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The Brown Political Review is a non-partisan political publication that seeks to promote ideological diversity. All of the views reflected in BPR’s content are views held by authors and not reflective of the views held by the wider organization or the Executive Board.

The Broken Music Industry – BPR Interviews: Will Sheff

Will Sheff is a musician who is best known as the frontman of the critically-acclaimed indie rock band Okkervil River. The group’s 2005 album Black Sheep Boy was recognized as one of the 200 best albums of the 2000s by Pitchfork. The band’s most recent album is In the Rainbow Rain, which was released in 2018. Last year, Okkervil River turned its archival live album digital subscription series A Dream in the Dark into a physical 4-LP box set. In January of this year the band created a Patreon page where it will release exclusive unreleased tracks and live albums.

Augustus Bayard: What was the indie rock landscape like when you first started out with Okkervil River?

Will Sheff: Bands would have a van, drive through a lot of college towns, and have a good deal with a label that gave fifty percent of the money to the group. When I first started out with Okkervil River, that was my goal–to operate in that underground landscape. It took us a long time to get successful and there was a lot of banging our heads against the wall before we finally–luckily–got better. Back in Okkervil River’s early days there was a conventional wisdom that if you hit the road in a van, worked really hard and made a lot of sacrifices, you’d build up an audience by the sweat of your brow. 

At the time, we had a fifty-fifty deal with our label, Jagjaguwar. This meant that after they broke even on our records, which were cheap to make, we got fifty percent of the money. This was back before the advent of streaming services, so we didn’t need to sell a ton of CDs at $10 to $15 a pop to make pretty decent money. In fact, the amount of money I was making in a van when we were splitting everything from a tour was really good money. In some ways, it was better money than I make now. So it was a good setup and it was really exciting and fun.

AB: How did the music industry change after that era when Okkervil River was starting out? 

WS: At the time [the turn of the millennium, roughly] there was a lot of pretentiousness–for every Cat Power or Will Oldham there were twenty bands that had no melodies and no choruses, and listeners were just supposed to like them because their music seemed serious. This was boring! So when the indie bands first started to incorporate overt overtures to pop music, people were so happy to hear music that was really appealing. That set the stage for Modest Mouse breaking out and “Float On” becoming a big pop single. So suddenly there was a shift away from this art-for-art’s-sake thing, which was really cool but a little bit tedious, into this pop-indie thing, which was really fun but also opened the door for a certain shallowness. That was when, I think, ideas about “selling out” started to loosen up and suddenly you had Jay-Z at a Grizzly Bear show, or Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend getting a writer credit on a Beyoncé song, or Justin Vernon of Bon Iver singing with Kanye West. The indie rockers had become like the ‘minors’ of pop music, where certain people would get drafted to the ‘major leagues.’ 

Right at the same time [the late 2000s to early 2010s, roughly], Spotify was getting popular. File-sharing and Napster had never really taken that big of a bite out of indie rock because indie fans were really devoted and bought the records, but streaming just became so much easier than buying an album. The music business had kind of sealed their own fate by letting CD prices keep creeping up and up until they were like $17.99. The convenience got everybody to start streaming. That was when artists started losing money [because streaming services pay artists so little compared to CD sales]. Suddenly artists were scrambling, just scrambling, to make ends meet, and record sales, which used to be big money, became nothing, nothing at all. Think of any band in the indie world that you love and I can pretty much guarantee you they don’t make any money off of record sales–or off of streaming.

AB: How did musicians respond to streaming taking away so much of their income?

WS: There was a sort of consensus that touring was going to become a better money-maker than streaming. In theory, touring could be a better way to make money, but in practice everybody had the same idea at the same time, so suddenly there were too many live performances. The issue was exacerbated by the rise of music festivals. People began to think, “Why am I gonna go see twenty bands come through my town every year when I can put on my faux appropriated Indian headdress and go to Coachella and get high and see all those bands play forty-five minute to two hour sets in the span of three days.” And that really started to hurt [every artist and band]. Also, if you’re a DJ or you’re a singer-songwriter and don’t have a lot of members in your band, you can stand to make some good money. But if you have six members, somebody who sells merchandise, and a tour manager, then you’ve got eight people who you want to pay well, plus you’ve got to get them hotel rooms and plane tickets, and rent a van and a backline. You can end up in a situation where you’re not really making very much money at all. That’s true for a lot of bands I know, including my own. Sometimes I come back from a tour having made money and sometimes I come back from a tour having lost thousands of dollars.

Beyond touring, some people go on Patreon, some people try to compose music for film and TV, and some people become music teachers, among other things.  People come up with all kinds of ways to stay in the music business. It’s a difficult situation right now. Also, a dirty little secret about indie rock: it was always very white and very middle-class. A lot of the biggest acts in indie rock come from big family money. So those people kind of coasted along. 

