Wilco Is Showing The Way

Ever since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rejected by their label at the time, Reprise, Wilco’s been showing the way forward for bands. Most people know the YHF story. They bought the record back from Reprise for $50k, started streaming it on the net, developed a big buzz about the record, were signed to another label (Nonesuch),and the record sold 500,000 copies, and was recognized as one of the best records of 2002. It’s my favorite Wilco record and we have them all.

Since then, Wilco’s put out two excellent studio albums, A Ghost Is Born, and Sky Blue Sky, each exploring new and different sounds, they’ve added the amazing Nels Cline on guitar, and put out one of the best live records in the past 10 years, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago.

On top of all that, they’ve become one of the best live rock shows you can see these days. I’ve seen them a bunch in recent years, including a great show this summer at the Warsaw in Brooklyn. David Hyman and some of the team at Mog went to see Wilco this past weekend at the Greek Theater in Berkeley and they came away similarly impressed. The fact is, if you like live rock music, you’ll enjoy an evening with Wilco, regardless if you are a huge fan like me or not.

So you have this band, operating at the peak of their talents, making great records, touring like crazy, and what do they do? They license a bunch of songs off their new Sky Blue Sky record to Volkswagon. I knew they had licensed the single, Either Way, because I’ve seen that ad. But the other night, as Josh and I watched the Mets give one away (doing that too much these days) to the Dodgers, we saw the whole bunch of the commercials played over the course of the game. I love these songs and I love that they are in VW commercials. It’s just such a great way to marry two strong brands and showcase Wilco’s new songs to a wider audience than they would otherwise reach.

Here’s my favorite, the song is called "The Thanks I Get" and it’s an outtake from the Sky Blue Sky sessions that Wilco’s been playing a lot this summer on tour. You can see all the VW/Wilco commercials on YouTube.

There’s been so much talk about artists having no way to make money with music anymore that its accepted as a given. I recognize its harder than ever to make a living making music. And it’s never been easy. But as I’ve always said on this blog, the artists themselves are going to have more options to make money in the future, not less. Wilco’s been figuring that out for the past five years and doing a pretty good job of it.

#My Music

Comments (Archived):

  1. scottythebody

    I have a friend in Portland who is a minor rock star. He has always managed just fine and his secret: live shows. Unless you were selling *tons* of records, record sales were never much of an income stream. He hasn’t sold his catalog rights. He has probably sold nearly 1 million albums total over the course of his 15 year career. He owns a big house in a nice neighborhood and has only sold 1 song for commercials, so he still has many more income possibilities to explore. Too much of the business thinking in the “industry” seemed to be based on getting lucky with a big hit. That’s not business — that’s gambling.Also:http://www.janellemonae.com/

  2. josef

    Wilco peaked with YHF. The record deserved the story it got. Everything since has been quite boring.

  3. Wilco

    Every time I see that band’s name – I think people are talking about me. And yes, my name is really Wilco…

  4. Brooks Jordan

    Fred,You’ll love this video clip I took of Wilco at the Edgefield in PDX last week:<object type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”480″ height=”360″ data=”http://vimeo.com/moogaloop….”><param name=”quality” value=”best”/><param name=”allowfullscreen” value=”true”/><param name=”scale” value=”showAll”/><param name=”movie” value=”http://vimeo.com/moogaloop….”/></object>The Highest Audience In The World from brooksjor and Vimeo.

  5. Ethan Bauley

    What, are you fishing for a comment from me? ;-)[btw, being able to comment right off the feed is great…I have no problems with the disqus sirvus.]Jeff Tweedy and Nels have both talked recently about their outlook on this…basically, they are “channel-agnostic”; they just need to get the music heard, and since radio isn’t doing its job, broadcast advertising can take up the slack.Another important part of this particular deal was “fit”; Tweedy also mentioned that he drives a Volkswagen, so it’s all good to him.I’ll be checking out Wilco in person tomorrow night at the Greek in L.A., looking forward to it.I always appreciated their music [including Being There] but I never geeked on it until Nels showed up. I saw the Nels Cline Singers at a tiny club in Culver City 3 years ago and I haven’t been the same since…it was face-meltingly loud. And awesome.I also got to meet him briefly at a Deerhoof show. He’s very nice and really active in the avant-garde rock scene in L.A.

  6. Brooks Jordan

    Forgive the embed code for the video above. Wanted to see if it would play inline. The link to Vimeo works, obviously.

