Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan's is one of today's most opinionated and outspoken musicians. At a SXSW panel on Monday he made bold statements about the state of the music industry and his disdain for what he believes is a broken system propping up pop idols. Billboard.biz met up with Corgan after the panel to talk about the current spate of indie-rock superstars, what Twitter can or can't do for an artist, and whether it was really better back in the '90s.
Billboard.biz: I came of age when the Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were coming up. Does a 15-year-old today have the same type of bands they can get behind? The five or six or seven arena-size bands that actually mean something?
Billy Corgan: It's so vital. Alternative culture at its best represents an evolution of values. I was talking about the misogyny and the racism in the early days -- we helped break some of those values down by just being there. Then you have the rise of - let's call it "false activism" - you know, "I'm Tweeting, therefore I'm active." "I Tweet therefore I am."
Do you contemporary bands such as Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Phoenix, Coldplay fitting that paradigm?
I don't see where those artists are impacting the general culture. They're impacting alternative culture, and they're good bands, but you don't see them in that transitional space where you feel them putting pressure on things. Their worlds exist in their own oxygen. And I think this is really vital because it has all these cataclysmic effects, the most obvious of which is that if a band's going to get signed, they have to sign these really messed-up deals, like 360 deals. Think about it. We signed a completely exploitative deal in 1990, I couldn't imagine 22 years later the deals would be worse.
Many would argure you're actually more able to interact with fans these days, that, on Twitter you have the world's attention.
The idea that a qualitative argument can win is not proving to be true. I'll give you a perfect example. There were articles before the Oscars this year about how the field was not well-known to the general public and the Oscar people were scrambling to get [stars like] Angelina Jolie. Why are they scrambling? Because they're worried that the mainstream public will not watch the Oscars if there aren't faces they recognize even though they don't have anything to do with any of these movies. That is a classic example of what we deal with in the music business all the time. It's like: you can't come on this show unless you play an old song. You can't put out this album unless you put out some bonus tracks from 15 years ago. Nothing is allowed to break free.
I wonder if that's a product of the times or a product of the generational shift in the culture. For instance, the new Paul Simon record isn't going to sell as much as, say, "Mrs. Robinson" because his fans are older.
But that's a crime because Paul Simon is one of the great songwriters of the 20th and 21st centuries. So if he can't plug into a system that's going to reward him for great work, why would he bother? That's my general point. Now, when rock stars talk like that, they get all huffity-puffity about, like, "you're a millionaire, shut the f**k up," right? But when you're talking about a kid, at that critical age where he's going to decide whether to be Bruce Springsteen or [play] crappy music, there's not as much upside to being Bruce Springsteen anymore.
It seems kids who used to be "alternative rock kids" and were kind of the "outcast" kids are now becoming the Skrillex kids - KROQ is playing Skrillex now. Is that's the current progression of alternative rock?
Yeah, but there was a point when KROQ was playing Eminem, and that was pretty radical. The general audience can't understand the nuance of this particular argument. There always needs to be the new music. Take my history completely out of the equation. So let's say Skrillex, or the example of a kid in his basement. It's the transitional stage from the KROQ to the mainstream mainframe [that's missing] what happened to that?
Metallica's "Black Album." "Joshua Tree." Often times it coincides with the band's best work because the band has to figure something out. They ask themselves, "how do we be ourselves - and how to we reach this bigger audience?" People sit in rooms and talk it out. All these bands did at some point go, "well if we're going to punch through, we gotta figure this out. We gotta work with this producer, we gotta write these types of songs…"
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It's a good thing.I always believed in the 90's, that if you took my song and played it against what was being played on the radio, the smart kid and the cool kid was going to like my song. Well, if that kid doesn't get exposed to those things, he's not going to be able to make that choice, as the pipeline's narrowed, as the system's devolved, it's given rise to a mainstream perspective which sort of steals from the subculture but doesn't actually adhere to it.
Don't The Black Keys or Kings of Leon or Muse fit that model? There's still this ability to become the biggest band in the world after four or five decent records, but what you're not bringing with it is the cultural relevance of that.
As I like to say, "Grandma doesn't know about it." Grandma doesn't know about the Black Keys, or Muse. But she knows about Coldplay.
Do you think that there is a way to change that? Do you think that it needs to be changed?
There has to be a systemic shift within the independent culture [so that it realizes] we're aiding and abetting the enemy. The Beatles changed the world. If I want to change the world, I want to support those artists, model my ideological thinking, which is that the world should be cooler, darker, hipper, sexier - weirder. But, look at who's playing the Pitchfork festival in Chicago. That is a choir preaching to its choir. I didn't come from that world. I came from a world that was really opinionated, but I didn't come from a world that was going to hold me back.
I feel like in 1994, when you were on the bill, that argument could have been made about Lollapalooza.
But [now] it's mainstream in a different way. You know, I don't think it's necessarily a better version of mainstream. It's a weird argument to make and I understand it's weird, but it's like, I just don't see the cultural impact. These bands aren't making a cultural impact. And I'm just here to say, "What happened to the cultural impact?" I had it, The Beatles had it. I mean, look what happened to that. And this kind of [argument that] quality will make it happen, or social media's going to make it happen, well, no it's not.
So what do you think could make it happen?
I think artists are going to have to create their own destination point. They're going to have to create a world that is more vital and they have to get out of an ideology that they have to adhere to somebody else's system of exploitation. Yes, there will be that band once a year or two ythat gets enough steam, but it ain't 20, it ain't 30, it ain't 50. If it's a marketing thing, where you're going to have to figure out how to create enough marketing steam behind you, those people are going to want to partner with you, but it's a partner relationship and not a subservient let-me-plug-myself-in-your-system-and-let-you-knock-me-around relationship. How many times do you see the kid who makes the album that Pitchfork loves and then the next one they hate? And then the kid's going, "What happened?" And he's got nothing.
You're saying the kid needs to figure out their end goal before putting out their first record so it doesn't matter whether Pitchfork likes them or not?
Yes. He has to exist in tandem. The gatekeepers don't really matter anymore. His or her world has to be just as valuable to their fans as mine is to mine. And where you have like minds, then you can share audiences by Twitter. It's a different model, though.