Ambition Rocks

Porcupine Tree in London, June 2009. Frontman Steven Wilson is second from left.

Porcupine Tree in London, June 2009. Frontman Steven Wilson is second from left.

Without even knowing it, the masses have made progressive rock cool again. Not that it’s really called that anymore — check out my Grammy.com story “High-IQ Rock” for more on this — but groups like Muse, Dream Theater and The Mars Volta have managed to chart high, sell impressive units at retail and are luring increasing numbers of fans to their shows. One group that has consistently made great music in the “thinking man’s rock” arena — straddling the line between tuneful accessibility and intellectual artfulness — is Porcupine Tree, the two-decade old band fronted by founder Steven Wilson. While they certainly have their share of four and five minute songs that are easier to market (so to speak), their music on recent albums has become lengthier and the execution of their concepts more ambitious. P-Tree’s latest platter, The Incident, contains only five songs, the first of which is the 14-part, 55-minute title track. One might ask, “These guys are on the cusp of mass appeal, so why do that?” Because the rules of the game are changing, as Wilson explained when he sat down to chat with ADD.

Why is ambitious, epic music popular again?
It seems the climate is more open than ever for doing something ridiculously over the top and over ambitious and reaching for the stars. It seems like it’s OK to do that now. I’m so happy about that. I’m so happy that ambition in music is acceptable, but God knows for 20 years it was almost like ambition was a dirty word.

The limited edition version of Porcupine Tree's "The Incident". Lavish packaging to match their musical ambition.

The limited edition version of Porcupine Tree's The Incident. Lavish packaging to match their musical ambition.

Isn’t it bizarre that in this iPod, song shuffling, A.D.D. world that bands like Dream Theater, Muse and Porcupine Tree can find success given that some people can’t even listen to a whole record anymore?
You’re right, there is a paradox there, and I talked about this on my solo record [Insurgentes]. There’s definitely a very big negative and a very big plus about the whole download culture. The very big negative is the jukebox mentality — people putting their iPods on shuffle, it’s very easy to shuffle from one track to the next, the lack of artwork and the poor quality. But the plus side of download culture has been liberating music from mainstream media and commercial radio — and that whole MySpace and Facebook thing, where people can the just follow the dots, follow the trail to bands that they probably would never have discovered if they just had to rely on commercial radio and what major record companies are pushing. Because what we’re seeing is the death of major record companies and the death of commercial radio. While I see that there’s a negative total to the whole download culture, I can see that it has completely liberated music from that three-minute pop song straight jacket. It’s gone. It only really exists now in the very sharp end of the commercial, American Idol end of the market. It doesn’t really exist for album-oriented artists anymore. In fact, bands like Radiohead don’t even bother to release singles anymore, which is great because I’ve never been good at writing singles. I’m very happy to be liberated from a world where I have to give any consideration to selling myself in the space of a four-minute pop song. So what the hell, let’s go in the opposite extreme. That’s what I was thinking in a way [on this album].

Today it seems like many bands make more money through touring and merchandise, not albums.
Let’s not also forget what I’m saying. We’re not talking about the death of the album. What we’re talking about is the death of the album as a commercial commodity. In fact it’s probably fair to say that more people are listening to more recorded music now than ever before. I figure that probably more people will hear The Incident than any other Porcupine Tree album but it’s probably going to sell less, and that is simply because the music proliferates now in a different way. It proliferates on a greater scale, but if you look purely at the bottom line, commercial units sold, of course it looks like the music industry is dying. But I actually think it’s the opposite in some way — the music is reaching more people than ever before. People listen to music on the bus, on the train or when they’re jogging, because of iPods and the portability of music and the fact that it is easy to steal. Albums themselves are probably listened to potentially more now than at any time in history because you don’t have to buy them anymore.  [continued…]

P-Tree in white.

P-Tree in white.


Why does a musician start making music? He starts making music to share it with as many people as possible. If he has any other motive, then he’s not a musician, he’s an entertainer. If he wants to be a star and wants to make money, that’s not a musician. A musician starts making music in order to share with as many people as possible. It’s a very strange time for music because the financial rewards are really falling away, but at the same time there are a lot of bands out there that are reaching more people than ever before because of file-sharing, and I think we’re definitely one of them. The fact that more people are coming to the shows shows you in a way that more people are discovering the recorded music, which is acting as the advertising to go and see the band live. It’s definitely not a great time to be making a lot of money from the music industry, but it is a great time if you’re ambitious and want to share music with as many people as possible.

What does that mean financially for a band like Porcupine Tree?
This is where it all falls down. We’re okay because we actually started before this whole thing kicked off. We had a good fanbase going into the 21st century, and we continued to build on that. If you’re starting out now as a band, I’m not quite sure how you do it anymore. You could share your music on the Internet, but you still need to give people a reason to come your website in the first place. So that’s the problem.