Few bands have found success on their own terms like Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo. Their spacious yet noisy melodies were just grimy enough that the band was able to ride the grunge wave a bit in the 90s, even scoring a slot on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour. But their unique style, constructed from wrecked, reworked bits of rock and roll history, also captured the attention of rock critics and record collectors the world over. They were architects of indie rock before there was a name for it, helping Matador Records become one of the most recognizable and culturally-significant labels of the past two decades. And despite having a lucrative career spanning 30 years, few could argue that they ever “sold out.”
But as Erin Griffith wrote, it’s getting harder and harder for bands to avoid selling their songs to the highest bidder. With the music industry dying and hardly anyone buying albums, more and more bands rely on licensing deals to stay afloat. And while “selling out” doesn’t have the same stigma it had in the 90s, what with the economic realities facing musicians, that doesn’t mean you can’t have standards about who uses your music.
This was one of the topics covered by Yo La Tengo’s lead singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan during a chat today at Ohio University in Athens. Talking with Josh Antonuccio, a professor at the college’s School of Media Arts and Sciences, Kaplan offered a few words of wisdom for navigating the music industry without losing your shirt or your soul:
1. Don’t license songs for commercials. Write new ones
Yo La Tengo’s songs have appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and even NASCAR. But Kaplan doesn’t consider it selling out because instead of letting companies use existing songs, which were written for fans, not brands, they offered to write new songs specifically for the commercials. This also allows the band to be a bit more permissive when it comes to what brands they work with. On NASCAR, he says, “It’s not a commercial for napalm. We all enjoy barbecue. We all enjoy NASCAR… potentially.”
2. Know the difference between an independent film and an “independent” film
Yo La Tengo has licensed a number of its songs for movies. But he says to manage your expectations when working on films made by the “indie” arms of huge movie companies. Kaplan discovered this when his band wrote the soundtrack to the 2009 film “Adventureland.” The film was distributed by Miramax Films, but Walt Disney is Miramax’s parent company.
“From a business standpoint, a bureaucracy standpoint, it’s not fun,” Kaplan says of working with large media companies. They can muscle you around when it suits them, then turn around and act like a small entity if painted into a corner. “Every time they need it to be independent, they say, ‘Oh we’re just Miramax.’ Whatever they want to be at that moment.”
3. Think of compromises as challenges
Before Yo La Tengo began prepping their newest album, “Fade,” they straight-up asked their label, Matador, “‘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, 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.” (The traditional album route paid off: Debuting at number 26, “Fade” was the band’s highest-charting album yet).
Kaplan feels the same way about writing songs for movies. “It’s an interesting challenge to write music, and put your heart into it, and have someone say, ‘I don’t think it’s really working,’ or ‘We need it to be 7 seconds shorter,’ and you have to rework. Most of the time we like the 2nd version better.”
Yo La Tengo will perform tonight at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, OH
[Image via Yo La Tengo on Facebook]