Billy Corgan is the lead guitarist and singer for Smashing Pumpkins, one of the best known alternative rock bands which broke through in the 1990’s. Their 1993 album Siamese Dream is widely recognized as one of the best and most influential albums of the decade.
After the phenomenal concert by Billy Corgan and the Spirits in the Sky at Muddy Waters in Santa Barbara on 8/28/09, Corgan was casually chatting with fans outside. Amidst various random questions and people asking him to sign things, some of us in the crowd managed to have a conversation about the music business. Here is a transcript of how it went down:
Jeff Moehlis: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Billy Corgan: I don’t know, because in the old days it was just, get your shit together and tour, and now I think that’s a complete waste of time. I think if you go recording first, you know, you end up being sort of a victim to the pitchfork[.com] culture, of “you know, that’s really precious.” I think the lack of bands of great width and power says something about the ground level. When we came in at the ground level, we had to be able to play. And I don’t think that exists anymore, so I don’t know.
I mean, your first album could be hailed as a masterpiece, you can play, and there’s forty guys with beards [in the audience], but it’s not going to translate to Iowa.
JM: I’m from Iowa, by the way.
BC: That was always the Pumpkins’ thing. Yeah, things like The Strokes and bands like that, that might work in New York, but it doesn’t work in fucking Iowa. That’s the thing. You can’t really truly succeed in America. You see a lot of English bands that come and play New York, Philly, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, LA, they play like eight cities and then they get the fuck out. Because they can’t go through the heartland.
I think it’s really difficult. Honestly, I don’t know. I think, sometimes, well, if I was eighteen, what would I do?
I think at the end of the day, talent is always the great arbiter. Every system is different. But at the end of the day, it should be that the talented wins. Right now the mediocre seem to be winning. You know, the ones that… if everything’s niche, then you have to somebody who kind of basically attracts four niches to add your thing up. Or be really non-offensive. And I don’t know how you do rock and roll and be non-offensive. Coldplay mastered that [everyone laughs]. I think they’re really good, but I’m saying, they mastered the art of feeling a little dangerous without being dangerous at all.
JM: I asked Cris Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets the same question, and he was like, “Become a dentist. Look at what I did, and don’t do it.” So you have a slightly more optimistic answer, at least.
BC: At one point, they were signed to a major, weren’t they?
JM: Yeah, for a short time, and then [Cris] really got on the drugs.
BC: But even then, at least he was able to work with a system that gave him an opportunity. Now, the opportunities are so ephemeral. I remember reading this article about the band that had this super fast Guitar Hero song, DragonForce. I mean, like 30 million kids are trying to play this super fast song, and I’m reading articles about them, saying they’re the fastest band on the planet, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to …
BC: Well, it’s not about sales. Not to be too business-ey, but, why would you go to Wendy’s over McDonalds? Well, at some point you made a decision that it’s more consistent with what you want in terms of what
you want, plus quality. It’s a combo. And once you’re sold on that, unless you have three bad experiences, you keep going back.
For musical artists, the concept should be similar. But in those cases you’re not developing loyalty to the artist, you’re developing loyalty to a concept, or to a moment. Any business, if you can’t string together a series of moments, once they get bored with that moment, they’ll just go to someone else who’s faster, or funnier.
JM: Do you think albums are dead?
BC: Yeah. I think there’s a reason to have things collected. But if you really think about post-Sgt. Pepper, there was a good rosy period there of really strong records. What I’m saying is, I can’t think of one musical artist that put together a string of that level of quality of albums.
unknown: I thought Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a great album.
JM: OK, I’m not going to kiss ass here.
BC: The Wilco album [Yankee Hotel Foxtrot] is considered a great album. It will go down as a classic. But even then, again it didn’t reach… like, Dark Side of the Moon reached Iowa. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did not necessarily reach Iowa. And that’s sort of my thing. It’s not that the mainstream American public has some sort of finger on the pulse. But the great works of art tend to bring people collectively together. So I’m really suspicious when things are successful [only] in their sub-genres. It’s not to take away from them artistically, but something’s getting lost in the translation. Either the systems aren’t there to get them translated, or it’s just become so niche driven, that a band can’t… in essence, they’re going to lose what they have to widen. And then, because there’s no loyalty there, it’s like, there’s just no translation.
