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Spoon survives and thrives in the new music economy

Few bands have navigated the profound digital disruption of the music industry quite as well as Spoon. After being dropped by a major label in the late 1990s, the group began recording for an independent label, which led to 20 years of commercial success and acclaim. Their story is a testament to the new realities of what it means to be a successful band. Christopher Booker has the story.

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  • Christopher Booker:

    Even if you have not set foot in a record store in 20 years, you have invariably heard the music of Spoon, in commercials, on television, in movies, or maybe even during presidential candidate Pete Buttiegieg's debate warm up. Few bands have navigated the profound digital disruption of the music industry quite as well as Spoon. Their story is a testament to the new realities of what it means to be a successful band. Founded in 1993 by singer and songwriter Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, Spoon's story almost stopped as it was starting, the band was famously dropped by Elektra Records in 1998. But rather than calling it quits, they kept going, recording on their own without a label.

  • Britt Daniel:

    Once a week I would go call my manager and lawyer and say, "Anybody want to put out that record?" And they're like, "No, what do you think about changing the band name or, you know, starting a new band?" So it really probably made more sense for us to start over.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But in hindsight, it didn't. Merge records, an independent label based in Durham, North Carolina released "Girls Can Tell" in 2001. It sold more copies than both their previous records combined. What followed has been a near 20 year run of commercial success and critical acclaim. But Spoon's path was markedly different than that of those who have come before. Nineteen-ninety nine, the year after the band was dropped, was the high water mark of the music industry of old. Adjusted for inflation, it made nearly $22 billion dollars in retail revenue. Last year it was just under $10 billion.The story is familiar by now, the advent of digital technology everything from Napster, iTunes, Spotify and Pandora changed the economic landscape of music.

  • Britt Daniel:

    The word is out that there's not really a lot of money made on making records anymore. There's money made at the very, very top. You know? But it's not it's certainly not the same thing as when we started.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Radio has changed as well. Consolidation and the closure of college radio stations have decreased the number of avenues for independent artists like Spoon to make it on the air waves. So, Daniel says, the band to think differently about how to forge a career.

  • Britt Daniel:

    There was not that that avenue for exposure and we weren't getting paid a lot of money and so someone wanted to give us five thousand dollars to put a song on a TV show. That's seems like a good deal.

  • Christopher Booker:

    While Spoon's licensing list is as lengthy as the end credits of a feature film….it's reflective of a broader shift in attitudes towards licensing music…..but it's not as if Spoon forged entirely new ground. This Rice Krispies jingle from the early 60's comes by way of a very young Rolling Stones.

  • Mick Jagger:

    (Singing) Rice Krispies!

  • Christopher Booker:

    Still, there was once a fierce debate about whether it was okay for a serious musician to license their music this way. Lou Reed was widely criticized for allowing Walk on the Wild side to be used in this mid-80's Honda scooter campaign.

  • Lou Reed:

    Hey, don't settle for walkin.'

  • Christopher Booker:

    But a quick dive into YouTube reveals Reed was far from alone. And many more have at one time or another licensed their music for advertisements, television and movies. Something that was famously criticized by Neil Young in his 1988 song "This notes for you."

  • Neil Young:

    (Singing) Ain't signing for Pepsi, ain't signing for Coke.

  • Christopher Booker:

    His song released right around the time George, Paul and Ringo were suing Nike over its use of the Beatle's song Revolution.

  • John Lennon:

    (Singing) Say you want a revolution.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Paul McCartney explained his position in this 1989 interview.

  • Paul McCartney:

    We never did do commercials with the Beatles. We had lots of big offers from soft drinks companies, you know, to do stuff obviously, but we always thought, no, it kind of spoils it, just takes that little edge off it.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This feeling did not extend to McCartney's solo work — he teamed up with Visa just a year later to promote his World Tour and recently, he allowed his song "Great Day" to be used in advertisement for a credit card.

  • Lisa Simpson:

    I am sorry, but as a filmmaker I have to face the truth.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Daniel says despite the wide use of Spoon's material, it has not impacted the band's approach.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Was their an initial conversation about where your music goes and what it's licensed to?

  • Britt Daniel:

    Oh yeah, we've got to approve every one of them. You know we don't write the songs for those uses. The album still means something. It is it is a moment and you will never be able to write songs exactly like you did during that moment when that album was made. When we first started out I was writing songs to that'll go over well in bars you know? So when we started spoon the big goal was to get that weekend gig at a better place.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Spoon spent the past summer on the road – supporting the release of their greatest hits album…Everything Hits at Once….. proof enough that In the new music economy – while licensing money is nice, it's the gigs that pay the bills.

  • Christopher Booker:

    What advice do you give bands that are 20 years younger.

  • Britt Daniel:

    Every now and then I will get an artist who says How did you do what you do. And I usually tell them to do it for yourself to do it locally to make to make and be in your own scene and then other things will come to you.

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