With the release of Oceania on his own record label, Martha’s Music, Billy Corgan is entering into a new phase. He is no longer a slave to the corporate machinery that has encapsulated his entire career to date. The freedom has resulted in his best-reviewed release ever.
As one of the five heads on the hydra of Grunge, Corgan holds a place that few musicians can relate with. He’s a self-proclaimed “studio rat” that managed to hit it big. And then with radio’s help, he hit it real big. Corgan understands the power of all that radio airplay in the early-’90s contributing to the success of The Smashing Pumpkins. He carries a reverence for radio stations and personalities that shows through in his conversations, whether it be the great stations in Chicago he grew up on, or the ones that support his work today.
It was this connection with radio, coupled with his message of artists creating their own identity and making albums vs. hit songs that made Corgan a perfect keynote speaker at Michele Clark’s Sunset Sessions Rock on Saturday, June 23. With the amount of new artists at the weekend showcase, Corgan’s experiences and insight were well received and an invaluable contribution to the event.
The entire keynote, hosted by Matt Pinfield, is posted here with highlighted sections noted should you want to skip around. Also, scroll all the way to the bottom to hear Oceania in its entirety, as introduced by Billy Corgan.
1:00 – Corgan discusses getting back to making an album: “I just wanted to get back to a place of feeling a direct connection between the song I was making and the person who may or may not be listening. Having run the gauntlet from nothingness to indie to major label success to, at the end of the ’90s, a different brass coming into what was then EMI who decided to take the label in an urban or electronic direction, so suddenly, even though we were the biggest band they ever created, we were no longer in their picture. So having been through all of that, different bands, solo stuff, I just needed to get back to a place where I write a song and see what somebody on the other end thinks of that.”
2:15 – Discussing releasing songs via the Internet, Corgan admits to being “A bit naïve, because I saw the Internet culture swallowing up songs faster then we could put them out, and so it got to the point where it’s like, this really isn’t working. Fans are comparing one song against an entire career. That’s not gonna work. So we circled back around and thought an album was the most cogent statement to make.”
3:02 – When Pinfield brings up Oceania is getting the best reviews he’s ever gotten, Corgan notes that his supposed classics got “shit reviews.” This leads to the beauty of Matt Pinfield’s mind adding a story about how Cream and Rolling Stone trashed Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival and “were not very kind to them, but in retrospect, they pretend it was very different.”
3:49 – Corgan discusses the symbolism of the title, Oceania.
5:10 – After saying the “public gets a little queasy when artists talk about their motivating factors,” Corgan discusses how he came to terms with this “quasi-artistic-commercial relationship." “In the case of Oceania, we reached a point as an artistic brand, and I use that word wisely, where we were no longer considered vital in this time. Conversely, it was hard to get songs on the radio, yet I would go into stations and they were playing nine of my old songs and they would say, ‘Well we don’t have any room for you.’ And I would think, just play less of my old songs. You just get this kind of feeling where it’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, good luck on that, but what about Siamese Dream?’ So you get this sense like your time is over and I didn’t feel I had gotten the respect, not for the musical output, because not all music I’ve made is meant to be high level, everybody dance in a circle. But respect for the journey I had been on because I had been on such a commercial journey and obviously had a lot of problems with it. Struggled with it as an artist and intrinsically even just as a human being. While I went on this journey where I’ve tried to do some other things, find other parts of myself, then you get marginalized by a culture which only celebrates that moment. So you’re not even walking in the door with a respect. I get treated like an idiot because you had it, then you threw it away and then you weren’t smart enough to pick it back up. I always felt if I really, really wanted to pick it back up, then I could, but at some point, I actually started to doubt maybe I’m insane and that power is no longer there and it was all in my mind anyway. So Oceania was can we flip the switch back on? Luckily, I have a band around me that believes in my ability and we flipped the switch back on.”
10:28 – Corgan discusses the effects of technological and social shifts of the last 10 years, which leads into his suggestion that “we’ve kind of wandered around in the wilderness. Only in the past year or two we can see an emerging model where quality artists are going to have something different to offer and the old business models that existed in radio, management, record business, even sponsorship, they are going to have to go into a different level of flexibility. They are not going to be able to leverage the artist with ‘Hey, we’ve got the platform.’ It’s going to be more peer-to-peer, partner-to-partner. We’re all going to have to figure out some way to work together nice.”
14:00 – Corgan tells a great story about finding new drummer Mike Byrne.
18:40 – Corgan talks about why there technically wasn’t a single picked and also how that mentality helped in the recording process. “I had these weird memories come up that some of the most famous songs I’ve ever written weren’t written as singles. I just wanted to write a great song.”
