Lessons from Yo La Tengo: How to survive 30 years in the music industry
The album is dead.
Labels are sucking artists dry.
Getting your song in a commercial or TV show is the only way bands make money anymore.
These are three truisms of the new music industry – though they’ve probably been around for a lot longer than the Internet has – that have been repeated by countless critics and commentators. I’m sure I’ve repeated them without much thought more times than I’d like to admit.
But don’t tell them to the Hoboken, NJ three-piece Yo La Tengo.
2015 marks the 30th year since the release of the group’s debut album, Ride the Tiger, and this August, the band will release its thirteenth record. While it’s remarkable for any band to play and put out music consistently for three full decades, what’s even more remarkable perhaps is that Yo La Tengo has done it while proving all three of those truisms wrong.
Today as much as ever, the band is a slave to the album. Their upcoming release, Stuff Like That There, is even a concept album – a spiritual sequel to their now-unGooglable 1990 release, Fakebook (no, iOS note-taking app, I don’t mean “Facebook”).
Despite spending the better part of the past twenty years flirting with the mainstream, they’ve avoided getting sucked up by a major label, sticking with the legendary independent imprint Matador Records, and helping to build it into the one of the world’s most important stewards of indie music.
And finally, the band is famously cautious in allowing its music to be used in commercials, television shows, and films. Last year, they made a rare exception, allowing 2013’s “I’ll Be Around” to appear on the Boyhood soundtrack. But that was for an unprecedented cinematic experiment made by the patron saint of indie filmmaking. If the marketers at Urban Outfitters came calling looking for a song to accompany its new September line of long-sleeves, I’d doubt they’d be so lucky.
In essence, Yo La Tengo has charted a path in the music industry that is at once gloriously traditional and boldly individualistic. And while that may sound old-fashioned to some, in talking to guitarist/lead singer Ira Kaplan and bassist James McNew, it becomes clear that maybe the new way of making it in the music industry looks a lot like the old way -- or at least the old way for smaller artists. And by refusing – or, more accurately, not feeling the need -- to “evolve” or “adapt” to the digital age, Yo La Tengo has in its own way become more well-suited to these insane unsustainable times than bands far younger and “hipper.”
Sure, their success in the digital age has a element of circumstance to it – the band’s basically been following the same playbook for the past three decades – but the success itself is very real. Since Yo La Tengo’s stone-cold classic from 1997, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which was released near the height of the music industry but failed to crack the charts, each of their last five albums has charted in the US higher than the last – a claim I’m not sure any other active band in the world can claim – from #138 to #115 to #66 to #58 to #26.
So how did a trio of middle-aged, knowingly unglamorous New Jerseyites pull that off?
The death of the album? Says who?
Two years ago, on the heels of the band’s 2013 release Fade, I watched a buddy of mine Josh Antonuccio, a music engineer and lecturer at Ohio University, interview Yo La Tengo’s lead singer Ira Kaplan in front of a class of media students. One of the war stories Kaplan shared involved asking the folks at Matador before writing the tracks for Fade, "Do you want us to make a record? Does that make sense for 2013? Do you want us to record songs once a month that people can download?”
“We were happy they wanted us to make an album that's designed to be listened to start to finish,” Kaplan recalls, “whether or not the bulk of the people are doing that. But if they suggested something else we'd be interested in meeting that challenge."
Matador advised the band to stay the course, and they haven’t looked back since. This year, when I asked Kaplan, who turned 58 last January, if the same question arose when conceptualizing the band’s upcoming release, Stuff Like That There, he said he didn’t even consider taking any other route.
“We are of a certain age when the album was the focus of our expression growing up,” Kaplan told me. “This is the language we grew up with. So we might as well speak in the language we know.”
That’s as elegant a justification for putting out an album in 2015 than you’re likely to hear anywhere else.
For a brief moment, Kaplan considers that the rise of vinyl sales may have something to do with keeping the album from entering obsolescence, before back-tracking and stating that physical artifacts of music “may matter to me, but they don’t matter to the world.”
