Wilco: I am trying to break your heart

“When you strip it down, it just sounds like a folk song.” That’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco talking about their music early in the 2003 documentary about the making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I watched this weekend after recently digging YHF out of the garage. Tweedy is right. Pull off the sonic layers and add half the words back to the fractured lyrics, and you have accessible, good folk and rock’n’roll. The live performances of Tweedy and the band make that clear. This music is not that hard.

But YHF was off-center enough that Reprise Records dumped the band when Tweedy wouldn’t take their advice to make the music more accessible. Wilco put the recording on the internet in the iterregnum before Nonesuch, another division of Time Warner, picked it up. Internet distribution only heightened interest in the recording and helped fans stay keep up with the band before the record came out.

The Wilco saga was a fairly early sign of the breakdown of the oligopoly. The tactics to try to preserve the economic scarcity of physical distribution in an age of digital download were unsustainable. The fact that YHF is a problem at all is a problem. Jim O’Rourke, who gets a speaking part of about 15 seconds, on the other hand, who was brought in to help production, is a ringer for music that resists easy. Nobody’s asking him about commercial music; that would probably keep the documentary from being produced.

Suroweicki argued in Slate that the conventional reading of artistic victory against commercial philistinism doesn’t hold because after all, it was another division of Time Warner that picked up the record; others have observed that Reprise didn’t have to have the grace to let the band buy their contract out. Still, Tweedy and manager didn’t have to have the balls and economic confidence to reject the advice to tone down the eccentricity and up the catchiness.

Interesting that it was Howie Klein, the music exec turned political blogger, whose ouster led to Reprise rejection of the record. Among other things, Klein has been one of the curators of the wonderful “Late Night Music Club”, a virtual fireside chat with youtube clips across wide range of excellent and interesting music irrespective of fashion and nominal genre. Communities like NLMC are taking the place of the radio playlist for music discovery, and that’s for the better.

In the Lefsetz Letter an entertainment industry lawyer makes the nostalgic argument in favor of the role of massmarket hits at creating common public consciousness. But the trade always was too high, in segregation, genre-focus, overplay, and the loss of cultural context in a narrative focused on hits. (Not to give Lefsetz a hard time; reading his blog, he is otherwise in favor of digital distribution and taking advantage of the long tail.)

Maybe we’ll eventually get a good “digg” for aggregating and voting up digital plays, which can play the role of a zeitgeist track. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, since it wouldn’t prevent people from discovering long-neglected performances on YouTube and discovering wonderful stuff through the playlists of friends and acquaintances. Network math works like that – there’s still a tall head in the age of the long tail – it’s just that you can get to the long tail now and you couldn’t before.

p.s. interesting that the Wikipedia definition of Playlist is now dominated by digital tools and the digital definition.

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