I’ve Got Reservations About Wilco’s New Record Label

An announcement I’ve been waiting for hit today: Wilco is definitely starting their own record label. This news doesn’t come as a shock — last July brought the news that this was something they were looking at doing, because the band was not planning to renew their contract with Nonesuch Records. In a lot of ways this seems like a logical move: they’ve got fifteen years’ worth of name recognition and fan base, they’ve got contacts, and they seem to be open to experimenting with nontraditional business models. From that perspective, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do and how they do it.

Like a lot of people in the vicinity of my age, I’ve done a lot of growing up with Wilco as my soundtrack. Tweedy’s songs have seen me through four years of college, two deaths in the family, jobs I hated (and jobs I loved), a cross-country move, a failed relationship or two, and a whole lot of solo travel all over the United States — much of it to see Wilco. It’s not a big stretch to say that Jeff Tweedy’s work helped me learn how to be independent, and it’s no stretch at all to say that his work made me fall head over heels for the country I grew up in. I do what I do because of Wilco, and Wilco is what it is because of Jeff Tweedy.

However. In the last year and a half, I’ve noticed some trends in Jeff Tweedy’s approach to his brand — and this is an important distinction: not his music, but his brand — that I don’t much care for. It’s not like he has any reason to care about my opinion, of course, but I’ve been a fan for a while, and his music means a lot to me, and I pay attention to what Tweedy does. The first time I heard “Wilco (The Song)”, I had to take a moment, because that song, self-titled, off their self-titled album, said what I’d been wanting to hear, and what I was sure I’d known for years: they’re my band, and they’ll be there when everything else sucks. The problem is that out of the studio, Tweedy doesn’t seem to want to back that up — or rather, it’s not as universal a sentiment as it looks on the surface.

Check the album art for Wilco (The Album); it’s the first thing that gave me pause. The photography inside consists mainly of shots of Wilco’s nudie suits, custom-designed by Derek Welch of UNKL. Nudie suits are their own kind of cultural code; when combined with the specific imagery on the suits, as well as the way the suits are portrayed in the photography, they send a powerful message. The suits don’t just hang out on display on mannequins in a store window. Men wear the suits at work, with their children, running errands. Wilco’s suits are your suits, the photographs say, and the album says, Wilco is there for you. They have branded themselves with this, in the song and the album named for their band.

What I noticed as I looked at the photographs is that women don’t get to wear the suits. Women don’t even get to be in the pictures at all.

And I asked myself: after everything I’ve been through, with their records beside me the whole way, does this mean Wilco is there for other people, but not for me?

On one level, it’s a stupid question. Jeff Tweedy and company don’t know me, and I don’t know them. But on another level, when put in context with the way Wilco has been attempting to write their own narrative since the release of the Ashes of American Flags DVD, their lack of recognition that their audience isn’t only made up of mostly white men in their twenties and thirties doesn’t sit well with me.

Put more simply, when the point arrives that your band gets called out on primetime TV as a comparison point for lack of diversity — namely, a network described as “about as diverse than a Wilco concert” (6:00) — that might be the time to start questioning how you’re portraying yourself, and how you’re constructing your brand — especially when your latest efforts at branding yourself mean casting yourselves as guardians of the flame of American musical tradition. Ashes of American Flags is the best and most blatant recent example.

Through the band’s (and the editors’) careful selection of venues, including Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa (pictures of long-gone and forgotten country stars on the walls), Tipitina’s in New Orleans (historical anecdotes from John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, both of whom grew up in the area), and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (the Mother Church of Country Music), as well as various members of the band talking about their views on rural America and its music over shots of lonely stretches of interstate in the American South, Wilco shows themselves to be an American band with a long pedigree that crosses decade and genre.

And you know, that’s cool. It’s a big part of why I like them. I like that Tweedy writes simple songs — which is hard to do — that can turn into monster noise vehicles, both live and in the studio. The problem is that they’re perpetuating a view of American music, and American culture, and Americans, that’s awfully narrow. American popular music isn’t, and never has been, the sole province of those same mostly white guys in their twenties and thirties. They’re not the only ones who get to wear the suits.

This and the record label announcement wouldn’t have bothered me as much were it not for the fact that they’re using a very specific word when their press releases talk about their Solid Sound Festival, and that word is ‘curate’.

Because a curator, one who curates, is a gatekeeper. A curator gets to decide what’s worthy of preservation, and what — or who — gets left out of a collection for education, and for posterity. The items we see in museums are there because somebody decided they were worthy of being there, that they’re important enough to be there. The criteria for determining worth and importance aren’t always clear-cut, and it’s impossible to put everything on display at once. Decisions have to be made. The process of making these decisions will always involve leaving something, or someone, out.

The word ‘curate’ is a big red flag for me as it pertains to Jeff Tweedy, and it’s not because I think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or because he doesn’t have the authority to be a tastemaker. It’s because with authority comes responsibility, and because I’m not sure his ideas of what’s ‘worthy’ for preservation and promotion are going to enhance American music by promoting groups that fall outside mainstream demographics. And a record label is a different prospect than a three-day festival. More money, effort, and long-term investment are involved. A record label means more promotion and more support. And while I’m sure Jeff Tweedy isn’t going to be personally overseeing every decision dBpm Records makes, the fact is that this label, from the start, is billed as “Wilco’s label”. And Wilco, for better or for worse, is Jeff Tweedy.

Tweedy is also nine studio albums (counting the Mermaid Avenue sessions, leaving out Kicking Television) into his career as Wilco’s frontman. It’s not unreasonable to start contemplating what kind of legacy Tweedy is going to leave, and what impact Tweedy wants to have, on music in the future. A record label can be a big part of that. The question is whether that legacy is going to involve shaking up, or at least shifting, the status quo by advocating music by artists who don’t fit a mainstream mold.

Tweedy’s work with Mavis Staples gives me a glimmer of hope, and I think we’ll know more once we see Wilco’s next album in late 2011, as well as who the first non-Wilco artist signed to dBpm Records is. Wilco’s last two studio albums were similar enough sonically that I’ve wondered if Tweedy and company weren’t in a creative rut; whatever we’re supposed to be getting this year will give us at least a partial answer to that question.

Meanwhile, Jeff Tweedy is broadening his scope on the back end of the musical process. I wish him luck. More, though, I wish he’d recognize the rest of us who don’t fall into that male, mostly white demographic, but who love his stuff anyway, and — in the case of the folks who could get signed to his label — want to work with him. We’re here, too.

I saw Tweedy twice at the beginning of this month at the Boulder Theater; now that life’s slowed down a little, I’m hoping to write some about what I saw. It touches on some of this label stuff, but a lot of it is just plain glee at getting to hear “Radio King” live and in person, among other things. It sucks when the context gets in the way of the music. But that’s Jeff Tweedy’s gift to me, even though he doesn’t know he’s given it — for me, in the end, past all the politics and other contextual contention, his music is worth it.

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Tweedy is doing a fundraiser for Rahm Emanuel tomorrow night at Park West. If you’re politically inclined that way and you’ve got the cash to drop, it’ll be a good show.