I just finished watching a documentary about the making of a record by the band 'Wilco'. The film was made during Wilco's recording of the album 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'. I've been a fan of Wilco for a few years and have listened to this terrific album many times. Little did I know that the story behind the album was quite fascinating and telling of the entertainment industry.
The basic story behind the album is that Wilco was given the green light to make an album of their choosing. There would be no interference by the record company and they were to deliver the album by a certain date. Up to this point the band had made a few albums, all of which were seemingly leading the group to a commercial success. Their music walks the line of pop, rock and country and the band has written many good pop songs.
Wilco enters the studio and, un-hindered, proceed to experiment with their music and push themselves into all sorts of interesting places creatively. After months spent at their loft they mix the record and get it ready for the record company, Warner Music. They send it in but get no response. Eventually a response trickles down and the record company isn't happy, they want changes. The band refuses and Warner eventually drops them from their roster. However, the band has a following both critical and fan-based and pressure is on Warner not to bury the record. Warner washes their hands of it and allows the band to walk away with the album with no strings attached.
The album is shopped around and, nine months after the original release date, the album is bought by a new record company. The irony is that the new record company is a subsidiary of Time Warner who happens to own the original backer, Warner Music. The corporation pays for the album twice!
I have to say that it was great timing for the filmmaker as he was able to capture both the creative process in the making of the music but also the frustrations of dealing with big business and the 'bottom line'. It also highlights the conflicts within the entertainment industry. Warner Music had it's interests focused so much on the bottom line that they missed the opportunity to contribute to the musical culture by releasing this terrific album. Often the people who run the business aren't the people who appreciate or get behind great and interesting music. 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', we are told by the music executive, was too difficult for the marketing department. They didn't understand it and they couldn't see a way to sell it. The odd thing is that the music is quite original but also quite accessible. It's not bizarre experimental music. It might not have been the hit record that Warner was looking for but it's a terrific album. And that is the nature of the 'business' of art... It doesn't always wear it's packaging the way you thought it might.
The film ends with a title card that states that Time Warner has spent three times their original investment on the album. One might say that bureaucracy and incompetence kills the bottom line...