In 2001, there was a change in management at Reprise Records, the label for Wilco. That was bad news for the band, as the new boss wasn't a fan. The group was in the middle of recording their wonderfully titled fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, when the label decided it didn't have any of those money-spinning hit singles. The new boss, David Kahne, demanded that the group go back and come up with something a little more radio-friendly.
This made Nels Cline so angry he ate his guitar.
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy refused, and the album was subsequently shelved by parent company Time Warner on the grounds that releasing it would destroy the band's career.
"Leave the music to us, and we'll leave the disheveled hippying to you."
The label helpfully suggested that Wilco release the album independently, which amounts to a less harsh way of saying "please don't work for us anymore." The band ponied up $50,000 to sever their contract with Reprise and, as part of that deal, retained the rights to their "career ending" album. But it was later reported that the band paid nothing at all for the rights. Reprise just wanted the negative publicity surrounding their shitty treatment of the band to go away.
With their album rejected, Wilco looked in pretty bad shape. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it seemed, was doomed to go the way of many other rejected albums and exist in a perennial bootleg nightmare for years to come. At least it would have, if it was still the '70s.
Or the '60s, or '80s, or '90s ... most decades, really.
Instead of going the independent route, the band decided to stream the entire thing for free on their website. Lower quality MP3s had already been popping up on file-sharing sites anyway, so it seemed a sensible measure to take back some control of the distribution of their work. So, on September 18, 2001, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went live on wilcoworld.net and got 3.5 million hits in the first month. Traffic quadrupled over the ensuing weeks, and on tour the band noted that fans knew all the words to the unreleased songs.
At this point, record companies tore themselves away from their boardroom paper orgies and took notice of this unusual phenomenon called the Internet and the buzz over this downloadable album. A major bidding war began over the rejected work and Wilco, with combined sales of barely half a million for their first three albums, found themselves with an awful lot of power. An unconfirmed rumor at the time even has Reprise kindly offering to take them back. Wilco had other ideas.
"If you all wouldn't mind pooping in that giant paper bag on your way out, we'll tow it over to Mr. Kahne's front porch."
Eventually the winning label would be Nonesuch Records. But here's the twist: That's another label that just happened to be owned by Time Warner. That is, the same company that had previously paid for the band to record the album, then rejected the album and given away the recordings they'd financed for free. A Nonesuch vice president summed it up, presumably with a big grin on his face:
"There was a common perception and irony of one Warner label passing on the record and letting the band go out of its contract for very little cost, and another Warner label picking it up and putting it out. In other words, paying for it twice."
To this day, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the most well-received and the biggest-selling album of the band's career.
When musicians find massive success with their very first album, they often struggle to record a follow up that will live up to its predecessor, be it artistically or commercially.
Mike Oldfield was faced with something of a similar problem when his planet-conquering album Tubular Bells sold millions around the world on its release in 1973. It also provided the soundtrack to the nightmares of an entire generation, thanks to a tie-in with massive hit horror film The Exorcist.
Oldfield played most of the instruments on the album, which included acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano and whatever a flageolet is. It not only did wonders for his career, it also literally helped launch Virgin, as it was the fledgling company's very first release. Richard Branson had been running a chain of budget-price record stores at the time, and the album made him the most well-coiffured rich man in the world.
Although he still had to steal all his clothes from work.
Maintaining such a level of success was going to be difficult, especially considering that not every Mike Oldfield album would be accompanied by a genre-defining horror film tie-in. But honestly, has a person who uses a flageolet on an album ever really been that concerned with commercial success?
After more than a decade of dwindling record sales, Virgin finally grew impatient with the man whose record helped launch the company. At the time, Virgin was judged to be worth almost $1 billion of Thorn EMI's money. That's the kind of dire financial straits that limit greedy execs to wiping their asses with mere $50s instead of the $100s they're used to. Obviously, something had to be done. So Richard Branson demanded that Oldfield record a musical sequel to his first giant selling album.
Mike Oldfield, seen here with something ridiculous.
Oldfield, not one who takes to label intervention kindly, answered this request with a baffling piece of work called Amarok, 60 minutes of uninterrupted and completely noncommercial instrumentals, purposely recorded so that there was no possibility any piece of music could be edited into a nifty single or a horror film theme song.
And just to make sure Virgin knew that what he was doing was completely intentional, he told them so 48 minutes into the album in the wonderfully geeky way that only a man who learned to play 807 instruments (not the actual figure, it's probably much higher) by his late teens could.
The album includes the phrase "Fuck off RB" in Morse code, with "RB" standing for, you guessed it, Richard Branson. Then he offered 1,000 pounds to the first person to find the hidden message (and of course someone did).
The fiasco eventually led to Oldfield bolting from Virgin Records, leaving him free to pursue whatever wacky, genre-bending ideas he wanted. His first order of business, awesomely, was to finally record that Tubular Bells II album that Richard Branson so badly wanted and, now, would never profit from.
Hardcore punk act Black Flag was never going to be the most parent-friendly band in the world. There's a number of reasons for this, like their explicit nihilistic lyrics or having macho, shaven-headed Henry Rollins as their lead singer.
Those floating words follow him everywhere. They make driving extraordinarily dangerous.
After two well-received EPs, a lot of good press and regular violence at their gigs -- the punk rock equivalent of a standing ovation -- the band was on something of a roll by the time their debut album, Damaged, was set to be released. Then their label boss Al Bergamo actually decided to listen to it. It wasn't quite what he was expecting. In fact, he thought it was an "immoral" and "anti-parent" record and that the band had no "redeeming social value."
Dixon Coulbourn, Idle Times
He didn't even care that they had the third sweatiest frontman in entertainment.
Bergamo decided to shelve the album at the last minute. And we mean at the very last minute -- it had already been pressed and packaged. Literally the only thing left to do was ship it to record stores. So that decision left 25,000 copies of the record sitting in a warehouse uselessly offending no one.
The band wasn't happy, and they planned to do something about it. Two things, actually. First, they had a go at Bergamo and his morals by breaking into the pressing plant where the record was and putting stickers saying "As a parent ... I found it an anti-parent record" over the MCA label on the album cover.
With that done, they then ignored their distribution deal with Unicorn Records and released the album through Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn's label SST instead. Now you'd think that, given what Bergamo had said about one of America's first hardcore punk acts, MCA would be happy to be rid of them and not let the label's name be sullied by such a morally bankrupt group of musicians. Record labels, however, generally deal in more tangible sorts of things than the less spendable notion of morals. The band was sued for breach of contract. They were prevented from releasing anything for two years while legal proceedings rumbled along.
The group made do with putting out pre-Rollins-era Black Flag records under their own surnames, but even this wasn't enough for the label, who issued more legal documents against the band saying that they'd violated a court injunction against releasing any new material. Two of the band members even wound up in jail for contempt of court. The case might have gone on for another few years had it not been for a nice bit of karma seeing Unicorn Records, the MCA subsidiary that the album was to be released through, go out of business in 1983.
SST, on the other hand, continues to this day and has been home to the likes of Sonic Youth, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. over the years. Suck it, corporate America.
For more reasons why we're cooler than Rolling Stone, check out 6 Musicians Who Predicted Their Own Death in Song and 7 Insane Ways Music Affects The Body (According to Science).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see our list of people we tell to fuck off via Morse Code (it's pretty extensive).
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