This week, Billboard is publishing a series of lists and articles celebrating the music of 20 years ago. Our 2002 Week closes here with a flashback to one of the most interesting industry dramas of 2002 — the split between Wilco and their Reprise label over their ultimately career-defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album — and a look at whether such a conflict would be likely to still happen in 2022.
Here’s a rock cliché familiar to anyone with an appetite for Behind the Music drama: An artist finishes an album; the label or producer says they don’t hear a single; artist reluctantly writes a last-minute addition and it becomes a massive hit. That’s the alluring backstory behind “Starman,” “All Star,” “The Real Slim Shady,” and lord knows how many others.
But when Wilco submitted their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, to an unreceptive label in the summer of 2001, they sidestepped that mythical industry story for another: the experimental band who makes a masterpiece and refuses to compromise for the label brass. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the Chicago band’s best work to date, but the powers-that-be at Warner Bros. — the parent company of Wilco’s longtime label, Reprise — felt otherwise. “They thought it was all wrong,” frontman Jeff Tweedy recounted in his memoir. “It wasn’t radio-friendly, there were no hits, we’d have to scrap everything and start over or, if we insisted on going with what we’d recorded, be dropped from the label.”
Mio Vukovic, Wilco’s newly installed A&R guy with an expertise in dance music, told the band the album needed more work. Vukovic’s boss, David Kahne, then-executive vice president of A&R at Warner Bros., agreed. According to one account in the Chicago Tribune, Kahne – who had produced hits for pop-savvy acts like Sublime and Sugar Ray – said the album was bad enough to kill Wilco’s career. (Kahne now denies this: “I told a few people at Warner that it didn’t feel like the album would work there, based on what was going on at the time… I discovered [Wilco] wasn’t going to be promoted well, and I liked the band, so I told the manager they could take the album and leave.”)
Wilco jumped ship and won big. After their label woes were chronicled in the press by Greg Kot, the band, in a show of pre-Spotify ingenuity, streamed the album on their website, and critical buzz amassed. Wilco signed with Nonesuch (another Warner subsidiary, meaning the parent company effectively paid for the same album twice – “the coup of all time,” as the band’s manager put it in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart), and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally saw commercial release in April 2002. It soon became Wilco’s best-selling and most beloved album.
In the 20 years since, the album has been held up as a beacon of creative integrity; its backstory has hardened into sacred lore. In truth, Tweedy cut ties with Reprise more out of a deep disillusionment with the record industry’s broken promises than a sense of superhuman confidence. It was a choice, Tweedy wrote, between “making a record we didn’t like and not making any money, or making a record that we loved and not making any money.” (Tweedy declined to comment for this story.)
Still, the business decisions Wilco made were remarkably prescient. While Metallica was declaring war on Napster, Wilco saw the potential of letting fans hear their record for free. Years before Radiohead left EMI, Wilco saw the power of walking away from a major label in favor of creative freedom. The whole saga presaged a world in which art-rock bands and radio airplay seldom need each other to survive, and major labels are largely unwilling to invest in long-term creative growth for artists who don’t blow up quickly.
The conventional wisdom is that Wilco got dropped for making an experimental album and not bending to the whims of the commercial marketplace. That’s not wrong — Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is considerably more abstract than the lush popcraft of 1999’s Summerteeth, with a reflective tone, oblique lyrics (you’re an American aquarium what now?), and songs that end in avant-noise drone passages. Wilco was now more likely to be compared to Radiohead than Son Volt. Still, it’s hardly Metal Machine Music: Anyone who has seen an entire concert hall sing along with “Jesus, Etc.” or “Heavy Metal Drummer” knows the album is full of emotionally resonant hooks.
The oft-missing larger context is that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a victim, then a cause célèbre, amidst a shifting major label culture. For years, Warner Bros. had been considered a uniquely artist-friendly label. That quality attracted a bevy of artists (Laurie Anderson, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell) with long-proven integrity. But around 2001, label priorities were changing, and albums that seemed difficult to market, like Wilco’s, were the casualty. “The Warner label, under new management, was moving from being the label who worked bands at grassroots level and planned for three-album builds to being more radio-oriented,” says Kahne. “New exec leadership was making radio the focus, and without singles there was little chance of getting a push.”
At the center of Wilco’s shifting fortunes was a regime change. In the ’90s, longtime Reprise president Howie Klein was Wilco’s champion. He adored the band; Summerteeth, Klein tells Billboard, was “my favorite record that ever came out.”
Klein is the sort of industry veteran who reminisces with pride about defending Ice-T amid the “Cop Killer” firestorm, when much of his company wanted to drop the rapper. Throughout his tenure, he made a point of defending bands other executives wanted to drop. “For bands that don’t sell a lot — that people really like and care about — there always has to be someone defending them,” Klein says. In the 1980s, it was Depeche Mode; in the mid-’90s, Barenaked Ladies. “Every year, we would be faced with a barrage of senior executives telling us to drop them,” Klein says. Yet he and colleague Seymour Stein stood firm, and both bands found enormous success a decade into their respective careers.
