Thursday night, I got home after hockey and sat down with my laptop to enjoy a cold beverage and relax a little. As I am wont to do, I went on Facebook to see what was going on and noticed that a few friends had posted about a new Wilco album that had dropped within the last hour or so. The album, cleverly entitled Star Wars and featuring cover art of a kitten to maximize Internet search traction, was a free download for anyone who signed up for Wilco's mailing list.
Coincidentally, I had already planned to download new releases from Ava Luna and Hard Left, two relatively new acts who had made the albums available on Bandcamp for "Name Your Price," meaning you can get them for free or choose to pay whatever you wish. So I spent the next 20 minutes or so downloading three new albums for free.
Such is the nature of the recording industry nowadays. Wilco, a revered veteran act, now releases records on its own label and can afford to just release a surprise album for free because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Ava Luna's release, Takamatsu Station, is an odds-and-sods collection that follows on the heels of its April studio album Infinite House, and Hard Left is a band comprised of punk veterans playing old-school music and giving their new album away because they don't give a shit about the music industry.
It's an interesting time to be a rock recording artist. Record labels are in a shambles; why any band would sign to a major label is beyond me. Top 40 pop and hip hop are all the rage, so rock acts aren't selling anywhere near what they used to. Major label distribution doesn't mean shit if nobody's buying anything anymore. Radio's no help because there aren't many commercial stations left that play modern rock; every market still has one or two classic rock stations, but that's of no use to bands like Ava Luna or Hard Left, or even Wilco. There's still college and online radio stations that champion these acts, but obviously they're not exactly reaching a huge audience.
A band like Wilco at least has a large and loyal audience that will buy whatever the band releases and then go see them live. And Ava Luna and Hard Left hope to develop similar legions of fans through touring and word of mouth, and indeed, they make money by selling CDs, vinyl, shirts and other merch directly to fans at their shows. I saw Lubec and Havania Whaal, two bands from Portland, Oregon, last week in Allston as they were kicking off an East Coast tour. I bought a record from Lubec and a t-shirt from Havania Whaal, providing an additional $10 to each band. It's not a lot, but it goes toward basic expenses as the groups travel down the coast to various stops. They have to hope each night that fans in attendance will buy merch and keep them going.
I have to think bands that get into the rock game these days must be doing it for the love of playing music. They certainly can't get into it expecting to be rich and famous. Gone are the days when a band like Cheap Trick can release four excellent but under-the-radar albums for a major label before hitting it big with a song from a live album recorded in Japan. They would have been dropped after the first or second album stiffed, and they certainly wouldn't have received the radio airplay required to make "I Want You to Want Me" a monster hit. It's interesting to watch a band like Speedy Ortiz emerge, releasing excellent records, touring non-stop, getting great reviews and press, and still probably not selling 1/10th of the units that Walk the Moon will with that annoying hit song they've got this summer. Twenty years ago, Speedy Ortiz would have been HUGE. Now, folks like me are content to say we saw them pack cool little rock clubs. And that's just the way it is.