Speaking of Tomorrow, When Will it Ever Come?

A Glorious Noise Feature

By Derek Phillips

April 23 sees the release of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The strain of making the album over the past year and a half has cost the band two members and a record label. Now, Wilco puts its trust in fans as it waits to see if anyone will buy an album everyone’s been able to download for months. Is it too much to ask?

Will the weight of trust be too heavy for Wilco and its fans?

Trust is heavy. It’s been said that you can only trust someone as far as you can predict his behavior. If you are pretty confident in the way someone will behave when presented with certain situations, then you know what your level of trust is. Given the past year and a half, the trust between Wilco and its fans has been through the wringer.

It started out so promisingly. On the heels of the much heralded and genre smashing Summerteeth, Wilco set out to once again push the envelope and test their fans who mostly signed on when the band was still the head cheerleader for alt-country. Summerteeth, with its Brian Wilson-esque production, indie rock song structure and lyrics that made Allen Ginsberg sit up in his grave, pulled the No Depression gang into Wilco front man, Jeff Tweedy’s strangely dark yet saccharine sweet world. Most of the old crew came along and many more new fans joined in. It was a success and Wilco was hailed as the Most Important Band in America. And so began the production on Summerteeth‘s much-anticipated follow-up.

Wilco's Yankee Hotel FoxtrotIt wasn’t long before clouds gathered. Rumors leaked that the new album was all noise and no melody. Release dates were set and then unceremoniously rescinded. Ken Coomer, drummer for the group and an original member, was let go and longtime lead guitarist, co-songwriter and studio engineer, Jay Bennett, announced his departure from the band. To make matters worse, news broke that Wilco’s label, Reprise, had decided to release the band. Egad, had it all gone too far? Had the chemicals mixed and exploded? Had Wilco walked down the long dark hallway, never to return?

The days were dark, but not dismal. After all, the band had built a rabid fan base that was chomping at the bit to get new material. And though their trust in the band was being tested with long delays and sniping rumors, the legions waited it out knowing Wilco would eventually deliver. Maybe a single or some mp3 samples from the group’s website would soon be released to quell the grumbling from the groundlings. Surely the fans couldn’t have expected what they got.

In the midst of all that chaos, Wilco started streaming the album that had so many worried, so many scared, so many talking. And not just samples, they streamed the entire album, a true masterpiece and quickly named to countless critics “Best of 2001” lists. Mind you, this was an album without a label and no sign of a release date.

On and off for some six weeks, wilcoworld.net streamed the entire unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free. While it’s unclear how many people heard the whole thing, thousands logged on.

“We did approximately 200,000 visits in September,” said wilcoworld.net Webmaster Ken Waagner, who added that high traffic forced the site to switch hosting companies. That initial surge of traffic didn’t immediately die off either.

“[We had] around 150,000 [visits] per month in October through December, with around 4 million hits each month and 130 to 150 GB of transfer each month,” Waagner said.

But still, what drove Wilco to stream an album they were months from releasing in its entirety on the site? Waagner said there were a number of reasons driving the decision.

The fallout with Reprise was indeed a factor, perhaps to drum up hype for an album the band was now free to shop to other labels. But more importantly, according to Waagner, the band wanted to play material from the new album on tour.

“Which would have been hard to do had people not had a chance to hear the record,” said Waagner.

Another reason seems to be the inevitable leak to P2P networks. And though Waagner didn’t mention it, there may have been some concern at Reprise about the marketing strategy the band wanted to employ for the album’s release.

“Funny thing is we already had planned on streaming the record as part of the marketing plan for the release of YHF on Reprise,” said Waagner. “And then when everything went down, we were just sitting on it, figuring out what to do, and waiting for the dust to settle.”

That kind of accessibility to unreleased material is exactly what scares major labels the most about developing technology, and excites artists who feel an urge to express themselves directly to waiting audiences. But did Wilco have any reservations about allowing their fans that kind of access?

Not according to the band’s manager, Tony Margherita, who addressed the issue in a note to Wilco fans.

