At the height of Wilco's legendary battle with its former label, Reprise Records, Jeff Tweedy and his bandmates made a crucial decision to stream the entire contents of their upcoming album on the band's Web site.
It was a gutsy move, especially back in 2001, but it worked. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became one of the most celebrated albums of the last decade.
"If people are downloading our music, they're listening to it," Tweedy explained during an interview with Wired in 2004. He stuck to his guns even after unauthorized copies of the band's follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, began seeping out through the tubes. "The Internet is like radio for us," Tweedy said.
Nathan Reusch, co-founder of Kansas City label the Record Machine, thinks a lot like Tweedy when it comes to the state of music in the digital age.
The only big difference is that he's part of a label, not a band. And he's not giving away the label's albums online just yet — though he would if he could.
"I'd love to make something like advertising-supported free downloads, but there's just no support for that yet," Reusch says. "It's tough to be a label our size — you kind of have to go with the flow of the industry."
As he sees it, smaller labels lack Wilco's clout and capital; they can't buck the system. Plus, Reusch says, the costs for a label to make music haven't gone down much since he and two friends — Mike Russo and Richard Robinett — started the label in the spring of 2003. (A fourth partner, Mark Harrison, came aboard about six months ago.)
Reusch is convinced that the traditional record label is quickly going the way of the record store and that the decline of one may be hastening the decline of the other.
"When people started downloading music, it's only natural that they'd start listening to more music than they could afford," Reusch says. "People can't afford their own tastes."
The concept presents a moral dilemma for Reusch. Though he's a big believer in the freedom and choice that downloads have given back to music fans, he's in the business of helping musicians. But sometimes help comes with a price tag.
"It's almost swung the other way. Bands don't think they need a label at all," he says. "That's like throwing the baby out with the bath water. By getting rid of the bad stuff, you're throwing out all the good things a label can give you, like promotions and marketing and distribution."
That left Reusch with a choice: Let the Internet win or build a label that provides a band with everything it can't get on its own or from a bigger company.
"The reason we started the label was to build a community," he says. "I saw a lot of local bands get signed to labels but not get a lot of the attention they needed or deserved. Getting your songs on MySpace or iTunes will only get you so far."
In the Record Machine's case, the idea of "community" is a pretty broad concept. Once the label signed a few bands, Reusch and his partners started meeting other bands throughout the Midwest that fit well into the label's mold, even though the bands weren't from KC.
"We originally started out trying to be a Kansas City label," he says. "But the more we did [the label thing], the more we signed bands outside of town."
Local groups the James Dean Trio (the label's first act), Namelessnumberheadman and Baby Birds Don't Drink Milk have all worked with the label.
But Record Machine bands such as State Bird, Every Gentle Air, Cheyenne, Colonel Rhodes, and the Winston Jazz Routine (which releases its new album, Sospiri, in July) hail from Ohio, Oklahoma and Illinois.
The Record Machine bands' geographical diversity may have something to do with the fact that Reusch is the only label partner who hasn't left Kansas City. Several months ago, the other three relocated to New York City, forcing the business to operate long distance.
"Kansas City's finally becoming somewhere that's making a name for itself, musicwise," he says.
Besides, Reusch says, the reason he's in the music business has very little to do with making a hugely successful career for himself.
"I don't care about making a ton of money — it's about creating something," he says. "The first time I saw one of our CDs in its packaging, I was like, 'Wow, I did this.'"
So maybe he's not giving away the entire label's catalog for free. Maybe he loves holding the finished product in his hands too much. Or maybe it's because he needs to make enough money to help musicians do what they can't on their own.
In any case, it's a concept even Tweedy could get behind.