Pop Matters: How Wilco fixed what U2 botched

Pop Matters: How Wilco fixed what U2 botched

In the fall of 2007, Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows, via the internet. For all its simplicity the price was exceptionally radical: you paid whatever you wanted to pay. It was an awesome, What the—really?!? moment courtesy of one of the most influential bands in popular music.

Earlier this spring U2 attempted the same thing. Sort-of. Like Radiohead, they released their most recent album via the internet for free, only they struck a deal with Apple to place the album directly into users’ iTunes accounts. This caused quite the stir and the interwebs roiled with folks who wanted to complain about… well, in truth, something I never fully understood.

I was annoyed by this release as well. Something about it chaffed my balls harsh as a jock strap made out of 80-grit sandpaper on a humid Midwestern summer day.

What bothered me isn’t that U2 put their album into my music library. In fact, I don’t really care about the album one bit. I listened to it once; it’s fine, just not my thing right now; this isn’t a review of its pros or cons, or, for that matter, U2’s as a musical or social act.

What bothered me is the following quote from Bono, in explanation/apology for U2’s insertion of their album into our lives:

I’m sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea, but (we) got carried away with ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs, that we poured our life into over the last few years, mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.

It’s bad enough that The Bono mixed all these metaphors (This was far more than a “drop” of megalomania—we’re talking about a full on torrential downpour; I presume by “touch” of generosity he meant a hard knock over the head with a circus mallet; as for the “dash” of self-promotion”—I think the measuring cups need to be calibrated because this is the heaviest-handed dash I’ve ever struggled to ingest)—but what really bugged me is the part in italics. I’ll repeat it again so you get the point. U2 had a “deep fear that these songs, that we poured our life into over the last few years, might not be heard.”

Poor Bono and the boys were anxious that all their hard work might not be listened to with the intentionality and dedication they thought it deserved. Wah-wah. My first and lasting reaction to this was and has been—Who the fuck do you people think you are?! Get over yourself and join the fucking crowd, you ass-mufflers!

Anxiety about an audiences’ response is an unavoidable fact of any and every creative act; simply because you’ve sold a hundred gagillion records in the past doesn’t mean you get to sidestep those fears (though you’d certainly think U2’s enormously successfully track record might have lessened their concerns about being heard; sadly, in this case all it did was exemplify how worried they must truly be).

There’s a reason most artists are anxious wrecks when it comes to their work—in large part they’re terrified that no one’s gonna give a shit. That’s a cruddy feeling, but I’d argue that you can’t really have creativity without anxiety, because if you know in advance how your piece is going to be received (to say nothing about how it’s going to be made), where’s the rush of discovery that makes you work in the first place??

In other words—Take away anxiety from the creative undertaking and what remains is only the desire to impress girls.

And now for a study in contrast. Last week the band Wilco released their new album, Star Wars, for free via the internet. If you’re one of those cave-dwellers who don’t know who Wilco are: you’re missing out. Wilco have never achieved as much success as U2, but then neither have most bands, including Radiohead; regardless, I think it’s safe to say they’ve been one of the most intelligent, creative and influential voices in pop music over the past 30-years.

About this new album: All you had to do to get it was go to their site, enter your email, get a download code, et voila! Great—done. A week later I received the following email from Jeff Tweedy and the gang:

This message has arrived in your inbox because you downloaded Wilco’s new album Star Wars. Thanks for that and we hope you’re enjoying the new tunes.

Now a bit of background… We consider ourselves lucky to be in the position to give you this music free of charge, but we do so knowing not every band, label or studio can do the same. Much of the “music business” relies on physical sales to keep the lights on and the mics up. Without that support, well, it gets tougher and tougher to make it all work.

With that in mind, Wilco has put together a list of some of their favorite recent releases. We encourage you to explore it (and beyond) and yep, even march down to your neighborhood record shop and BUY. There’s a lot of great music out there, lets all try to support it. After all, it’s the years of support (and purchases) of Wilco’s music that allowed us to do what we did last week.1

Look how Wilco does it—not only do they give away their music for free, but they take the opportunity to acknowledge their good fortune and use their past success to support lesser-known bands, record stores, and music labels. U2 take note—not only is that class, it’s just how it should be done.

  1. For anyone interested in the bands Wilco recommends, I’ve copied them below:

    Aaron – Organismo
    Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine 
    Empyrean Atlas – Inner Circle
    Eleventh Dream Day – Works for Tomorrow
    Full of Hell, Merzbow – Full of Hell & Merzbow
    Game Theory – Real Nighttime
    Girlpool – Before the World Was Big
    Invisible Familiars – Disturbing Wildlife
    Landlady – Upright Behavior
    Luluc – Passerby
    Ned Doheny – Hard Candy
    Parquet Courts – Content Nausea
    Richard Julian – Fleur de Lis 
    Scott Walker + Sunn O – Soused
    Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
    Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather 
    William Tyler  Deseret Canyon []

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