“As the April 23 release date approaches, together, we have the opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong by showing that trusting your fans and letting them hear your music via the internet is not the threat to the artist’s livelihood that some people in the music business would like us all to believe,” the note read.

Margherita went on to thank fans for sticking out the long haul and that their patience would be rewarded with enhanced content and “beautiful packaging” with the official release. He said that just because Wilco made their entire album available online doesn’t mean it has to hurts sales, which is always the label’s main concern.

But sales are not always an artist’s main concern, especially when many major label artists never see a dime of royalty payments from their labels. Tweedy has said he’s never once been paid a royalty, and this is from a man who’s been releasing albums since 1989. But money isn’t everything. There’s also the passion to create music, something some in the industry have lost site of and an issue Jeff Tweedy addressed in an interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot.

“The impulse to make music is as strong as it ever was,” said Tweedy. “It was a way of reminding ourselves that making CDs is not our reason to exist. We’re a band because we like to play together, and feel good about playing in front of people, and we’ve always made our living doing that. That isn’t going to change.”

Still, money does matter and to say that record sales don’t mean anything to a band is just naïve.

“I think it is obviously a concern,” Waagner agreed. “But I also don’t think if the band had to do it over again, we would do it much differently.”

And just as Radiohead proved with its online strategy of their now classic and multi-platinum selling Kid A, there’s something to be said about good old fashioned hype, even if it is in the form of newfangled technology. Waagner said that the attention the band is getting has been overwhelmingly positive and that can only bode well for the album.

“The emails we got from people all over the world were incredible,” said Waagner. “And I think based on the press, advance promotion, etc. the record is very well ‘set up’ and hopefully people will go buy it.”

Wilco’s future is not at stake here. They will surely continue to make great music, but as the April 23 release date looms, many questions will be on the table. Is P2P file sharing the scourge of the record industry and will it lead bands to lives of destitution? Will the lure of packaging and additional content be enough to entice fans to buy an album many already have? Most importantly, can a band that streams an entire album still count on those fans to buy the finished product? Waagner, for one, understands that this is indeed a test.

“We really do look at this as an opportunity to prove that if used right, the Internet can help not hurt sales…now we just need the fans to help us prove that.”

Let us know what you thought of this article. Do you buy albums that you’ve already downloaded? Are you planning on buying Wilco’s new album? You can order it now. [Full disclosure: Glorious Noise makes a percentage of credit if you buy something via this link.]

And hey, speaking of Wilcoworld.net, remember when GLONO was one of only 12 sites on their links page? Remember that?

32 thoughts on “Speaking of Tomorrow, When Will it Ever Come?”

  1. I have every intention of buying it. There’s something so chintzy about having a burnt copy of anything. I have a Sloan album that’s out of print that’s burnt and I find I listent to it a lot less than I would if it were the original. It’s just not the same without the artwork and liner notes.Then again, I’m always disheartened when I’m at a gathering and I ask if I can switch up the music a bit and the host hands me a binder of 100+ burnt albums. I’ve been asked to leave a party because the drunken rant I went on once.

  2. Despite having a long-standing aversion to Uncle Tupelo and any of it’s offspring, which I really can’t remember how it started but it seems to upset so many people that I’ve kept it up, mostly out of fun I think, but anyway, despite that out of principle I can’t listen to any of the Tweedy/Tupelo bands, I keep hearing this song on the radio and thinking, this is a really good song…and somebody (erin) just told me it’s Wilco from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot…damn…maybe I’ll even download the album. But, to answer your question, I think people will still buy albums if they can download it ahead of time. Some people at least, maybe not as many. I’m a sucker for liner notes and pictures and lyrics and just the feeling of actually having the cd if its an album or band that I really like. I frequently have friends offer to burn cds for and refuse saying, No I want to buy it…I would even prefer to buy vinyl when it’s an option, but alas I haven’t had anything to play it on for years…

  3. I will buy it too. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is for the packaging and multi-media content. I am really looking forward to the official release despite the fact that I’ve had the album for months.

