Should I do it? Should I tell the story? I should probably just tell the story, right? Ok, one last time, for posterity’s sake.
In June of 2001, Wilco—then consisting of Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Jay Bennett and Glenn Kotche—had just spent more than a year holed up in their Chicago studio working on their fourth full-length, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After a recording process that was marked with lineup changes and in-fighting, the band delivered the finished album to their label, Reprise Records, who were less than pleased with what they heard, worried that it lacked mainstream appeal.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened to Wilco, either. Two years earlier, in 1999, they’d just finished recording Summerteeth, and after submitting it to Reprise, they were told it lacked a single that was suitable for radio play. Dutifully, and most obviously against their better judgment, they turned around and remixed album-opener “Can’t Stand It,” making it shorter and adding elements (bells?) they thought would make it more appealing to a wider audience. The album was well received by critics and diehards, but less so by the general public, and it failed to outsell its less-hyped predecessor, 1997’s Being There.
So when Wilco’s A&R rep, Mio Vukovic, asked if they’d consider making some changes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to address the label’s concerns, the band flatly declined. Reprise eventually agreed to let them out of their contract and give them the rights to the album. There’s some confusion over exactly how they wound up at this point: some reports state that the band paid $50,000, while others claim Wilco got the rights for nothing.
Either way, by mid-August news broke that Wilco was officially without a label, and a bidding war began immediately. They fielded offers from pretty much every label under the sun, and there’s even been talk that they were contacted by Reprise about working out a new deal because they’d been killed in the press for so badly mistreating a band that was clearly in it for the long haul—steady earners, big on touring, and respected by anyone who knew anything. Eventually, Wilco inked a deal with Nonesuch Records, a label known, to me anyway, for low-risk adult-contemporary rock and pop—some weird mix of Shawn Colvin and Randy Newman, but that’s beside the point.
The kicker here, of course, and the reason this is everyone’s favorite industry story of at least the past decade, is that their original label, Reprise, was owned by AOL Time Warner, who also happened to own Nonesuch. So AOL Time Warner essentially paid for the album twice. Chump change for them, obviously, but a symbolic victory and supreme validation for everyone who’d been complaining about the shortsightedness of major labels in recent years. It was, simply put, the great rock and roll swindle of the aughts, and it was immensely satisfying.