When it comes to the state of the music industry (or anything else for that matter), Smashing Pumpkins mastermind and frontman Billy Corgan has no problem speaking his mind. Billboard sat down with the musician in his dressing room at the recent KROQ Almost Acoustic Xmas event in Los Angeles for an unfiltered chat about the band’s new album, Monuments To An Elegy, why the music business “has no plan for a future,” and why he’s “just a wise, clear-eyed person who calls it for what it is.”
What are your thoughts about the state of the music industry today?
This business has no plan for a future, and we are getting jobbed, to use a wrestling term, by the tech industry. We are becoming sycophants for another industry that’s building off of our content. Basically the tech companies have appropriated the buzz and lure of what used to be the rock business, they’ve integrated it for themselves, they’ve stolen all the moves and we’re sitting here waiting for record sales to pick back up.
Which won’t happen.
No, it’s over. It’s so over and yet the storyline carries on, the media narrative built around the album release carries on and then you go and deal with kids on a one-on-one basis and they are not on those wavelengths. And unlike us they have no sentimental attachment to what was.
Wait, sorry to be a jerk, but don’t forget I put out a free album in 2000. People skip over that point.
You were just too early.
Thank you. But people drop the name Radiohead to me and I point out I put out a free album about five, seven years before that. As far as I’m concerned we were the first ones to cross that bridge.
Is it something you would do again?
Absolutely not, a total f—ing waste of time and money. In that case I actually put my album out for free. U2 did get paid. I put out my album for free, literally for free (laughs). So when people say “free” let’s talk about what free really means. I didn’t get my recording costs back.
So you don’t think there is that freedom?
Don’t buy it. There’s excitement for lighting yourself on fire too, you got about five seconds of excitement. Col. Tom Parker used to have a saying, “How much does it cost if it’s free?” There’s no such thing as free — free is fake.
It’s interesting to hear you speak because I think journalism went the same route as music.
And here we are, the journalists continue to slit people like my throat for not getting in line with something that doesn’t work. (Laughs). So I don’t get that one either. I’ve got journalists I’ve been dealing with for twenty years and they still literally write about music like it’s 1994. And they expect the same things to happen like it’s 1994.
There are a lot of artists who do the same thing as well.
I can’t speak for them. I’m obviously not in that camp and I don’t give a f— about that camp. We’ve seen the rise of the, let’s call it, the individual business. So I’m in the Smashing Pumpkins business, I’m not in the music business. So when I negotiate with Kevin Weatherly I’m negotiating Kevin Weatherly versus Billy Corgan’s interest. I no longer believe I’m in the music business and that somehow there’s a holistic result that’s going to happen here.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition because as frustrated as you are with the industry, Tommy Lee said he had more fun making this album than any other.
Musicians should do what they do, which is make music. But if the question is to what end, that’s a really difficult one. But I know when we’re getting jobbed. When MTV was robbing us blind and the music industry bent over and said “Thank you very much,” now you see where that went. That was the beginning of this. The music business had this whole thing stitched up; manufacturing, shipping, they had all the leverage on the record stores, and they let MTV come along and basically steal them out the back door. And it’s been one non-stop steal for over thirty years.
Justin Timberlake has said he makes tons of music, but doesn’t always put it out. So can you just make music for yourself?
No, we have to build new systems. If we’re trying to speak to someone between the ages of 15 and 65, we have to build new systems by which to reach them. Look at simple things like this: in the past year, what have I done? I’ve made an album with Tommy Lee. On paper seems like a big perplexing thing, but yet we made something interesting out of it. Why? Because I’m not afraid.
Now I’m playing with Brad [Wilk] and Mark [Stoermer], you have a different version of the band. People that are seeing the band now today are saying it’s the most muscular physical version of the band they’ve ever seen. People don’t realize what a great musician Tommy Lee is. You put Tommy Lee in a musical situation, boom, you have something. Why has the guy filled arenas for god knows how long? But if I walked into a boardroom, to the [label exec] Tom Whalleys of the world, and said, “Yeah, I want to make an album with Tommy,” the first thing they’d say, “Well, how are your fans gonna react to that? What are your fans gonna say? Is that really gonna play with the alternative crowd?” Sometimes I get in these conversations with [manager] [Peter] Katsis, “What’s the down side? Zero to fifty thousand, there’s your down side.” We’re not talking half a million or zero, there’s no down side. Everybody should be taking chances, instead everybody gets conservative.
Having this new version of the band allows you to go back and revisit old material.
In a fresh way, yeah.
So what are some of the older songs you’re excited to play with this new lineup?
Well, believe it or not we’re playing “Silverfuck,” it’s a different version than what’s on the album, it’s about 12 to 15 minutes long. And everybody in the world would tell you, “Don’t play a 12- to 15-minute song in front of this crowd.” But because you have that ability to have physical presence, that’s an easy delineation point of why these bands are pussies and why we’re not pussies. When you have a band like No Doubt that’s in their trip, they know what they’re doing, so they got no problem playing against a band like us. A lot of these other bands, it’s all studio creation, there’s no physical nature to what they do. They haven’t come up through the clubs with the physical need to move a crowd. They go in, they dig around with Pro Tools, they make this big immense sound that sounds like some sort of Michael Bay movie.
Are there songs from the catalog you have a new appreciation for or that stand up well for you?