  4. Of course I’m buying it…and I would buy it through the site here, but I gotta make sure I have it the morning it drops. (I wasn’t aware of the streaming days.) The cover art of the “Jetsons buildings” is way cool too. I don’t own a single “burnt” cd (ok, someone gave me one once, but I was drunk…and it skips).[the Wilco link is how I found this place]

  5. I am planning on buying two copies the day it’s released. One for myself, and one for my brother-in-law who always burns cds for me. He’s given me Jay-Z’s Blueprint, Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, and the guy from Pavement’s solo album, none of which I’ve liked enough to go out and actually buy the disc. If I buy him his own copy, then I won’t have to deal with the awkward moral dilemma when he asks me to burn him a copy of it. Ho ho.

  6. Streaming an unreleased album ahead of its release would hurt a lot of acts (hip-hop and teen pop, namely), but Wilco’s fanbase seems, to put it mildly, pretty friggin’ devoted. I know I’ll be at the record store down the street on my lunch hour next Tuesday picking YHF up. The proprietary stuff you can only get by buying a legit copy is important, but hell, I want to support my boys. If I download a song I kind of like but never would have bought, I don’t feel so bad. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of a group that’s meant a lot to me though. Holy shit, I just had an insight. If top-40 crap is hurt most by file-swapping, it stands to reason that the artists with more discerning fans will likely be helped by it. Think about it; their longtime fans will buy the albums sound unheard, but I bet someone who would like Wilco if they could just hear them is also the sort of listener who understands that buying CDs is an insurance policy for getting more work later. It’s a little early yet to test that theory, but I will be stunned if YHF isn’t their most commercially successful album. Of course the pile of press hasn’t hurt either (the new issue of Details(!?) is the most recent mass media article I’ve seen).

  7. Streaming an unreleased album ahead of its release would hurt a lot of acts (hip-hop and teen pop, namely), but Wilco’s fanbase seems, to put it mildly, pretty friggin’ devoted. I know I’ll be at the record store down the street on my lunch hour next Tuesday picking YHF up. The proprietary stuff you can only get by buying a legit copy is important, but hell, I want to support my boys. If I download a song I kind of like but never would have bought, I don’t feel so bad. I wouldn’t want to take advantage of a group that’s meant a lot to me though. Holy shit, I just had an insight. If top-40 crap is hurt most by file-swapping, it stands to reason that the artists with more discerning fans will likely be helped by it. Think about it; their longtime fans will buy the albums sound unheard, but I bet someone who would like Wilco if they could just hear them is also the sort of listener who understands that buying CDs is an insurance policy for getting more work later. It’s a little early yet to test that theory, but I will be stunned if YHF isn’t their most commercially successful album. Of course the pile of press hasn’t hurt either (the new issue of Details(!?) is the most recent mass media article I’ve seen).

  8. Despite the fact that “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has been soaking in to my system for many months, I’ve been anxious to hold the actual release in my hands. I think Nonesuch CDs have great packaging and I’m curious to see what they do with YHF. And, if my purchase of the album in any way helps a label understand that streaming/p2p has a positive effect on a band’s popularity and exposure, then that’s reason enough to head to the record store. …Then again, I’d buy a record of Jeff Tweedy covering the songs of Captain and Tenille recorded on a Fisher-Price “My First Boom Box.”

  9. “I’d buy a record of Jeff Tweedy covering the songs of Captain and Tenille…”I read somewhere that Tweedy said he’d like to play “Love Will Keep Us Together” because it’s such a great song, but he couldn’t stand the idea of people assuming he’s just being ironic about it.

