NewsSportsEntertainmentBusinessHomesJobsCarsSubscribeArchives
chicagotribune.com
August 26, 2001

Mostly Cloudy
68°

chicagotrune.com Prime Time special section
WeatherTrafficMaps Full searchSite map
 Weather, traffic, maps
  
Classified
Special sections
News / Home
Business
Technology
Sports
LeisureYou are here
spacer
From Metromix
spacer
Dining
Movies
Music
Reviews
Stage
Television
spacer
spacer
Updated daily
spacer
Horoscopes
KidNews
Tempo
spacer
spacer
Weekly features
spacer
Arts & Entertainment
Books
Friday
Good Eating
Health & Family
Home & Garden
Tribune Magazine
WomanNews
spacer
spacer
Columnists
spacer
  • Barbara Brotman
  • Richard Christiansen
  • Bob Condor
  • Cheryl Lavin
  • Steve Johnson
  • Julia Keller
  • Travel
    Registration
    Customer service

    Special reports
    Chicago area crime database Chicago area crime database

    Gateway to Gridlock

    All special reports



    Top Tempo stories

    Media culpa

    What does Sotheby's departure mean for Chicago's auction market?

    Non-union tour of 'Music Man' has troubles of its own

    Renewing acquaintances

    Bond plot still secret



    Wilco's shot in the arm
    Chicago band exits label as new opportunities head its way

       
    Also available
    line
    E-mail this story
    Printer-friendly format

    Stories
    Wilco hits higher mark
    July 6, 2001


    End of an era
    January 12, 2000


    Wilco goes to the limits
    February 28, 1999


    By Greg Kot
    Tribune rock critic
    Published August 15, 2001

    Wilco, one of America's most acclaimed rock bands, has signed a deal allowing it to leave Reprise Records, after the label rejected the band's latest record.

    Ten years ago, such a dramatic parting might have signaled the end of a band's career, but for Wilco's founding singer-guitarist Jeff Tweedy, speaking from his Northwest Side home after signing the agreement, "It feels like Christmas. I don't feel victimized, I feel liberated."

    As part of the exit deal with Reprise, Wilco was allowed to sever a contract that called for the band to record several more albums for the label. The deal also enabled Wilco to buy back the album the Chicago quintet had just completed for Reprise, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Tweedy arrives in New York on Wednesday to weigh offers from more than 30 labels, ranging from small independents to major corporations, who have offered to put out the new record.

    It was the adventurousness of the music on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" that caused the Wilco-Reprise relationship to unravel over the last two months. Tweedy had come to the label seven years ago in the latter days of his tenure with the roots-rock band Uncle Tupelo, and has gone on to make a series of increasingly more ambitious albums with Wilco, including two "Mermaid Avenue" side projects with Billy Bragg that combined archival Woody Guthrie lyrics with new music.

    The music on "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is rich in Wilco's trademark pop melodies, while more deeply investigating the experimental textures that began to creep into the band's last two albums for Reprise, "Summerteeth" (1999) and "Being There" (1996). When the band shipped the record to Reprise in June, the band's A&R [artist and repertoire] representative, Mio Vukovic, "asked us to make some changes," Tweedy says. "He told us more things needed to be done for it to be finished, and we said, 'This is it. We're done with this record and we're happy with it.' "

    Tweedy's take-it-or-leave-it stance did not sway Vukovic's supervisor, David Kahne, the executive vice president of A&R at Warner Brothers Inc., according to several sources close to the band. "He said that the record was so bad it would kill Wilco's career," one source said.

    Kahne was calling the shots at the label in a power vacuum, left when longtime President Howie Klein resigned. Klein departed June 29, the same day Kahne was telling Wilco he was rejecting the band's record. Klein's eventual replacement, Tom Whalley, has still not left his old job at Interscope Records to take over as chairman of Warner Brothers Inc.

    The bottom line

    Though Wilco has been a profitable band for Reprise -- its previous albums have sold 112,000 to 200,000 copies domestically (sales on their most recent records worldwide have been estimated at 500,000), and the band consistently plays to audiences of 2,000 in most major markets -- it apparently was not profitable enough in a slumping industry. Record sales declined 8 percent in the first half of the year, and Reprise's parent company, Warner Music Group, is in the midst of laying off 600 employees following the purchase of its parent company, Time Warner, by America Online.