21:06 – Pinfield asks Corgan about being raised outside of Chicago and he responds about growing up on the “great radio” of WMET, The Loop, and WLS, which leads into a discussion about Classic Rock radio and Rush’s new release Clockwork Angels.
25:00 – Corgan starts by discussing the positive reviews of Oceania and then delves into a conversation of picking singles, and the mutations of Alternative rock.
29:47 – The story of how his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was recorded at the BBC. “I later learned from Lindsey Buckingham that I had learned the song completely wrong.”
31:48 – Pinfield starts asking about collaborations, hones in on New Order, which Billy once toured with for six dates on the west coast, and it leads to an observation of the influence Ian Curtis has on the remaining members of Joy Division even to this day. “When they would talk about Ian Curtis, they would talk about him as if he wasn’t dead.”
33:55 – The elephant in the room question… the first question from the audience is about Corgan testifying in front of Congress about radio paying royalties to artists. “I certainly love radio. Have profited from radio’s brilliance. I love radio as a fan. When I talked to Senator John Conyers, he basically told me that no artist would stand up and do that because they were afraid of being punished by radio. I wasn’t afraid of that because expressing an opinion is part of the American idea. If it was a bad idea, it would have been rejected. Radio, in that session, their position was – ‘It’s worked. It’s always worked. Let’s keep going.’ In the shifting set of dynamics we are in, that doesn’t work anymore.”
38:00 – The conversation turns to Corgan talking about a new business model of artists as a brand.
39:27 – One of the youngsters from Cheating Daylight lightens the mood with a tech question about amps and guitars.
41:13 – Corgan gets asked if he sees a brighter future in touring as a way to support himself. “Right now, it’s the economic driver for bands, but I think that’s going to go away too. Obviously there’s a lot of concern in terrestrial radio with ratings, and people are more interested in whatever they are interested in, but if you are a brand, like KROQ, we all know what KROQ means. Well, the KROQ in 50 years may be so much more monumental than we could imagine because of where we’re at right now. So if you actually have a brand, like Live 105, that really means something to people and you can carry that forth into the new world, there’s going to be business opportunities you can’t even imagine. And that’s what’s kind of weird. A lot of us are still playing the old game and it’s diminishing, diminishing, diminishing returns. What I’ve known for a long time, and call me whatever name you want, my band is worth more than whether or not I can sell records. My band is worth 100 times more. So when I deal with the radio programmer who doesn’t want to play my song, I think, okay, you don’t want to play my song. You don’t even want to play one of the 13 songs. Great, you want to play the old songs, whatever. At some point, I’m going to be in a different part of the business where what the Pumpkins represent as a business is going to be much more valuable than whether or not you play my one song. So, in my mind, I’m not even playing the one song game any more. That’s an old game.
43:35 – Corgan wonders why Alternative radio doesn’t play more Radiohead and continues to discuss how a new business model needs to be created, and predicts KISS will eventually tour without any original members. “If I’m programming that station, I’m playing Radiohead. It’s a huge band. I don’t care if you have to play the worst song on the record, play something, because, obviously they are identifying with people. That’s where radio gets kind of weird. You play these bands that can’t sell out the House of Blues and then you ignore the bands that can sell out pretty big places.”
47:11 – “I have tremendous regrets. Nobody has blown up more bridges than me,” Corgan responds when asked if he regrets anything he’s said in the past. He then offers an artist’s educated take on the gulf between Pop artists who are willing to do anything to get a song on the radio versus the group of artists who try to keep it real.
53:04 – A question about playing with Kenny Aronoff leads to a story about Tony Iommi.
55:58 – Billy gets asked about the reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream and ends up asking Pinfield for a copy of “the rules” for radio as they discuss engaging fans, marketing reissues and more.
59:57 – “If somebody doesn’t want to play my band, I used to take it kind of personal,” admits Corgan. “Now I just think, that’s your business. If it’s your business to play robots with full-sleeve tattoos, more power to you. And you’re going to get people who love robots with full-sleeve tattoos.” He then goes on to explain the open space he now enjoys as an independent artist, with enjoy being the key word. To make the point, he discusses his recent appearance on The Howard Stern Show. “After he played the one new song, our iTunes sales went through the roof… That’s a new kind of relationship. One of respect.”
1:05:00 When asked to discuss the international aspect of the Pumpkins brand, Corgan reinforces his views on brand management that extends beyond now and across time.
If you haven’t heard Oceania yet, you can hear it in its entirety, as introduced by Billy Corgan here: