Yo La Tengo is a band that, for many, symbolizes indie rock as both a genre and a worldview. DJ Jesse Jarnow’s even written a book on the band in relation to indie rock. Earlier this week singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan appeared at Ohio University where he discussed such topics as how Yo La Tengo has maintained their credibility over the years even as they created music for commercials by major corporate entities.
Jason Heller, writing for The A.V. Club, stated that Yo La Tengo:
“has become one of indie rock’s most enduring, endearing success stories—if musical success is tallied in terms of survival and integrity rather than hits and ubiquity.”
Yo La Tengo – “Is That Enough”
Pando Daily’s David Holmes gathered a “few words of wisdom for navigating the music industry without losing your shirt or your soul”:
“Don’t license songs for commercials. Write new ones”
Yo La Tengo has had lots of music in commercials but instead of licensing the songs they release for their fans, they write new music for requests from entities ranging from Coca-Cola to NASCAR.
On their blog, the band claims that when Coke came around, they “looked to the career of Barry Manillow for guidance” and so began their “Sell Out.”
“Know the difference between an independent film and an ‘independent’ film”
Just because they call it indie doesn’t mean it shares the values of what some consider a genre and others consider a philosophic take on the world. If it’s owned by a big corporation, then it’s ultimately bound to a non-indie perspective.
“’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.'”
“Think of compromises as challenges”
This is a really useful perspective for any artist. Of course, it helps if you’re working with people whose values you share. For example, before starting on Fade, Yo La Tengo asked folks at Matador Records:
“‘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.”
Kaplan said that goes for writing songs for movies as well because sometimes things just need “to be 7 seconds shorter.”