“It takes time. And it pays off big,” Klein says. “I was willing to bet anything that Wilco was one of those bands that would pay off big.”
Klein says he stood by Wilco even after Summerteeth, which opened with a poppy single remixed by Kahne at the label’s request, proved a sales disappointment. Despite modest sales, the band garnered widespread acclaim and sold out concert venues nationwide. “People came to me and said, ‘We gotta get rid of them. We’re never gonna make any money from them. They’re stiff commercially,’” Klein recalls. “I said, ‘The one way you could get rid of them would be to fire me.’”
Instead, Klein left of his own accord. The tipping point came soon after Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000. Executives began cutting jobs; underselling bands were placed on the chopping block. Klein recalls a sobering meeting where AOL Time Warner chairman Steve Case addressed various executives. “He said, ‘Everyone in this room is gonna be rich.’ I looked around and thought, ‘Well, everybody in this room is rich already,” Klein says. “He said, ‘F–k the artists. F–k the employees.’ Just going on with ‘F–k this, f–k that.’ And it was horrifying for me.”
(Reached for comment about Klein’s recollection, Case says in a statement, “I categorically deny the statements, tone and profanity attributed to me.” Case adds that he has “always had nothing but the utmost respect for artists” and was an “an advocate of labels making longer-term commitments to artists.”)
Midway through Case’s presentation, Klein decided to leave the company. His last day was June 29, 2001 — the same day Wilco was informed by David Kahne that Warner was rejecting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Some Warner staffers were dismayed by the label’s treatment of Wilco. Klein told Kahne he was making a huge mistake. “Those songs are just so amazing,” Klein says. “The idea of dropping someone like that is so weird.”
Two decades later, Kahne knows he’s been widely depicted as the villain who dropped Wilco but seems to have little regret. He insists he did the band a favor, that Yankee wouldn’t have done well at Reprise, with its increasing focus on radio-oriented promotion. “With no push from radio, chances are the release would fall flat. I don’t mean massive hits, just some action. I’d seen it happen so many times, where pressure sagged without radio support,” Kahne says.
Nonesuch — more of a boutique label — proved to be a better fit. That label’s president, David Bither, was struck by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from its opening seconds. (“Later, I said it might have been the same thing that convinced Reprise that the album wasn’t right for them,” Bither says. “And that’s OK: It’s a big world out there with room for everyone.”)
As for Wilco getting dropped, “It was the best thing that happened to them, in my opinion,” Kahne says. “Saved them from an unsupported release.”
Wilco’s label woes unfolded against the backdrop of declining record sales, the first cracks in the late-’90s CD boom. But the success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot foreshadowed a different prosperity: indie-rock’s mid-2000s breakout moment. Yankee even received a coveted 10.0 Pitchfork review. Within a few years, Wilco was playing Bonnaroo and Coachella. Once pigeonholed as an alt-country act, the band now appealed to the same fans embracing artists like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens.
Like Wilco, these acts became cultural phenomenons without mainstream radio support. Critical buzz and blog write-ups spread the word instead. “At that point, all that stuff really meant something,” says Peter Matthew Bauer, a member of New York indie mainstays The Walkmen. “You could really get people to come to your shows because of that sort of thing.”
Bauer remembers touring with the Walkmen in the early 2000s and hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot everywhere he went. “Whenever we’d play at nightclubs, people would play it on the PAs. In that environment, it was weirdly affecting.”
In the short term, Warner Bros. was chastened by the backlash. “We are benefiting from the label’s regret over Wilco,” the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, a man who has charmed Warner Bros. into releasing albums far more anticommercial than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, told author Greg Kot. “They’d tell me that it would never happen to us. And what a great day for me!”
Yet long term, the label’s appetite for acclaimed indie-rock bands with minimal radio appeal was growing thin. When the Walkmen showed up to a label meeting in 2003, they thought they were signing with Warner Bros. They learned to their dazed surprise that they were actually signing with Record Collection, a small label with a distribution deal through Warner.
Despite the critical success of 2004’s Bows + Arrows, the company’s disinterest in the Walkmen’s long-term growth became clear when they turned in the follow-up, 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off. “I remember the guy at Warner Bros. being like, ‘OK, these are great demos! When are you gonna record the record?’” Bauer says. “And we were like, ‘No, that’s the record. We’re done. Here you go.’”
Not wanting a repeat of the Wilco fiasco, the label put out the album as is. But a little while after the band followed it with a Harry Nilsson covers record, the Walkmen were dropped. They didn’t mind. “We were just terrible at label politics altogether,” Bauer laughs; like Wilco, they were more interested in making the albums they wanted to make with minimal interference.