His bandmate, McNew, is even more skeptical that vinyl’s “comeback” holds the key to saving the music industry, and was quick to say that gambits like Jack White’s menagerie of gimmicks surrounding the 2014 release of Lazaretto – Side A plays from the inside-out, Side B has a matte finish, something about a hologram – aren’t for Yo La Tengo.
“It is kind of like the special Record Store Day release, but they try to make that every release,” McNew said. “Bands did stuff like that in the early 90s. Bands put out singles that were on colored vinyl. Back then it was more of a collector’s item: the first hundred of a pressing of a thousand singles would be on orange vinyl or something. At that point it cost the same, just a couple of bucks. That’s the one that you would want. And i guess nowadays it’s not so much for collectors but just an act of desperation to get people to buy it in the first place.”
Instead, Yo La Tengo make records because, well, that’s what they’ve done for the past 30 years.
Since their 1986 debut Ride the Tiger, which recycled the melodies of Summer of Love psychedelia through the jangly filter of college rock contemporaries like REM – a musical template many indie rockers today still can’t give up -- Yo La Tengo has executed an enormous array of genres effectively, from punk rock to 60s folk to free jazz.
They've been called the “quintessential critics’ band,” less because their sound only endears itself to bespectacled basement-dwelling rock scribes and more because it boasts a deep knowledge of musical history that few bands, active or defunct, can claim. Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, have been the two constants. The fact that the primary lyricist Kaplan has been in a committed relationship throughout the life of the band hasn’t tempered his passion at all. Instead, Yo La Tengo’s songs are born of man perpetually in love -- which, historically-speaking, makes for a pretty good well of inspiration. Beyond Kaplan and Hubley, and in a Spinal Tap-esque twist of fate, Yo La Tengo has had 14 different bass players throughout its career -- though McNew, who has been with the band steadily since 1992, is likely here for keeps.
The band’s most obvious influence is the Velvet Underground, which is largely due to Kaplan's thin, limited, but emotive vocals which are “Reed-y” in more ways than one. Yo La Tengo even portrayed the legendary punk rock prototypes in Mary Harron’s 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol.
But Yo La Tengo more convincingly earns its VU comparisons thanks to its ability to conjure the glorious tension between soft, gentle, melodies and ear-shattering noise. Witness the dissonant, feedback laced guitar solo that pierces the raucous pop melodies of their almost-hit song "Sugarcube" at 1:35 before they are counterintuitively "resolved" by a poignant minor chord and beautiful husband-and-wife vocal harmonies -- harmonies which in any other context would sound unbearably twee and which betray the sweetness that inevitably informs everything the band touches.
"And though I like to act the part of being tough," Kaplan and Hubley sing, "I crumble like a Sugarcube for you." It's pretty much fucking brilliant.
Why the biggest bands need to be more like the smallest
While their releases have been slowly but surely been climbing the charts, it feels less like Yo La Tengo has ascended, and more like the rest of the industry has slowed down to meet them. Yo La Tengo has been chugging alone just fine, living on the kind of modest revenues that other, more historically popular bands, consider to be lower in the age of streaming than what they feel they’re owed by the industry.
“Things have just always moved in sort of slow waves,” Kaplan said. “Sometimes they moved up, and sometimes they moved sideways. There was a point when we did actually start making some money from selling records, because we made them inexpensively and didn’t have huge record company advances. And consequently, [labels] made their money back.
Of late, entrepreneurs like Ryan Leslie have embraced this move away from big marketing advances – a cornerstone of the bloated, cash-rich height of the music industry in the 90s, but something independent bands like Yo La Tengo have long lived with for their entire careers. For Leslie and the artists like 50 Cent and Talib Kweli who are using his platform, this leaner model feels like major “disruption” compared to their experiences with major labels. And to be fair, the technological tools at Leslie’s disposal are genuinely powerful. But as for the smaller marketing budgets, the reliance on secondary and tertiary forms of income beyond royalty revenues, and the expectation that money will be accrued slowly over a longer period of time thanks to the nature of streaming music? These are all realities that artists on smaller labels like Matador have dealt with for decades.
