Music Industry 101 with Marty Willson-Piper
Marty Willson-Piper takes a hands-on approach to his career these days. He keeps watch over the business dealings of his longtime band, The Church, and micromanages every aspect of his solo career and many side projects. He spends as much time behind the merch table as he can, and for the current tour behind his new album, Nightjar, he’s selling homemade EPs he burned to CD-R himself. He even designed the artwork.
Of course, he honed his business acumen the hard way.
“Ohhh,” he moans when considering what his life would be like had he been as involved behind the scenes during The Church’s early years. “I’d be dining at the Ritz right now!
“I would have made stacks of money,” he continues, “because I would have been going, ‘Wait a minute, why do we have a 17-man road crew? Why do we need three tour buses and two decorated trucks on the road?’ Over the years, I’ve learned how groups and managers waste money.”
And decades ago, The Church could waste money with the best of them. Their best-selling album, 1988’s Starfish, “cost $40 billion to make,” Willson-Piper says, “because we all had to have our special cars and apartments, and we had a producer who, after we’d done a take and wanted feedback, would have his feet on the desk, then say, ‘I’m going to go play golf.’ It got so out of control with the egos and the drugs and too much money.”
For all their time and effort on the album, The Church were rewarded with their first major hit, “Under the Milky Way,” a vibrant, mourning pop song that worked its way up the charts with the assistance of an unexpected, bagpipe-like EBow guitar solo (the song—and that solo—were later used to memorable effect in the film Donnie Darko). But even that hit came at a price, stigmatizing the group as another in a long line of ’80s one-hit wonders.
“Joni Mitchell nailed it perfectly,” Willson-Piper muses. “She said, ‘I hate the media; they trap you in their era.’”
That’s a double blow for The Church, since the prolific Australian band never belonged to any one era. Their sound has changed with the seasons—maturing from New Wave to jangle-pop to heavier, guitar-driven alternative rock and, increasingly, freewheeling jam-rock—while staying more or less rooted in out-of-time ’60s psychedelic pop and ambitious ’70s prog. Willson-Piper’s illustrious 12-string guitar solos and mesmerizing arpeggios were one of their few constants.
Unlike the vast majority of rock bands, The Church have actually grown better with age, releasing some of their best albums late in their career (2004’s vital Forget Yourself stands out in particular, along with the pair of unexpectedly poignant acoustic albums that followed), but now that they’re a certain age, they’ve found attracting new listeners difficult. Willson-Piper laments that 50-year-olds don’t seek out new music, and 16-year-olds don’t seek out music from bands over 50. Even the renewed interest Donnie Darko sparked in “Under the Milky Way” did little to bring The Church new fans.
“Kids today are like their parents,” Willson-Piper posits. “They know songs, not bands. My mom knows ‘Spanish Eyes’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ but she doesn’t know who they’re by, the same way a young kid today who’s watched Donnie Darko knows ‘Under the Milky Way’ but doesn’t give a fuck about who recorded it.
“General audiences don’t care about records that are good, they just care about records that are hits,” he says. “But we can’t let the people with that philosophy win. I don’t care if I have a hit or not. I don’t care if I sell records or not. I don’t care if anybody shows up at my gig or not. All I care about is whether I write a song that I like.”
Willson-Piper’s solo output trends toward the more melancholy side of The Church’s guitar-rock, so for his current tour he’s assembled a fittingly subdued, drum-free but harp-accented all-women backing band, the Electric Mood Maidens. He headlines an 8 p.m. Shank Hall concert on Wednesday, May 14.