Wilco, Ken Waagner, and the future of music

Wilco is one of my favorite bands and has been since I picked up Being There sometime in the ’97 timeframe. If you take a look at my Last.fm artist charts and you skip past the Pink Floyd (no apologies, fellow indie rock fans — I enjoy it without irony), Wilco is in the top 20, and at various times, I’m sure Wilco has been on heavy-enough rotation in my household to be #1. (And yeah, my current Last.fm charts might suggest that I hold Prince in only slightly higher esteem than Buck Owens. And that would be right, but maybe it’s because I’ve seen Prince live three times and Buck only two.)

Continuing the speaker series here at Yahoo! that I mentioned last week when we had Mark Pauline with Survival Research Labs, on Friday we had Ken Waagner, the digital strategist behind Wilco.

I didn’t take detailed notes, but this excerpt from this Wired story by Lawrence Lessig gives you a sense of what Ken’s work has meant to the music industry at large:

The band Wilco and its quiet, haunted leader, Jeff Tweedy, is something different. After its Warner label, Reprise, decided that the group’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was no good, Wilco dumped them and released the tracks on the Internet. The label was wrong. The album was extraordinary, and a sold-out 30-city tour followed. This success convinced Nonesuch Records, another Warner label, to buy the rights back – reportedly at three times the original price. The Net thus helped make Wilco the success it has become. But once back in Warner’s favor, many wondered: Would Wilco forget the Net?

We’ve begun to see the answer to this question. Wilco’s Net-based experiments continue: the first live MPEG-4 webcast; a documentary about the band in part screened and funded via the Net; bonus songs and live recordings tied to CDs. Its latest album, A Ghost Is Born, was streamed in full across the Net three months before its commercial release. And when songs from it started appearing on file-sharing networks, the band didn’t launch a war against its fans. Instead, Wilco fans raised more than $11,000 and donated it to the band’s favorite charity. The album has been an extraordinary success – and was nominated for two Grammys.

Ken was the guy who put the song files for the unreleased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot up as Quicktime streams on a web server for fans to download for free while the record itself was in limbo. Aside from instigating a flurry of upset messages from his hosting provider (one of those $29.95 outfits) who were surprised at the massive surge of bandwidth usage, the success of the Internet-only (at the time, at least) album led to an appearance on Conan O’Brien. Ken said that Wilco was “the only band to ever play Conan O’Brien in support of a Quicktime stream.”

MAXIMUMROCKNROLL #133 coverThe discussion of major label music reminded me of an old issue of punker-than-thou zine MAXIMUMROCKNROLL (#133, June 1994) that gave a seriously grim and uncompromising punk rock view of major record labels. The image to the left says it all — signing with a major label is like putting a gun in your mouth — one can only assume that a pull of the trigger is imminent. The original issue has been preserved here.

A few additional links on Wilco and Ken Waagner: