How to Drop Your Label

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, released by the Chicago-based band Wilco, is one of the few albums to receive a 10/10 rating by Rolling Stone magazine named it the third best album of its decade, and included it on their list of 1,000 recordings to listen to before you die.

And it almost didn’t see the light of day. The only reason the album exists is because of a powerful “no.”

Over the course of their long career, Wilco has released twelve albums, won multiple Grammys. They also routinely sell out arenas when they perform.

But that wasn’t the case in 2002. The band had released three commercially and critically successful albums, but they were nowhere near the household name they are now. And they were restless. They wanted to expand their sound and forge a new identity. They wanted to create something new, something no one had ever heard before.

wilco standing by a lake

While their previous albums grounded themselves in Americana and alt-country, YHF is a pensive Indie Folk-Rock album that combines poetry with experimentalism, trying to break the bones of folk music and reset it into a new shape. It’s audacious, shocking, revelatory, and currently regarded as a masterpiece.

It also got Wilco dropped by their label.

Delayed and running over-budget, the label demanded that changes be made to make the music “more commercial” (essentially, music that sounded exactly like their first three albums).

Wilco said “no.”

Now, saying “no” can be a risk. And saying “no” can be difficult. But Wilco listened to their label’s short-sighted feedback, took a step back, and re-evaluated their efforts. Ultimately, they had created something worth saying “no” to protect.

Adrift and left to their own devices, they used a relatively new medium at the time, the Internet, to stream the album for free, and started touring.

The album immediately resonated, and it took on a mythic status in the Indie Rock scene. Most importantly, everyone who listened to the stream loved it. Soon, audiences were singing along to the lyrics of this unreleased album at sold-out shows. They were re-signed by their original label’s parent company (who effectively paid for the album twice).

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot went on to become Wilco’s first RIAA certified Gold Album. It launched Wilco into the stardom that they currently experience today, twenty years later.

None of this would have happened if they had caved to their label’s demands to release more of the same. Instead, they dared to reinvent their sound and trust their vision, and in the process, they created a classic.

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