Arcade Fire’s Win Butler: Even a Free Burrito Is “Selling Out”

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AUSTIN, TX: To quote the leader of one of the biggest rock bands in the world, “It’s a waste of mental energy to think about this cesspool. You should just be in your cheap bedroom making something good.”

This cesspool, of course, is the music industry — specifically its current obsession with social media and digital data. Our narrator is Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, who found himself on a popular panel at SXSW this morning focused on the future of the celebrity economy in music. His fellow panelists included his brother Will, economist/New York Times columnist/noted Arcade Fire fan Paul Krugman, Nielsen’s VP of Branded Entertainment Tatiana Simonian, Nicky Berger of Berger Management (Grouplove, Holychild), and Grantland’s Rembert Browne, who moderated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, distinct sides of this debate emerged early: the Butlers took on a strong anti-brand stance, while the music biz folks found themselves defending brand partnerships, data, and other tools of our digital age. Krugman was perhaps my favorite part of the debate; the Nobel Laureate could not figure out why he was there. “I don’t even quite understand how many of the bands I like survive,” he added.

Despite his modesty, Krugman was a crucial outside voice on a panel that essentially pitted art against commerce. Without a personal stake in the argument, he remained impartial, popping up with illuminating figures and parallels to other flailing industries — like the New York Times, which he described as an “advertising vehicle for luxury goods.” Artists have always made roughly seven times as much money off live performances than music sales, Krugman noted, even in the height of the CD boom. What has changed is the 1% effect: the bulk of live performance revenue is going to the upper echelon of arena headliners. And just like the paper of record, sometimes the music world can’t account for what the people will respond to; this can be seen in the most-emailed story of all-time at the Times: a 2006 Modern Love column titled “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.”

Krugman’s contributions aside, the Butler brothers were undoubtedly the stars of the conversation, with funny, opinionated dispatches from the frontlines. Win, especially, is easily fired up and unafraid to challenge fellow panelists on the spot. Here are a few of their more notable quotes from the panel.

– Speaking about how the business side of music takes care of itself if the art is good enough, Win said of Kendrick Lamar: “That dude was working a lot, he wasn’t checking his Twitter.” He also praised his new album as “undeniably great.”

– On the topic of Chipotle giving broke touring bands free burritos, Win said: “It is selling out, though. You can afford to get a chipotle burrito if you manage your tour right.”

– On SXSW, which Win noted Arcade Fire “avoided ever playing”: “This is not exactly a music conference that we’re at. There’s music going on, but it’s not the main thing… I find it very hard to hear music here.”

– Will on brand sponsorships in music: “It enables so much shitty music.” Win later added, “Even if you’re getting paid a couple grand to do a thing, you’re really giving more than you’re getting.”

– Will “big-upping parents” for funding their kids’ music with a growing frequency: “I think a lot of artists will make money from their parents” in the future.”

– Win on retaining publishing rights: “It’s not worth any amount in touring to not own your songs.” However, he added, that “one big festival appearance pays more than all of Arcade Fire’s publishing.”

– Will had at least one nice thing to say about the internet: “We’re in a golden age of folk art of all kinds — internet jokes, making YouTube videos, etc. In terms of people making art for other people, holistically, we’re in a good place.”

– Win on feeling grateful for “having played small rooms to learn how to be a band”: “Bands get chewed up in the taco machine.” He added that Arcade Fire has “the best record deal in the history of record deals… We don’t have meetings with numbers. We tell them the record’s done, here’s the art, and it’s coming out this date.”

– Win’s advice for young bands is that touring is overrated: “We played 20 shows a month in Montreal” at DIY venues. Citing the 10,000 hours of practice rule applied to The Beatles by Malcolm Gladwell, Win joked, “Go to a whorehouse and play 40 hours a day.”