If You Want Something, Ask (How Wilco Got Paid 2x For “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)

You have to ask.

If there’s something you want, you just have to ask.

Wilco – the band – got paid not once, but two times (TWO!) for their breakout album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Both paychecks came because they had the nerve to ask.  

The first time the band got paid was in the form of an advance. They told AOL/Time-Warner, their label, they’d make a great record as a follow-up to their previous two. Warner saw how the band was building on their successes and obliged with the investment. 

When Wilco showed up with the completed record in hand, however, Warner didn’t think it was good enough. 

If a record label pays for a record but then decides it can’t sell enough copies to warrant its marketing and release, it can choose to “shelve it.” All of the artist’s work, at that point, is for naught. Wilco knew this, appropriately feared this future, and asked for what they wanted. 

“If you guys are firing us from the label and shelving our record since you think it won’t sell anyway, can we at least take the recording with us? I mean, it’s already a loss to you, it would mean something to us if we could just keep it.”

Warner said some version of, “Ugh. Are you still here? Sure.”

Since Wilco was generating a lot of buzz, they received a ton of offers to market and distribute this already completed album. In the wave of offers, they received one from Nonesuch records. 

Record labels are typically structured as the headline brand, in this case AOL/Time-Warner, and then a ladder of subsidiaries representing various mini-labels with mini-corporate budgets (profit and loss statements), meant to serve the major label.

Wilco had been originally advanced and then dropped by Reprise, a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. Now, the best offer they had for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was coming from Nonesuch. Who just happened to be… a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. 

Nonesuch got the deal. Wilco got the money. The album would go down in history and cement Wilco’s place on the indie/dad-rock/post-Americana map. 

They asked for the advance. They made the record they wanted. They got fired. They asked to take the album with them. They got (re)hired. The record – the one they believed – in sold. And it didn’t just sell, it continues to sell.  

Ask. If you believe in it, it just might be your Yankee Hotel Foxtrot moment.  

Check out the Chicago Tribune coverage of the story from 20 years ago, “Wilco’s ‘Foxtrot’ Sage All Too Typical In Age Of Corporate Music.”

And for good measure, here’s “I am Trying to Break Your Heart.”

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