BROOKE GLADSTONE: The impossible-to-categorize band Wilco has released a new album on Nonesuch just this week, called "A Ghost is Born." Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot traces the band's singlular history in his new book Wilco: Learning How to Die. He says Wilco has triumphed by willfully ignoring the music industry's business model.
GREG KOT: You get a Wilco album, and you're really not sure what it's going to sound like. Let's go to the first Wilco record, A.M. Think of a song like Casino Queen or Passenger Side from that record-- [WILCO'S PASSENGER SIDE PLAYS] pretty straightforward songs with a little bit of a country tinge to 'em, a little bit of a rock & roll tinge. Then you go to the very next record, Being There, and you play a song like Misunderstood-- [WILCO'S MISUNDERSTOOD PLAYS] and suddenly you realize is this even the same artist any more? [MISUNDERSTOOD PLAYS] There is definitely a sense with Wilco that their record company sort of had to keep up with it and figure out who's going to want to listen to this record, how do we market this thing? They were not a band that was easily categorized, and this really frustrated their record company.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about its commercial prospects? Did it keep its audience? Did it find new audiences for every new-sounding album?
GREG KOT: Well, they lost a few people along the way, but they also gained people along the way as they became more adventuresome. Their last record was the most successful record of their career, Yankee Hotel Fox Trot. It's nearing 500,000 sales, which is a gold record. [WILCO's YANKEE HOTEL FOX TROT] So they have been successful almost in spite of the fact that they get no radio air play, no MTV or VH1 video air play, and they keep changing the format with each record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about Yankee Hotel Fox Trot. As you said, Wilco was a successful group in the Reprise lineup. It sold briskly, it made money on tour, it never hit up the record company for expenses. Wilco may not have been a golden goose, but it was a solid performer. But Reprise declined to release that album. Why?
GREG KOT: Yeah. That was strictly a case of we don't hear a song on this album that can get played on radio, and without radio air play, this record is dead in the water.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Wilco was rarely played on radio anyway, even when its most successful records were out.
GREG KOT: Exactly. That's why this thinking was so twisted. Here's a band that had never relied on radio air play or video air play to get the word out about its music and its albums, and suddenly they were being forced to think that way. Very quickly, the record company suggested to the band that maybe you'd be better off putting this record out somewhere else. And then, irony upon irony, the band ends up with another subsidiary of Warner Bros., Nonesuch, a much smaller label. So they basically sold the same record to Warner Bros. twice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did the internet figure into this at all?
GREG KOT: It was a huge factor. Huge, huge, huge. Wilco has become very adept at using the internet to communicate with its fans. It streamed the contents of Yankee Hotel Fox Trot on its website for several months while the record was in this record company limbo, and what it did was -- when the band went on tour, even without a record label, that fall -- the fans al--already all knew the songs. They were singing along with the songs on the tour with Wilco. Basically, what it said was, Wilco doesn't need a record label to put out its records. it could have done this record completely on its own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Greg this is what's really interesting is they made this record more or less available for free on line, and people still went out, when it became available on Nonesuch, and bought it in the hundreds of thousands anyway.
GREG KOT: It has been proven again and again by other bands as well, not only Wilco, but a band like Radiohead which has had a big internet presence for its last few records, and then went on to debut very high with sales in its first week of putting those records out. Wilco had the same experience. What it says, I think, is that the record industry continually under-estimates the intelligence of the listeners, the fans. They think if they can get something for free, they're not going to pay for it later on. I think what they're really saying is: we'll check it out for free. If we don't like it, ain't no way we're going to buy it. But if we like it, we're going to want more. We're going to want everything that this band puts out. And in the case of Wilco, they roll the dice. They said you know what -- we think our fans are going to love this. And that's what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that keeps happening, it seems.
GREG KOT: Yeah, it's -- to me, it's an incredible opportunity that the record industry has failed to capitalize on. And a band like Wilco obviously has capitalized on it and has shown what it can do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Tweedy is the founder of Wilco. What drew you to him, and what makes him and his band such a ripe subject for study?
GREG KOT: Well, Tweedy is, I think, one of the few artists of the last 10, 15 years that continually takes these artistic risks -- the whole idea of being dashed against the rocks -- that's, to me, what art is all about -- showing you new things -- showing you new worlds. Each, each one of their albums is a world unto itself, I think, and they're one of the few bands, I think, that has consistently done that over the last 10, 15 years, and that's why I wanted to focus on them in this book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg, thanks a lot.
GREG KOT: Glad to be on. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Greg Kot is author of Wilco: Learning How to Die. Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy joins us now -- Jeff, thanks for doing this.
JEFF TWEEDY: No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The music industry, I think it's fair to say, regards you as a means to an end. Now how do you regard the music industry? Do you need it?
JEFF TWEEDY: Well, no, I don't think we need it. By the same token, we want people to hear our music. Not everybody has a computer. [LAUGHS] Not everybody can come see us play. We can't play everywhere. And we wouldn't want to, cause we want to have lives and want to be at home sometimes. But we do want people to hear our music, and there's a infrastructure that is very much the way most people get to hear their music, still. And for me, I don't want to think about that stuff. I don't want to have to start my own label or think about manufacturing and, and--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Distribution, printing 'em up-- so the industry is - when you can make it work - it's the best and simplest means to your end. And when you can't, then you walk away?
JEFF TWEEDY: Yeah, if it's not working, I think that people would serve themselves well to really re-evaluate why it is exactly that they are playing music. I mean that's hard for me to say, because I've been very lucky, but-- to me, it's always been about, well, you're not really making it if you're not making the music you want to make. That's like the whole point. That's what's gratifying about being a musician and, and aspiring to make art and make records that you love. Most people don't need very much to survive, and it's hard. I'm not discrediting that. But certainly nobody that I know really can justify needing a guitar-shaped swimming pool. [LAUGHTER] Or a Rolls Royce or anything. And, you know, like people think they need to have a song on the radio to be validated. It's like -- man, you play a song and 10 people hang out and are moved by it -- that's really all it ever is. That's really all it ever can be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you very much.
JEFF TWEEDY: Thanks for having me. [WILCO MUSIC PLAYS]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, is public radio's fascination with news and information a classical blunder? And the songs you can't get out of your head.