  10. I will buy it. I like pictures of Marina City, and I agree with the comments made here about the tactile quality of recordings. Sure, LPs are the best in regards to sheer aesthetic potential. But I’m sure that Nonesuch will come up with a great design for what could be one of their biggest sellers ever (no offense to John Zorn or Mike Patton’s a capella work for the label). One note about the cover art. I have no idea if this was the plan, but I like how the ant’s eye view of M.C.’s towers suggest radio antennas gently waving in the wind. You know, YHF…

  11. Also (to continue here on Esoteric Tuesday), what of the connection between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s mystery radio wave themes, and its having been streamed online? Is there a suggestion – conscious or otherwise – the Internet is the new BIG BEAT, the new PIRATE RADIO, the new 9,000,000 watt yapper out of Mexico City, with a robot Wolfman Jack yowling “ROCK n ROLL, DADDIO!” out across miles and miles of FCC and RIAA-controlled American soil?

  12. Yes, we’re giving all giving Clear Channel a collective FUCK YOU by streaming the album and then buying it. We don’t need your airplay! (but could you add it to the rotation of some of your “new alternative” stations? Couldn’t hurt…)

  13. I have waited and not listened to the album even though I could. I love having something to look forward to. On the 23rd, I’ll be out to buy the CD! Yeah! On another note, I have 2 extra tickets to the Toronto show coming up. They’re on the floor at Convocation Hall. I’m going to be selling them for face value to anyone who’s a huge fan. E-mail me if you’re interested.

  14. Of course I have ordered it and will get it around the end of the month (here in France).I have also ordered the record of Jay Bennett.I reviewed the album (online next week) from the copy I got before (had all the time to taste it :o)Cheers,Huguesfrom France

  15. Of course I’m gonna buy it. I even resisted pre-ordering it through Amazon (no more good local shops) cuz I gots to have it the day it drops. And I do have a burned copy. Napster and their ilk made it so big cuz of the sheer volume of unreleased and live material out there. Labels need to realize that and, dare I say it, capitalize on it. I have four great Tweedy boots, all live and rare stuff. I woulda’ bought em if they were out there. Howdy Derek.

  16. Matt,Hey there. Long time no see…Did you say you have no cool local shops anymore? I’d heard that Flipside had closed. Is that true?Lots of folks are saying that P2P file sharing is hurting small, independant stores more than big coporate mega-stores. Could Kalamazoo be a case in point?

  17. Here’s something that I have been looking for for a while. Back last summer when YHF first got finished and it started showing up on Audiogalaxy, Wilco’s manager sent this note to the Wilco message board ( http://pub5.ezboard.com/fwilcofrm2 ):

    Subject: Message from Wilco’s Management re: YHF MP3’s

    This morning I was made aware that the new Wilco record has started to appear on peer-to-peer networks and certain file sharing services, available for download. Needless to say we’re upset about this and we have taken immediate measures to block it.

    Frankly, we have a lot on our plate at the moment and would appreciate it if we didn’t have to spend any more time playing internet police. We respectfully ask that you show your support for the band and organization by thinking before you participate in this organized thievery. We have every intention of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot available very soon both as a conventional cd and online via Wilcoworld.

    Anyone who downloads, trades, or otherwise participates in the dissemination of this material is stealing from the band. Plain and simple. You will notice that we didn’t bother to block any of the numerous live tracks, solo tracks, outtakes, album tracks, etc. that are available on the site.

    Happy listening, and more soon, we will keep you posted of developments via wilcoworld.

    Tony Margherita

    Wilco

  18. I’ve had a copy for months, but I’m buying it the day it comes out. I’m not doing it for the packaging or the “tainted” nature of a burned copy; I’m going to buy it because, as challenging a listen as it was for me, I appreciate the need to strech the boundries of a band. The fact that AOL/Time/Warner refused to support them is reason alone to send a message to the industry in the ONLY language they understand, and buy the album the day it’s released. Another reason is to acknowledge the continued integrity of Jeff Tweedy’s artistic vision, especially in the midst of the near-dissolution of this unique American band. It should be obvious, after all of the tribulations that presaged the release of YHF, that the acceptance of pain that appears in his writing is not lip-service (posing the “dark side” cuz it’s cool), but a sincere expression of the sometimes painful truth — especially about ourselves — that we all must embrace if our lives are to have any meaning at all.

