UNLESS YOU'RE IN the business of selling toilet paper, funeral caskets, or liquor, it's very unlikely you'll find yourself exempt from the nation's economic woes when hard times hit. The music business is certainly no exception; in fact, one could even call it a barometer of consumer activities. Certainly, Enya's straight shot to no. 1—at the expense of many a rock and rap act—following Sept. 11 was proof of a country's altered emotional (and consequently material) state.
Wilco the workhorse: "too noncommercial."
America's post-Sept. 11 economy almost immediately impacted an already-on-the-edge music industry, as label employees found themselves in the high-rise corner office one day and unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk the next. Perhaps most famously, all but one A&R executive was let go at Virgin Records, with the White Stripes' Jack White brought onboard for his as-yet-unproved talent-spotting genius (see Story #4). Most, however, didn't bother to replace the new-artist seekers they dismissed—in hard times, it seems, creative is the first to go, and skittish labels preferred the tried and true.
As of Sept. 30, commercial radio ad sales had plummeted, majors like EMI (home to Capitol and Virgin) posted considerable losses, and BMG plunged $80 million into an ill-timed partnership with Napster only to see that entity go up in smoke (see Story #2). Acts that previously seemed guaranteed gold mines—Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Macy Gray—did more poorly than expected. Other underperforming marquee names, like Sinead O'Connor, Tori Amos, Rod Stewart, and Too $hort, were released from their major-label obligations altogether; though they will surely be picked up by more eager (if less esteemed) outlets before too long, it bodes poorly for artists less stable and well known. Some companies, from the relatively large London/Sire to the relatively itty-bitty SeeThru Broadcasting, actually shuttered their doors for good in 2001, while others, like Touch and Go and Kill Rock Stars, decided, in the face of an increasingly fragmented and competitive market, simply to join forces.
All the upheaval ultimately worked to the advantage of one critically beloved industry workhorse: alt-country stalwarts Wilco. Upon hearing the initial masters of Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, Wilco's longtime label Reprise deemed the band's latest efforts "too noncommercial" and, when Jeff Tweedy and company refused to compromise, promptly dropped them. What followed was more free publicity and column inches from sympathetic journalists than the band could ever have dreamed of and a flurry of offers from labels both major and minor. Eventually, the group settled on Atlantic subsidiary Nonesuch, which will release Foxtrot early next year. At this rather grim economic juncture, there's no telling whether 2002 will bring any more such ironic success stories, but, as it always has, the beat will go on.