I love the alternative US rock band Wilco. I first came a across them about 14 years ago, around the time they released their second album Being There. It was a great collection of alt country songs from the doleful to the exhilarating…a mixture of the simple and the surreal. I bought it on the strength of reviews but one fact really endeared them to me – the album was a double but they wanted it priced as a single album so as not to deter new fans. The record label agreed only if Jeff Tweedy (band leader and writer of all their songs) cut most of his royalties…and he agreed!
I really admired such confidence, such dogged self-belief in his/their ability and the strength of his songs! He lost about $600,000 but was satisfied as he released an album that was critically acclaimed by the music press and won them many new fans.
And five years later Tweedy and the band even trumped this when their record label (Reprise) rejected the master tapes for their 4th album on the grounds that it wasn’t commercial enough. They refused to write new songs and were promptly dropped from the label…ending up having to pay to get their master tapes back. Without a deal they streamed the music on their website. Such was the positive response from fans and critics that they found themselves promptly snapped up by another label, Nonesuch. And the sweet irony was… Nonesuch were a sister label to Reprise!! And it’s their biggest selling album to date!
Again you couldn’t fail to admire the single minded belief and determination in their abilities.
Studio album number 8 was released this week and the band is still going strong. Having beaten an addiction to prescription painkillers, and gone through various changes in personnel, their leader Jeff Tweedy has assembled a band of all talents. Within the confines of a rock group he has managed to put together a collective of talented musicians. On lead guitar (Nels Cline) and drums (Glen Kotche) he has two of America’s most admired leftfield, improvisational musicians, each much in demand for guest appearances and side projects, and each with a solo career running parallel.
Not an easy trick to pull off, particularly in an industry with big egos, creative differences and sometimes relentless single-mindedness. Yet it works, and they combine to make music that is stylistically diverse, by turns interesting, challenging and hummable.
More by luck than judgement Wilco may actually show us interesting business parallels.
Relentless self-belief in your ability and offering eventually gets it reward…OK, they aren’t in the major league but they get by!
It’s possible to build and blend a team with diversely talented performers…maybe giving your better performers some flexibility and the freedom to indulge their passions and pursue side projects can keep them on message for the day job.