By the late 2000s, major labels and indie rockers seemed increasingly incompatible. Arcade Fire batted away major label offers to stay on Merge. Interpol left Matador for Capitol, then returned to Matador one album later. Liz Phair, too, departed Capitol, which she despised, for ATO, then released 2010’s polarizing Funstyle — replete with a diss track aimed at ex-Capitol CEO Andy Slater — on her own. That album arrived with a backstory that vaguely recalled Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Phair self-released the songs via her website with a message explaining that they had lost her her record deal and management.
There were exceptions. MGMT spent more than a decade on a major label, refusing to write another “Time to Pretend” and somehow convincing Columbia to let them follow their popular debut with swampy psychedelic expeditions like 2010’s Congratulations and 2013’s MGMT. In the streaming age, such instances were liable to incite wonderment from other art-rock bands. “I think it’s really rare,” says Anand Wilder, a former member of Yeasayer now releasing his debut solo album. “To see a band like MGMT, who starts off with hit after hit, go to something more experimental, I think that’s pretty cool.”
Yeasayer, by contrast, became disillusioned with the prospect of signing with a major after leaving Secretly and spending months meeting with Warner Bros., Loma Vista, Columbia, and others. The band’s sales were declining, and the offers were insulting. “I don’t have many good things to say about these guys,” Wilder says. “I feel like the job of the record label, besides giving money, is to say, ‘I don’t hear a single.’”
Yeasayer wound up releasing their final album, 2019’s Erotic Reruns, on their own label. By then, Wilco, armed with the passionate audience Howie Klein had sensed all those years ago, had long since left Nonesuch and done the same. And MGMT? They’re on MGMT Records now, scoring fluke TikTok hits on their own terms.
Could a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot situation still happen today? That is to say, a mid-level band ditching their label because their album is deemed too inaccessible or lacking in radio singles? Or have label priorities evolved beyond that?
The question is a touchy one. Various label heads contacted for this story (including Warner’s current A&R executive, Jeff Sosnow) declined to comment; publicists were not eager to make their artists available to dish on label frustrations.
In Kahne’s mind, the medium has shifted, but the hit-making impulse at major labels hasn’t changed much. “Now they pay TikTok celebs to use a single, instead of radio. Same dynamic, different venue,” Kahne says. “I’ve met indie artists who pay TikTok ‘agents’ to have influencers/dancers use their track. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s over in a day.”
And yet the Reprise Records of the 1990s, willing to support Barenaked Ladies or Wilco through a three-album build, signifies a distant era. Today “they test everything one song at a time. There’s no artist development,” Klein says, sounding a little like Robert de Niro at the end of Casino. Kahne confirms, “Production companies get deals and deliver masters, at much less cost to the labels, with no guarantee of release until testing is done.”
In other words, a rock band like Wilco, if it were to emerge today, simply wouldn’t be on a major label’s radar, or even aspire towards that. Nor would it have the support of a major label boss like Howie Klein, who secretly respected the bands who said no to his suggestions more than those who said yes.
“I don’t think they need to sign people like Jeff Tweedy anymore,” says Bauer, who now runs his own small label and management company, Fortune Tellers. “It probably bums a lot of people out who work at those labels. They probably would love to find the next Wilco, but if they took that to their boss, it just wouldn’t be good business. They’re all looking for analytics on TikTokers coming up, and people whose Soundcloud streams are in the millions, so they can turn them into billions.”
The younger rock bands that do stick with major labels (think Imagine Dragons, or Greta Van Fleet) are more willing to play the commercial game and scale up as much as possible. “I think they’re aiming for a more mainstream thing,” Bauer says, unlike “someone really hard-headed, like Wilco or the Walkmen, who just aren’t playing ball with the people there.”
All of which is to say, the most compelling emerging rock bands largely stick with independent labels, which are more artist-friendly and less dominated by corporate shake-ups. “A&R teams change so frequently at major labels; you’ll have one big champion and then they’re gone,” says Jessi Frick, the founder and owner of the independent Father/Daughter Records. At Father/Daughter, by contrast, the leadership is steady and “we kind of let the artist control everything, from the music to the visuals to the art.”
And yet, even at independent labels, Yankee-esque conflicts of art vs. commerce occasionally spill out into the open.
Take the curious case of Cat Power’s 2018 album Wanderer. When Cat Power submitted the album to Matador — the label that had been her home since 1996 — they rejected it. “They said, do it again, do it over,” the artist told the New York Times; one executive reportedly played her an Adele album as a model of how an album was supposed to sound.
Uninterested in customizing the album to anyone’s taste but her own, the songwriter parted ways with Matador and released Wanderer on Domino to solid reviews. Like Wilco seventeen years earlier, she ultimately got what she wanted — that is, to release the album she wanted to make — and the album got an alluring press narrative to go along with it.