  7. Steve

    Fred:I’ve been a fan of Wilco since the time they formed (having been a fan of Jeff’s prior band), and am thrilled to see the level of success that they’re having. That said, I have to admit that seeing (and hearing) the VW ads incessantly this summer has, without doubt, had a negative affect on my impression of Sky Blue Sky. I hate to say it, but I’m sick of the songs, having heard them (or snippets of them) over and over again for the last few months. And it’s a real shame, because I was a big fan of the album when it first came out, and enjoyed seeing the songs played live when I caught the band 3 times this summer.Admittedly it’s selfish of me, but I would have been much happier had these ads only run for a month and then stopped. The band could have made some money, and I’d still have Sky Blue Sky…

  8. Z@elbows

    I love Wilco, but this kind of pains me. As a huge Neil Young fan as well all I can think of is the “This Notes for You” song, but I guess thats easy for him to do when he made his money already.

  9. Matthew

    Wilco, showing the way? Not really.While I can appreciate your support for musicians you like, if you had actually researched the current business climate within the music industry you would realize that Wilco is following, not leading the way. In reality Wilco is just one of many musicians and artists whose labels and sometimes themselves have realized that retail sales of music are virtually gone. This is nothing against Wilco themselves, I just wanted to clarify your subject and Wilco makes for an excellent example.First off Wilco has been around for a long long long time building a huge audience especially through the college touring circuit. Their touring has most likely always been their main money maker (through ticket sales and Merch). Selling CDs on the indie level has never made any kind of real money even at the height of CD buying.Second, Rap music figured out licensing waaay before indie rock did. Rapper showed musicians how to sell out, so much so that rap music now is so bad it’s even designed or created to be the next hottest selling ring-tone (check out almost all of the major label rap releases of the last 1.5-2 years – its undeniable)Last and really most important, if you really want to use licensing as a money making example you should dig a little deeper. The major labels all know this is the way of the future. Way before Wilco got on board; I believe it was the head of Warner that said their label is currently in a transition to become a Marketing company not a label. Warner and most majors are betting that by using the label contacts to market to and expand an artist’s fan-base, they can make their money back plus profits by taking a cut of everything from licensing to merch to touring ticket sales. Warner was not the first to suggest that transition in the business. In fact before that information from Warner was released the band Korn was signed to their last deal (I believe to Virgin) where they were given an exorbitant amount of money ($4-6 million range). In the old way of doing business this is a lot of money for a band like Korn; that even as a popular music brand was past their prime as far as sales were concerned. However the key point to this deal was that in exchange for that huge advance the label was taking up to a 25% stake of Korn’s licensing, merch, and show tickets sold (again way before Wilco). And if you want to look more recently just turn to DJ Quik (a long time rap producer) who teamed up with AMG (long time rapper) and signed a single deal with I believe Universal Music Group. They were paid up front in the neighborhood of $15-20K (word on the street) for the single. The label then took that single and turned around to license it one time for over $100K (again word on the street). This all happened right as the single was starting to get spins on the radio, meaning it was out for less than a month and the label was already ahead on its investment.Now I could go on and on about all this but I think you get my point. This avenue for doing business is not new for anyone in the industry; however the fact that these avenues are opening up for all types of music big and small is what is new. As more music is needed for licensing for all of the new digital content, peripherals, and components hitting the market it’s definitely become that cash cow that the industry was looking for. And because of the money generated through licensing, the industry has almost come to terms with the fact that their product is worthless as a CD. Slowly they are seeing artists like Wilco’s music being more valuable as marketing tool to generate revenue through live shows and the artist’s brand they create. Once the industry transitions past making the actual physical CD and instead moves the cost of making those CDs into marketing and licensing deals then you will see the largest shift in music business since they developed the album format. Wilco leading? No. Wilco tightening up their game? Definitely.

  10. NICCAI

    Saw them at Stanley Park here in Vancouver for the second time. Amazing again. You need to see them live to really appreciate their talent. They are as close to flawless as I think a band can get live. And you’re right, it is nice to see a band looking after themselves – monetizing their talent and making the most of technology and new opportunity.

  11. Michael Diamant

    i’ve been a huge wilco fan for ages (back to jeff’s uncle tupelo days). I love the new CD, it’s their best grower yet and they’re all growers. I also am a big fan of the VW ad that’s been playing for awhile. So many more people will hear their music and it also has the opportuntiy to develop into a “standard” which they oh so deserve. But i think that having ads for nearly ALL the songs was not the best idea, and it seems like this was VW twisting the band’s arm so to speak. It’s just too much too fast with too new an album. Even Moby took his time to put his music to ads…. let people focus on one great song and not make Wilco the “official band of VW.” That’s what it feels like right now.

    1. Nick Cowan

      Just a heads up for y’all, you can download ‘The Thanks I Get’ if you open the little quicktime weblink embedded on the new CD. There’s some other content there as well.