    Yet industry sources were stunned that Wilco was cut loose so quickly.

    "My God, it's a sad, sad day," said one Warner executive, who like others in the company, asked for their names not to be used. "Wilco is one of America's most beloved bands. One of our people said that Wilco is to America what Radiohead is to Europe, because they make great, adventurous records that people anticipate hearing for months ahead of time.

    "This band has a big audience, and they could have had a bigger audience. It's not like they weren't growing, but in a world where 'N Sync sells 2 million records in a week, it creates a false expectation for other bands, and Wilco paid the price for breaking the mold instead of fitting into one."

    Michael Krumper, executive vice president of Artemis Records in New York, was equally nonplussed. "Reprise should have been honored to have a guy like this [Tweedy] on the label," Krumper said. "Artists like him were supposedly the foundation of what Warner Brothers was about in the first place."

    "This didn't need to happen, but it did, and it's the worst example yet of what has happened in the record business the last few years," said a source at Reprise. "Executives now think they are more important than the artists. And it's so wrong. Who was president of Capitol Records when the Beatles signed? Who remembers? And what does it matter? The arrogance and the ignorance -- that's the story of the record business."

    Changing times

    That wasn't always the case at Warner and Reprise, which nurtured talents such as Neil Young, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison under the supervision of executives such as Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker. These executives viewed artists as investments, who would grow and flourish over decades.

    "The idea was to cultivate artists, even if it they didn't have hits," said Bob Merlis, an ex-Warner executive. "There was an aura at the label which brought us bands like R.E.M., who signed with us because Warner was the label that had Van Dyke Parks," a cult artist who had recorded with Brian Wilson.

    "Now the corporate environment is completely different," Merlis said. "The attitude once was, let an artist make a great record, and we'll find a way to sell it. Now it's all about cost per unit sold analysis."

    Even under that more stringent criterion, there were executives within Warner who believed that Wilco had a shot at selling 500,000 copies of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," even without widespread radio airplay, simply because the band's reputation was so formidable.

    "If not now, what better time for an artist to put out a record that breaks the mold," said one label source. "It's a great time for people to stretch and test the water, because it's been proven with the success of Radiohead that people are willing to accept something that's more adventurous and outside the mainstream norm."

    "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is not only adventurous, it's likely to end up as one of the year's most acclaimed records.

    "This record is so good, it's scary," said one industry source who has heard it. "It's a totally artistic statement that captures the band at the height of its powers, which means they're willing to take chances wildly -- to me that's the true value of music. But I had an inkling when I heard it, that they're gambling their career."

    "To me, their previous album [`Summerteeth'] was a masterpiece," said Norm Winer, program director of WXRT, "and this one sounds right there, if not more so."

    Controlling destiny

    For Tweedy, the prospect of becoming a free agent is an enticing one. With the Internet and independent labels offering a viable alternative to the increasingly corporate environment of the major labels, Wilco can control its own destiny.

    "I like the idea of owning our records," Tweedy said. "It's embarrassing to see how many offers we've gotten in the last few weeks. It's exciting, and it makes me feel we can do something unprecedented without compromising our music. The world is a lot different place now than when we first signed our deal with Reprise. Back then, it didn't seem possible to do something like this. But now I believe our efforts to be self-sufficient are completely realizable."

    Tweedy said he hopes to have "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" out by year's end. But in any case, the band will begin its fall tour as scheduled in September, which will likely wind up with a club date in Chicago.

    "Career-ending this record may be," Tweedy said with a laugh, "in which case I've never had a career [in the conventional sense]. But we've booked a tour and we're going to play in front of a bunch of people, and I can't wait for them to hear the songs on this record."

    Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune


    Advertisers
    CareerBuilder

    Tribune

    ChicagoSports

    Tribune

    How to advertise

    Classified feature
    Cars
    Not driving your dream car? Our cars classifieds can help.
    Home | Copyright and terms of service | Privacy policy | Subscribe | Customer service | Advertise
    Suite Home Chicago
    Powered by Genuity