This month, on the eve of a headlining performance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the rock band Wilco released a surprise new LP entitled Star Wars, making it available for free download through the band’s official website, in exchange for an email address (it’s also available for free though leading digital retailers iTunes and Amazon).
After we’d all had a few days to listen, the band followed up with an emailed note to everyone who downloaded the album:
[…]Now a bit of background… We consider ourselves lucky to be in the position to give you this music free of charge, but we do so knowing not every band, label or studio can do the same. Much of the “music business” relies on physical sales to keep the lights on and the mics up. Without that support, well, it gets tougher and tougher to make it all work.
With that in mind, Wilco has put together a list of some of their favorite recent releases. We encourage you to explore it (and beyond) and yep, even march down to your neighborhood record shop and BUY.There’s a lot of great music out there, lets all try to support it. After all, it’s the years of support (and purchases) of Wilco’s music that allowed us to do what we did last week.
Adron - Organismo
Cibo Matto - Hotel Valentine
Empyrean Atlas - Inner Circle
Eleventh Dream Day - Works for Tomorrow
Full of Hell, Merzbow - Full of Hell & Merzbow
Game Theory - Real Nighttime
Girlpool - Before the World Was Big
Invisible Familiars - Disturbing Wildlife
Landlady - Upright Behavior
Luluc - Passerby
Ned Doheny - Hard Candy
Parquet Courts - Content Nausea
Richard Julian - Fleur de Lis
Scott Walker + Sunn O))) - Soused
Speedy Ortiz - Foil Deer
Steve Gunn - Way Out Weather
William Tyler - Deseret Canyon
Whenever a major artist makes any kind of surprising business decision, there’s a flurry of commentary assessing “what it means” for the future of the industry. This has been true of U2’s giveaway with Apple, Beyonce’s surprise release of a self-titled album, or basically anything Taylor Swift has done lately. Unfortunately, what these discussions often miss is that there’s not one music industry strategy that’s going to make sense for every artist. That’s something that’s been borne out by our Artist Revenue Streams research. The future of the music industry is unlikely to be just one way of doing business, one method of music delivery, or one way of relating to fans.
Yet with surprising frequency, pundits still write about about Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails’ “pay what you want” experiments from 2007-2008 as if it represented the state of the conversation in 2015, or a model that every artist could or should adopt. While there are plenty of folks at varying levels of the music industry who might give away some or all of their musical output for promotional reasons (with or without data collection) or adopt some kind of variable pricing, it’s not a strategy that makes sense for every kind of artist. So it’s understandable that Wilco might worry about their giveaway being, um misunderstood.
And the ability to give away music is a privilege the band doen’t take for granted. Wilco owns their own label (dBpm Records, distributed by indie stalwart Anti), they have access to a stellar recording studio, they have a large and devoted following, which includes a bunch of fans who are going to be likely to buy the vinyl anyway. At the same time, the members of the band all have other projects, solo works and collaborations on a range of different labels, often operating with quite different assumptions about scale.
Individual artists on their own might not have a lot of sway over the direction the industry moves, but one resource that bands have is the attention of their fans. It’s a classy move to take a moment to use some of that attention to shine a light on some basic truths of the music business: sales still matter to many artists, and fans’ choices to support art financially helps keep the whole enterprise going. Making this point while highlighting the work of some excellent lesser-known artists? That’s especially gracious.