  19. i’m going to purchase the new wilco record when it arrives next week. i did not download the version that was available at wilcoworld last year because i wanted to savor the moment of going to the record store when a new release comes out, come home, play the whole thing over and over again while reading the liner notes and checking out the artwork. when i was a kid, i used to do this with my records. they were these huge pieces of art, and i would spend hours on just one new release. this is not the same thing with a puny little CD, which works well in our instantaneous give it to me now world. but i will still enjoy this record the way that i do all my other favorite artists. i hope everyone does it this way…and i think they will.

  20. Well, if you havne’t heard the album and you’re a fan of Wilco you will not be disappointed. I truly believe YHF is Wilco’s best album, and that’s saying something.

  21. YHF – Burned it last Nov. Preordered it in March.I’m 36 and for whatever reason, I quit buying cds on a regular basis about 10-12 years ago. But guess what – last year I buy this computer with a cd burner, get a broadband connection and head off to AG or Morpheus.I’ve been sampling so much new music lately – all because of P2P.I have actually “purchased” about 30 disks in the last year (up from about none).To me, the big record execs are more interested in sounding like “Chicken Little” than paying attention to what new technology can do for their sales. But then again, who ever said that big record execs were particulary bright?

  22. Exactly! I don’t buy music I haven’t heard, I’ve been screwed too many times. But with mp3 trading, I get to preview good stuff. And then I buy it. Since there’s nowhere to hear a lot of the music I like other than by trading mp3s (or CDs) with friends, where else am I going to find out about it?

  23. I remember when I was a kid I used to tape songs off the radio all the time. Used to tape AT40 every Sunday. Oh yeah–and good old school WLAV! Damn, I wish I still had some of those tapes.

  24. that’s weird, I used to tape American Top 40 too. I used to tape it, and play it from my tape player which fit in the basket of my bike, while I rode down the street. I remember being very interested in buying a real copy of some of the songs that I taped (such as The Outfield), without all that meddling DJ banter cutting into it (always an audiophile, even at age 10). I was such a little target of marketing. But a couple years later, I began to really dig the local college station, ’cause you could call in and request stuff and the DJs would play it, and I loved that. We really need more democratic avenues of media, not just to expose people to new music that they’ll wanna maybe buy, but to expose them, especially expose kids, to new peoplecentric ways of doing business.

  25. I echo the sentiments in the earlier post from “Dave” who had stopped buying CD’s until the advent of mp3’s and burning his own disks. My CD purchases until very recently were all about buying the CD version of something I had on vinyl. Now, I have brand new disks from many bands that I would never have heard of without p2p or some such. If I like the download, I will almost always buy the CD and maybe even track down a tour date. Last week, two friends and I took in a live show of a band I knew only from the ‘Net and who was unknown to them. The show was great, and 2 of us bought disks there … naturallly, the radio stations here have never played these guys, but they faithfully offer me INXS at least twice a day — (gee, thanks). Sometimes I wonder if radio hurts CD sales more than anything else.

  26. I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve got into over the last few months since I got broadband and p2p. As most of you have said above, If I like something, I’ll go out and buy the cd.I appreciate the sentiments of Wilco’s management, but hearing YHF via p2p (& living with it on my walkman for a while) convinced me that I had to go & buy it. It also made me go & see Wilco at The Astoria in London a couple of weeks ago. Loved it.Although I owned, (& really liked)Being There & Summerteeth, I might not have bought YHF if I’d only had the UK reviews to go on. Although the press was all good, they made it sound like it was Metal Machine Music or something.We’ve all got dud cd’s on our shelves that we bought on the strength of a great review or hearing 1 unrepresentative track. Hopefully that won’t happen again, thanks to p2p.

  27. That’s a great point, Bam. P2P allows the fan to listen to more than one track (the one the label, band and management decide to release as a single or make into a video), which isn’t always very representative of the album. I think it’s often counter-productive at times. I think “I’m the Man Who Loves You” is the most likely single on YHF, yet the first single released was “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Others would pin it on “Jesus Etc.” By streaming the whole album and it also being available via P2P, fans really knew what they were getting and it also showed how willing the band was to stand behind the album.

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