Under the Apple Tree
The hype, which has gotten pretty huge at this point, is true: the new Fiona Apple is a fascinating and unique document that also happens to be a damned good listen, every bit as adventurous and playful and daring and brimming with its own personality as everybody says it is; the title track by itself is worth your fourteen clams, should the album ever be released. I am as surprised as everybody else is about the album's high quality, because I really hated Apple's debut, and her public bitching about her label woes shouldn't earn her any sympathy from even her most dedicated fans: if she didn't read her contract, or have someone explain it to her, then she deserves what she got. Nobody forced her to take what I'd guess was a rather huge advance. The title of the follow-up is such an easy target that we must, despite ourselves, decline to punish it further.
Like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Extraordinary Machine has a backstory from which it will be forever inseparable, and one similar to the former's widely-retold case. Per reports, Fiona Apple's label doesn't think they'll recoup on their investment if they release this album, and are consequently declining to release it. Unless one is a superfan, one rather sees the label's point: what with the radio and retail markets being in the condition they're in, an album like this isn't likely to reach far beyond the already-converted, or at least won't do so during the fiscal year following its release. Over time, who knows? But the big labels aren't interested in the life of a release; they doubt whether such a proposition has meaning, and they're not without their reasons. Some people believe in a romanticized past when labels took the long view and invested money in artists in the hopes that the eventual result would be the finding of that artist's true audience, presumably one broad enough to pay dividends. I can only think of two labels in the rock age whose track record ever fit this bill — Reprise and A&M; if you insist, maybe Asylum under David Geffen's tutelage — and am highly suspicious of any music-business history that proposes an historical period during which labels cared more about Great Art than about the Bottom Line.
And no-one should blame them. They are big businesses; their responsibilities are to their shareholders; it's how capitalism works. To be angry about the way the major labels do business while simultenously patronizing (for example) McDonald's, or Verizon, or Mobil Oil: this is hypocrisy of a rather high order. Don't like the major labels? Downloading their releases while refusing to buy them won't help; to change the situation, you'd have to stop listening to the kind of fuel in which the major labels traffic. This requires an exciting and demanding opening of the mind, one which I can imagine Apple's fans undergoing; they seem like an enterprising bunch with a great and beautiful passion for the music they love. But one should beware of praising the fruit while condemning the tree. Fiona Apple, after all, could not have recorded Extraordinary Machine nor its two predecessors without enormous infusions of major label cash, and her fanbase didn't form in small clubs or on mailing lists. They saw her on MTV and they liked her, and then they became fans.* No shame in that! But we ought to be honest about it. The behemoth is what made Fiona Apple. Without that behemoth, she'd either be an indie-label artist selling 15,000 records at most, touring constantly just to survive, or else, just as likely and probably more so, she'd have long ago thrown in the towel.
Am I "defending" Sony's decision? No; I think it's horrible that popular music should be entirely beholden to the whims of rich men in boardrooms. But I don't pretend that Sony is doing anything other than what the public is paying them to do: filter out the interesting stuff and make with the common denominator. When people begin buying more independent records, the major labels will change their tune. They did it in 1991, and they'd done it before that, too. The only way to change a big business is to spend your money on what you'd like them to do. They will follow the scent. Whether that's a scent one wishes to spray is, of course, a question for some other day.
*I have great affection for Fiona Apple's fans, however, precisely because they perceive in Apple a good artist who somehow slipped through the cracks into the spotlight; they have taken Apple's success and run with it, rallying around their candidate with verve and spirit. I am guessing that most of them have long since given up on MTV.
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