[Pink] Floyd, over fifteen years, they were able to build 70,000 people willing to sit in a stadium to listen to them play fucking super-art rock, with an occasional hit song. You don’t see that [anymore]. Why, in thirty-plus years, has no one else perfected that? I mean, if you want to talk about artistic credibility, Radiohead had all the artistic credibility in the world to be able to do that, and yet, they’re not able to do that. And that’s nothing against them, it’s says something about the audience being no longer interested at that level, or they’re not able to draw the mainstream into the system.
unknown: What do you think is the next step for the music industry, in general? I mean, it seems to be pretty much in decline.
BC: Well, I think you have two music industries, now. The labels are essentially going to be catalogs, and sell another version of Sgt. Pepper’s, or whatever, and then you’ll still have kind of a segment that’s interacting with new things. But, I don’t think you’ll see [the old way of] business anymore. I just don’t see how that’s possible. No one’s going to invest the resources necessary to develop artists. So artists are only going to work if they’re able to navigate themselves through youtube, plus, you know, this bloggerland and this bloggerland. I think the chance of anyone getting through that is so small. I’m suspicious because every generation up until the late nineties or early 2000’s had basically produced ten to twenty great bands, that you can [snaps] reel off, you know? Like if you said alternative eighties, you’d be like New Order, and The Cure, and Depeche Mode, I mean you can go on. You don’t have to think really hard.
[BC asked to sign something.]
BC: Jethro Tull’s second album.
JM: Stand Up?
BC: That’s what’s on. Exactly.
[The next night, Corgan and the Spirits in the Sky cover “A New Day Yesterday,” the lead track from Jethro Tull’s Stand Up, at their Long Beach show.]
unknown: How are things different now, with youtube, and the blogs and all that? It’s not the same as it used to be. People can write shit the next day, you know?
BC: Think about the first show of a tour. Say you have a bad night, the reviews come out, the fans all go on there, whatever, and everyone says it sucks, by the time of the third show, the tour’s dead.
unknown: Most of the people didn’t think that it sucked, but the people who thought that it sucked are outspoken.
BC: But let’s look at it differently. Maybe rock and roll enjoyed an exemption that other forms of entertainment didn’t have. Because movies have had that same pressure, Broadway has had that same pressure, so maybe now rock and roll has grown up where it has the same pressure as Broadway. If you don’t hit it ground running from the first…
unknown: It shouldn’t be like that, though.
BC: But saying something shouldn’t be like it doesn’t make it so.
Maybe [rock] is past its maturation point and now it is strictly a business, and either it works or it doesn’t. Why do people go see fucking Cats, you know what I mean, still?
unknown: Because it’s amazing! [everyone laughs]
BC: But I’m saying, maybe if an album drops, or a band hits the road and that don’t get that immediate “this is awesome” reaction, then maybe it deserves to fucking go down in flames.
unknown: I think there’s so many critics out there….
BC: I know, but that’s what I’m saying. It seems counter-intuitive to artistic expression, but that’s the system. Look, you can all sit here and say all that, but you’re not going to go home and change it.
unknown: I’m sure that everyone here is going to go home and talk about how awesome this show was. So that’s going to change something, that’s going to change a little bit.
BC: That would be great. We call it a small fire, it’s a nice small fire. It may be that seventeen small fires eventually add up to something meaningful. But the thing is, you can’t tell me, no manager can tell me, no record executive can tell me what small fires to set, and what actually adds up to anything. And that’s the problem. This [mini-tour] might go down as super-legendary, like, “Oh my God, it was so awesome, you wish you were there,” and tickets will sell for a hundred dollars on eBay, blah, blah, blah, or it could down as, like, “What was that? They did what?”
unknown: So is the last of your shows, or are you going to be doing anything else?
BC: We might play one more show in October, possibly San Francisco area. It’s like part of a thingy, not our show, like a big bill of people.
JM: Are you planning to stay in LA longer?
BC: Hard to say.
unknown: [with something to sign for friend] Can you write, “I love you, Adrian,” or like, “Hi, Adrian”? She loves you!
BC: [declines] I’ve heard “I love you” before from women, and it never worked out. [everyone laughs] I’m going to go this way… [BC bails]
You might also enjoy reading the interview with Mark Tulin which includes his thoughts on working with Billy Corgan, posted here.