The best album of 2001 finally was released yesterday, seven months later than scheduled after foundering in the dunk tank of record-company politics.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the story of a music industry so beholden to radio and the multimillion-selling album that it can no longer afford to nurture its most adventurous artists.
In August, Reprise Records not only let Wilco out of its contract, but let the band take Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with it, even though the record company owned the master recording and could have required the band to pay for it. Wilco was then approached by dozens of labels, and eventually settled on a two-album deal with Nonesuch Records, a member of the same AOL Time Warner empire as Reprise.
In effect, Wilco got Time Warner to pay for the album twice. "It's a bit of a rock 'n' roll swindle," says singer Jeff Tweedy, referring to a notorious 1980 movie of that title by another disenchanted Warner Bros. act, the Sex Pistols.
"People are painting Warner Bros. as the evil empire in all this, but it worked out great for the band," says David Kahne, the Warner Bros. executive who dropped Wilco.
It's a telling twist that Warner Bros. now has to defend itself against such accusations. Warner Bros. and its Reprise subsidiary once made their reputations as the most artist-friendly of labels, sticking with such unclassifiable acts as Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and R.E.M. through changing marketplace trends in the belief that great art and great artists would eventually be recognized and rewarded, and the label would benefit. Wilco fit the Reprise model perfectly.
"A feeling coalesced around Wilco that this band is the real thing," says Howie Klein, the former president of Reprise, who left just as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was being submitted to the label for release.
Wilco had signed with Reprise in 1994 and released its debut album, A.M., the following year. Subsequent releases - Being There (1996) and Summerteeth (1999) - only increased the band's status as one of America's best. Sales were steady but not spectacular, about 300,000 per release. After finishing Foxtrot, the band was in debt to the label about $300,000, a minuscule figure by major-label standards, and was consistently selling out concerts at 2,000-seat halls around the country.
"The perception within the company was that Wilco was on the verge of going gold [500,000 sales] even without radio play," says Gary Briggs, a former Reprise radio-promotion executive.
Yet in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a few key Reprise decision-makers heard an indulgent, highly personal album that would not significantly increase the band's audience. In the midst of a major consolidation wave that is putting extra pressure on them to generate quarterly profits, many major labels no longer can afford to weigh the long-term potential of an artist or risk marketing schemes that don't involve traditional outlets such as radio and MTV.
Rather than develop a fan base the way artists such as Radiohead and Phish have, through the Internet, touring and word of mouth, major labels now depend on commercial radio play.
"Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker ran the company for decades and set the tone by hiring people who love music, because they wanted a bigger view than, 'Is this a hit?' " says Klein.
"We would determine that a band could go all the way, and we would support them financially and emotionally until they did. But sometimes it would take four or five albums for a band like that to make it, and we'd get constant pressure from above to drop them - 'They're losing money, put your resources somewhere else.' But in those days it was easy for the talent people to force the corporate guys to back down."
Briggs says, "A list of 30 bands to be dropped ... was turned in to corporate [AOL Time Warner executives] last year, and Wilco was on that list. They were downsizing the company and bands and bodies had to go."
Wilco got a sense that its album was not to the label's liking in conversations with A&R; (artist and repertoire) representative Mio Vukovic. "We turned the record in [in June 2001], and we were really excited about what we had, but when we didn't hear back from them for two weeks it felt strange," Tweedy says.
Instead, Wilco took a take-it-or-leave-it stance. Kahne, to whom Vukovic reports, understood why.
"The record had a very deliberate sound," Kahne says. "It wasn't slick, and it was very cohesive. I think it would been offensive to Jeff if I had tried to bend a song toward radio."
Kahne had worked with the band before, mixing an additional, more radio-friendly song ("Can't Stand It") for the previous album, Summerteeth, in the hope of gaining additional airplay. But the song was never promoted to modern-rock commercial stations as the label had promised the band.
"We [blew it] at radio with Summerteeth," says Briggs, who now works for Vapor Records, an independent label.
"A promise was made and broken, and that's when Jeff lost respect for the A&R; division of the company. Jeff recorded one of his best songs, and it never went anywhere. That was the beginning of the fall."
When Tweedy and Wilco saw a similar scenario unfolding for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they jumped at the chance when Vukovic and Kahne thought of the band leaving the label. "It was sort of shocking at first: 'We can just leave?'" Tweedy says. "But then our goal became to leave the label owning the record."
Kahne was happy to oblige, even though Klein, who had already left the label, urged him not to let the band go. "I told him he was making a huge mistake," Klein says. "Artists like Jeff Tweedy are leaders, and it may take years for people to follow him, but they will eventually follow him, and we'd all make millions.
"But David told me the company was becoming so radio-driven and that Wilco wasn't coming up with radio singles, and we wouldn't be successful with them."
Kahne is still wondering what the fuss is about. "The band made the record it wanted to make, and got to put it out on another label of its choosing - what's so bad about that?" he says.
"This has more to do with the times in the record industry now than it does with the quality of the record," Klein says of the Wilco controversy. "You have to have people at the label who really believe in an album, and Wilco never got the sense that Reprise really believed in this album. I think it's a tragic mistake that we've let ourselves get to this point."
Greg Kot is a pop music critic for the Chicago Tribune.