I write a lot about the need to reinvent the record label for the digital age, but what I really mean is that the three major record labels need to reinvent themselves. And they can do it not only by leveraging the technological tools of Silicon Valley, but by embracing the more bootstrapped economic models of smaller record labels.
“We’re very fortunate that people want to pay us to do stuff and that’s great,” Kaplan said. “I think to an extent we’re also fortunate that they don’t want to pay us too much to do what we do.”
As for the widespread dissatisfaction over royalties paid by ad-supported services like Pandora and Spotify’s free tier, Kaplan agrees that the reality of artist compensation today is “frustrating.” He also understands, however, that major labels play a role in keeping payments out of the hands of musicians – and that these musicians need to take some responsibility for the terms to which they’ve agreed.
“You’d have to look high and low to find the person who was forced to sign a contract with a major label at gunpoint,” Kaplan said.
For McNew as well, the word of major record labels might as well be Jupiter.
“It’s so hard for me to compare what i know about Matador and working with them for so long and then, from what i imagine, working with Sony or whatever’s left,” McNew said.
So what’s so great about Matador, other than the fact that it doesn’t actively bankrupt bands by offering huge advances then withholding royalties?
“I like their attitude,” McNew said. “I think they’re smart and funny and tough and really creative as far as the kinds of music that they choose to release.”
Huh. Sounds like what every label, major or otherwise, should aspire to: Find good music and release it to fans. So why does it have to be so hard?
The “grand plan” of Yo La Tengo
Considering how much they talk about how nobody listens to albums anymore, the new digerati must be totally bewildered that a band would release something like Stuff Like That There in 2015. Not only is it an record designed like all of Yo La Tengo’s records to be listened to front-to-back, it’s actually a concept album of new songs, covers, and reworked old tunes that exists as a spiritual sequel to a record the band released 25 years ago called Fakebook. Talk about an album that’s ill-suited to these Internet-infected times: You can’t even type the name into a single digital text field without Google or iOS correcting it to “Facebook.”
But Yo La Tengo needs no grander plan for its release other than the one Kaplan describes to me: “Our record’s coming out at the end of August. We’re going to do shows for the end of the year.” No surprise release like Beyonce, no vinyl gimmickry like Jack White. Just an album that fans like.
And I think fans will indeed like it -- even if it doesn’t continue Yo La Tengo’s six-album streak of ever-higher chart placement. The charms of Stuff Like That There were slower to reveal themselves to me than any record since 2003’s Summer Sun –the only Yo La Tengo album I might leave on the shelf if a fire broke out at my apartment – or, to update the metaphor for today, if I’d maxed out Spotify’s “Offline Listening” selections on my phone. But that’s mostly because I tend to enjoy Yo La Tengo’s louder indulgences, and Stuff Like That There is an unrepentantly soft album. So my estimation largely comes down to personal taste, which means little considering that Yo La Tengo’s fanbase is as diverse as the band’s influences.
And even still, there are highlights here that other bands would kill for. With the right cocktail of whiskey and loneliness to accompany it, opener “My Heart’s Not In It” can probably reduce me to tears. Elsewhere, the album’s reworked version of I Can Feel the Heart’s classic “Deeper Into Movies,” unearths elegant melodies that in the original are buried beneath waves of distortion.
As for the future, neither Kaplan nor McNew see much reason to change course.
“I still think it’s amazing,” McNew said, “and i don’t think a moment goes by that I don’t think about how lucky and happy I am that people love the things that we do, and that people like us and stick with us.”
You mean to say if you write good songs, tour your ass off, and don’t spend six figures making a record, you can have a long, happy, and lucrative career? What a disruptive and revolutionary thought.