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Pop Music

Wilco's Not Over or Out

Reprise Records was decidedly cool to the acclaimed band's unusual new album, and the result was a split. Now things are looking up.

April 14, 2002|RICHARD CROMELIN

Jeff Tweedy is standing outside a small studio at radio station KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, waiting to lead his band Wilco through its paces, when somebody waves what might be a red flag in front of him--a newspaper article on Ryan Adams.

Will this reminder of his presumed rival's celebrity plunge Tweedy into a spell of his famous melancholy? The singer just glances at the page and flashes a half-smile.

"It's funny," he says. "We have the same lawyer in New York, and I went into his office and saw this picture on his wall. I said 'Hey, I don't remember doing that show.'"

Tweedy can afford to joke about the rivalry that isn't. For one thing, Wilco's music has roamed to a place far from Adams' turf--the folk-based, roots-conscious alt-country that Tweedy helped plant in the pop landscape in the late '80s. For another, his band's rocky path over the past year has looked to be the dead opposite of Adams' smooth sailing.

Artistically, things are fine. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was even cited by some critics as one of the best albums of 2001. The trouble was, it didn't come out in 2001. It was scheduled to be released last September by Reprise Records, the group's home for six years. But then the label got a listen to the evocative but off-center mix of folk, pop, ambient and abstract elements that Wilco had cooked up in its Chicago studio.

"They said that they didn't like it, it's career-ending, if we really thought that was a record that could be released then we should consider going somewhere else," Tweedy recalls.

Wilco did go somewhere else--to Nonesuch Records, a cutting-edge classical label (Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet) that is now becoming a haven for such pop-world exiles as Emmylou Harris, Randy Newman and Magnetic Fields.

When the New York company releases "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on April 23, it will close the door on one of the most public artist-label conflicts of recent years. It's one that illustrates how the recent wave of consolidation in the record business is more than a distant, boardroom abstraction. It's something whose repercussions can affect the artist-label relationship at its most basic level--getting the record out.

Standoffs between artist and the artists and repertoire department--the division responsible for signing and developing acts--aren't a rarity, but they're usually ironed out, often with guidance from the label's higher management.

But with instability and executive turnover increasingly common in the wake of mergers, falling sales and rising costs, that higher management isn't always there. That was the case at Reprise, the Burbank-based sister label of Warner Bros. Records, as Wilco put its fourth album in the mail.

Parent company AOL Time Warner had initiated a huge reorganization at the labels in March 2001, leading to Reprise chief Howie Klein's resignation in June. Warner Bros. President Phil Quartararo was running a combined Warner/Reprise operation in the aftermath, but his powers were limited by heavy staff cuts and the fact that Tom Whalley, a highly respected Interscope executive who had agreed to become chairman, was scheduled to take over in January 2002.

So "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" was dropped into a churning sea.

"At the time Warners was in a transition. I was a little confused as to what was going on or what I was supposed to do," says David Kahne, then head of the A&R department and the man who's been blamed in most accounts for the Wilco falling-out. "If Tom [Whalley] had been there, he might have said no, we have to put this record out, or he might have said no we shouldn't ... it was a confusing time."

Though Kahne, who left the label after Whalley took power earlier this year, disputes the widespread portrayal of Reprise as art-be-damned product-pushers, there's no question that after a final phone conversation in July between the executive and Wilco's manager, the label and the band started filling out the divorce papers.

Says Tweedy, "I've never seen a legal department work that fast in my life. That was weird. They really wanted us out of there."

The Wilco situation could have been just an instructive footnote in Music Business 101, but as the episode unfolded it started getting extensive coverage in music trade publications and in Chicago newspapers, which covered their hometown heroes' woes the way they did Michael Jordan's rift with the Bulls. The story assumed symbolic terms, a contest between art and commerce, with valiant heroes and dastardly villains.

"There's always a tendency in these situations to want to paint it in black-and-white," cautions Wilco's manager, Tony Margherita. "I don't think that's really the case."

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