the first-ever MPEG-4 webcast with Apple, as well as more free online offerings of live shows and an EP's worth of fresh tracks. The band's 2004 release, A Ghost Is Born, hit No. 8 on the Billboard charts -- their highest position to date.
By conventional industry logic, file sharing hurts the odds for commercial success. Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy disagrees. Wired News caught up with him during his current tour to find out just what makes Wilco so wired.
Wired News: What sparked the idea of offering your music online for free?
Jeff Tweedy: Being dropped from Reprise in 2001. They weren't going to put out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the way we'd created it. They wanted changes; we weren't willing to do that, so they rushed a contract through their legal department to let us go. It was the fastest I'd ever seen a record company work. Once they let us go, we were free to do with the album what we chose.
We'd been noticing how much more important the internet had become -- once information is out there in the world now, anyone can get it. Since that was beginning to happen with the record anyway, we figured, OK, let's just stream it for free ourselves.
WN: Did you minimize the quality of the files you offered online, so that people would be encouraged to pay for a higher-quality "real thing" when you signed to a new record label?
Tweedy: We didn't go out of our way to make it sound low-res. MP3s are poorer quality anyway. That's part of why the record industry's argument against file sharing is so ridiculous -- nothing out there on P2P networks sounds as good as the original CD or vinyl record.
WN: Did the free online release make it hard for you to find a new label home?
Tweedy: That's why we ended up with Nonesuch. They weren't intimidated by the fact that hundreds of thousands had already downloaded it.
WN: What was your reaction when copies of A Ghost Is Born started showing up online this year, before the official release?
Tweedy: Something interesting happened. We were contacted by fans who were excited about the fact that they found it on P2P networks, but wanted to give something back in good faith. They wanted to send money to express solidarity with the fact that we'd embraced the downloading community. We couldn't take the money ourselves, so they asked if we could pick a charity instead -- we pointed them to Doctors Without Borders, and they ended up receiving about $15,000.
WN: What are your thoughts on the RIAA's ongoing lawsuits against individual file sharers?
Tweedy: We live in a connected world now. Some find that frightening. If people are downloading our music, they're listening to it. The internet is like radio for us.
WN: You don't agree with the argument that file sharing hurts musicians' ability to earn a living?
Tweedy: I don't believe every download is a lost sale.
WN: What if the efforts to stop unauthorized music file sharing are successful? How would that change culture?
Tweedy: If they succeed, it will damage the culture and industry they say they're trying to save. What if there was a movement to shut down libraries because book publishers and authors were up in arms over the idea that people are reading books for free? It would send a message that books are only for the elite who can afford them.
Stop trying to treat music like it's a tennis shoe, something to be branded. If the music industry wants to save money, they should take a look at some of their six-figure executive expense accounts. All those lawsuits can't be cheap, either.
WN: How do you feel about efforts to control how music flows through the online world with digital rights management technologies?
Tweedy: 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.
WN: Your critics might say that it's easy for you to say that, given that you're already a commercial success.
Tweedy: I'm grateful that I've sold enough to have a house, take care of my kids and live decently. But that's a gift, not an entitlement.
I don't want potential fans to be blocked because the choice to check out our music becomes a financial decision for them.
WN: How do you feel about some of the new kinds of rights management alternatives some are proposing, instead of our current copyright schemes -- for instance, Creative Commons licenses that would allow your fans to remix your material for personal, noncommercial use?
Tweedy: Commercial use is one thing, but I have no problem with fans tinkering with it on their laptops, then sharing it with their friends -- that's just a new way for them to listen.
WN: Wilco is involved in a lot of non-music projects -- you published a book of poetry called Adult Head this year, the band was the subject of a 2002 documentary film, and the band just released a new book of photos, art, essays and previously unreleased tracks on an accompanying CD -- The Wilco Book. Is there a link between all the multimedia exploration and the relaxed attitude you seem to have about what happens to your music in the digital realm?
Tweedy: We're a collective of people who live to create things. When we released A Ghost Is Born, we decided to do that in an enhanced format for a number of reasons. We get to deliver more art that way. It's also a concession to the fact that we're artists who do work within the industry infrastructure. This offers something more than a downloaded MP3 can.
WN: What's next from Wilco in the way of online experiments?
Tweedy: Every few months or so we put a new live show on our site for download. And between YHF and AGIB, we released some tracks exclusively on our site for free. We've been encouraged by the response.
This has just become part of the way the band interacts with our audience. It's part of what we do now, and I don't think we're going to stop anytime soon.
Thanks To Xeni Jardin