AB: What do you think the root of that “difficult situation” is?

WS: I think–and this is not just true of indie rock, it’s true of the world–that we need to get into a position where the ‘little people’ have a lot more power. We shouldn’t just hand over complete and total control of our world to corporations because we now have all these huge monopolies who can set the rules however the fuck they want to. These tools that the corporations are giving us to listen to music, or make music, or distribute music, they’re so dang easy to use. You have to really go out of your way to [engage with music] in a different way, so that’s a real barrier.

AB: Can individual music consumers change how they consume music–by, say, cutting back on their use of streaming services and buying more albums–to create a more equitable music industry?

WS: If everybody started using Bandcamp tomorrow and cancelled their Spotify and Apple Music subscriptions, it would be huge for artists. Is it gonna happen? Absolutely not. Yes, from a moral standpoint, you should try to be mindful of what you consume–I’m talking about environment stuff or the arts or the fashion industry. Trying to be mindful about what you consume is important, but the emphasis on it is also kind of a ploy of big business. They pay a lot of money to make you feel like it’s your personal responsibility so that you don’t have to look at all the shit that they fucked up, because then you might correctly assess that it’s their fault and they’re the ones that need to pay. So we could all become saints overnight, and we could all become highly ethical consumers overnight, and we certainly should try, but we shouldn’t count on that because it’s not gonna happen. 

It’s really, really difficult because we live in a system that is inherently exploitative. It’s not just in music. Music is a tiny little speck of dust in how deeply broken and exploitative our modern capitalist system is. You’d have to be some kind of a saint, completely disconnected from everything, to feel like you’re not paying into a system that is predatory. So I don’t want to shame people or anything like that and I do think the onus is on the government to regulate these corporations, but, yeah, it would be amazing if people want to practice a certain amount of mindful, ethical consumption of everything. They definitely should do that.

AB: A few months ago Spotify founder Daniel Ek said that “some artists that used to do well in the past may not do well in this future landscape, where you can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough. The artists today that are making it realise that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.” Is that a fair expectation to have of artists?

WS: He phrases it in a way that makes it sound so utopian and beautiful, as these tech bros usually do, but he might as well be saying, “The old restaurants of the past that served carefully sourced ingredients and lovingly prepared meals are just not going to be able to keep up with McDonald’s.”

The model he’s talking about, that he makes sound so nice, can actually be nice. My Patreon is nice. I like the close communication with my fans. I like being able to make work regularly and put it out there for them. But it’s behind the paywall and I think that they understand that if they want me to make three artworks a month for them, they’re gonna be sketches. They’re not gonna have $30,000 budgets like an album. They’re not gonna be something that I have to spend eight months working on. I’m only human and I’m trying to make albums too. It kind of feels a little bit like a patch of farmland that is being worked and worked and worked until the topsoil is all gone.

I like prolificacy, but it took Leonard Cohen fifteen years to write “Hallelujah,” which is the closest thing to a standard that we’ve had probably in fifty years. That’s a song that people will  remember about the human race a long time from now. Regardless of the fact that it’s an overexposed song, it’s a truly great song. Took him 15 years to write it. Where is the room for that in the Daniel Ek schema?

AB: You once said, “I don’t necessarily think that business and art have to be separate from each other. Maybe I should be ashamed to be a capitalist in that way. But there is a part of me that likes the good, old-fashioned idea that’s like, ‘I have a thing you’re going to like, will you give me a fair price for it?’ And I think I hold up my end of the bargain.” What does the modern music industry have to do to, as you say, “give you a fair price”? 

WS: I think streaming services could start by charging more money than they already do. It’s really messed up how cheap they are. When you reflect upon the fact that we used to pay $10, $15 for an album–you know $15 is too much, in my opinion–and suddenly we’re paying $10 a month or whatever it is for every single album, it just feels really messed up.

Another thing that’s really messed up is that if you listen to nothing but Okkervil River all day and you have a Spotify subscription, none of the money that you’re paying gets to me. That money goes to Spotify and they divide it up in this black box and basically most of it goes to the artists that get the most streams. That’s fucked up. If you listen to Okkervil River, I should get the money you pay to listen to Okkervil River. That seems so incredibly obvious to me.

Now this is entering into the realm of joking around here, but if the streaming services want to just underwrite studios to where they’re free then they can keep things going the way they are. [They could institute a system where] if you want your work on Spotify you just put in your name in the request form and they’ll schedule you to come in and work with a producer in a studio and it’s on them. [Laughs] The fact of the matter is it costs me a ton of money to make a record and right now I can’t even make a record because I don’t have the money. So I don’t understand why I’m getting paid so little for something that costs me so much to make. It’s a broken system. So I don’t know. I think they could charge more, I think that the money could be given to the artists that people are actually listening to, and I think that there could be a hell of a lot more transparency. Those are some starter things.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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