To me, I personally can’t get past the audience expectation, which is the past is better than the present. Like, we played last night in Vegas, kind of an older crowd, probably a bit touristy crowd. We’d play a new song, good healthy applause, new songs are going over great. And you play an old song it’s like (roars), it gets fucking boring. Is that what a concert’s down to now, waiting around to whether or not we’re gonna play “Surrender” or “I Want You To Want Me.” To me, that’s grandpa’s music business. Kids are moving at such a f—ing great speed and we’re still stuck, the 35-plus generation, on who’s in the band, what songs are you gonna play. We’re killing the amazing business opportunity and creative opportunity to create new works.
I’m up there with the most successful writers of the alternative, let’s say you start with punk, ’77 to now, I’m up there with the top writers. But I’ve still got to beg and stoop and be slavish to these great gods who are presiding over what? What are they presiding over? That’s my big criticism. It’s like I’m a waiter on the Titanic, so fucking what.
You’re seeing the flip side, as you had great commercial success. But someone like Paul Westerberg, who is genius, up there in the best writers category…
…Never had that commercial success.
Why is the music business not creating new opportunities for people like that? Why isn’t somebody creating a series where it’s like, pick the top three up-and-coming bands of a particular ilk and put them in a studio for a month with a Paul Westerberg and create this synergistic thing? Create new marketing opportunities, get old f—s like us to actually pay attention because maybe we see something in that, then the reverse, maybe some kid pays attention to The Replacements because there’s some connection they understand? Why is that not happening? Why does that happen in the movies? Ever notice when they have the star franchise and the star gets a little old and they introduce the young character so you can relate? Then if they want to move the franchise on they can turn the franchise over to the young character, like when they had Shia LeBeouf in the Indiana Jones series.
Why is the music business not doing that? Because they already decided intrinsically once you pass a particular line, whatever it is in their own minds, a commercial line, a cultural line, you have no value. It’s not even you have a little value, you have no value. You look at any other entertainment business, they reel out the old people all the time to host a show. It’s so f—ed up.
But musicians are creating their own opportunities to work with young talent. I know Brad [Wilk] from his work with Last Internationale, who are amazing.
I’ve talked to him about Last Internationale.
Are there young bands you would want to mentor or collaborate with?
I’ll give you a perfect example. I worked with this band Ex Cops, they’re on Downtown Records. The guy from the label reached out to me. So we cut this deal, I went in the studio with them for probably about 10 days, song-doctored some stuff, co-wrote some stuff, the song that’s out now that’s the single, I had some writing on, kind of got them in the right direction. The guy from the label made, in my eyes, a fateful decision to stick them with a very good young producer named Justin Raisen, kind of an indie-type producer, who had success with Sky Ferreira. To me, they have kind of a Eurythmics, ABBA upside. But the label pushed them to make more of an indie album. That world that’s all about, “Hey, I love you, you’re so great,” and nobody sells anything. So to me that’s a total lost opportunity, and that’s what I don’t like about hipster world, ’cause it’s all self-reverential. And then the mainstream world can’t translate because their songs aren’t dumb enough to get played on the dumb-enough stations.
We have this ubiquitous pop that’s in the f—ing way that’s like a f—ing monolith and god forbid anybody says anything negative about a pop star because of social media. And then over here we have the indie ranks kissing the ass of the pop stars and you have no middle. And you have people like me in the middle totally exposed because we won’t play either end of the street. But why I am still here?
Do you have a new system in mind?
Absolutely, I think it’s very similar to the old A&M or old Phil Spector model. You have to bring talented people together and you have to promote what they do best. But you can’t do it the way they do it now. I used to date a pop singer and they would walk into these writing sessions, and before they’d walk through the door they would’ve given away 70 percent of their publishing. The scummy part of the business has to go. So it’d have to be more of a transparent model that’s holistic and beneficial to everybody. And to be overly simplistic about it you have to create moments. It’s a moment-driven culture because it’s all headlines. So [Marilyn] Manson appears on stage with the Pumpkins, headline, boom, click. It was beneficial for our record and beneficial for his record and it was just fun. Oh by the way, we were playing music. We didn’t go in the corner and light ourselves on fire. We did what we do, we f—ing made music.
What do you think of radio today?
We were just listening to the station on the way in and [guitarist] Jeff [Schroeder] said, “I don’t even know where these bands are drawing from.” What source of music are they drawing from? It doesn’t even feel like it has a lineage, is that a new condition of the social world we live in? I don’t know. But it seems strange to me when all of my life I could listen to somebody and go, “Oh they listened to Link Wray, they listened to Sabbath, they listened to Led Zeppelin.” I listen to these artists now, I don’t even know who they’re listening to. Why do they all sound the same? Why is there a sameness in the vocal and production style? Where is that coming from? Is this the new thing where kids don’t date anymore and they just want to hang out in packs? What is all that?
They sound the same because everybody uses the same three or four producers. Once someone has success with a sound, others go for that same style. It’s the idea people have of becoming a rock star.
I’m a rock star because I’m a great f—ing musician, that’s the way I look at it. So when people try to tell me how to be a better rock star, I f—ing laugh. Just make sure you go interview them in their thirties. I want to hear those stories. “It’s great being the manager at Starbucks — I got great insurance.”