Rockumentary Redux

Everyone’s wrong about the new Wilco movie.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart—the new movie about the making of the Wilco record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—is one of those rare documentaries that actually documents something the filmmaker didn’t anticipate. When first-time director Sam Jones asked Wilco if he could follow the band as it noodled around in the studio, he was planning to “chronicle their artistic road to success.” Instead, he got an inside look at the torturous relationship between art and commerce in today’s record industry.

The story the film tells is by now well-known: Wilco hands Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise Records, its longtime label; Reprise demands changes to make the album more marketable; Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s singer-songwriter, refuses. They eventually part ways, and Wilco sells the record to Nonesuch, which releases it to considerable success on the charts. The point of the story seems clear enough: In today’s world, it’s all about marketing, not music. Record labels are too interested in the next Britney Spears to pay attention to the Wilcos of the world. If you don’t have the potential to sell a million copies of your record, the philistine suits want nothing to do with you. This was a well-worn theme in the reviews of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it’s made explicit in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, where one critic describes Reprise’s rejection of Yankee Hotel as “a measure of what corporations that own record companies are willing to put up with.” There’s an inherent conflict, we’re told, between the time it takes to understand and appreciate a great album and the bottom-line mentality that demands success on a quarter-by-quarter basis.

There’s only one problem with this story: Both Nonesuch and Reprise are owned by AOL Time Warner. In other words, the same suits who supposedly found Wilco’s approach too artistic to tolerate when the band was working for one part of the company apparently found it commercially viable when the band was working for another part. In the movie, this comes across as simply an ironic twist of fate. But it’s more than that. In fact, Nonesuch’s move makes the whole “victim of multinational capitalism” narrative look rather suspect. After all, if Reprise’s axing of Wilco was really the inevitable result of a corporate ethos that privileges commercial appeal over artistic integrity, then Nonesuch’s decision makes no sense. If Wilco wasn’t going to be profitable enough for AOL Time Warner when it was at Reprise, it wasn’t going to be any more profitable for AOL Time Warner at Nonesuch.

What I Am Trying to Break Your Heart makes clear, however inadvertently, is that what happened to Wilco was not the result of interference by the green-shaded money men but rather something specific to the internal politics at Reprise. Howie Klein, who had run Reprise for as long as Wilco was there, retired right around the time the band handed in Yankee Hotel. And in the movie, he explains that if he had still been at Reprise, the label would never have dumped the band. In other words, it wasn’t some systemic flaw that killed Wilco’s relationship with Reprise. Instead, the wrong guy—in this case, someone named David Kahne—was now in charge, and he didn’t have the taste to see how good Yankee Hotel was and didn’t want to release a record he didn’t like and didn’t think would sell. His decision to drop Wilco was boneheaded, but it’s not a metaphor for what multinational corporations will or won’t put up with. (In fact, soon after dumping Wilco, Kahne, who was only an interim head of Reprise, was himself replaced.)

The really telling thing about what happened to Wilco is not that the band was dropped by AOL Time Warner but rather that it was re-signed, because that suggests that there is no overarching vision at the company, no real idea of what does or doesn’t make economic sense for a record label today. And this fits well with the current state of the music business, as floundering labels try to deal with falling sales, shrinking profits, and record buyers who now have their choice of 30,000 new releases every year. In the end, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart doesn’t really show us that record labels are more mercenary than they once were. It shows us instead that they’re just much more confused.