David Browne begins Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth very inauspiciously. On page 1 he relates not knowing noise was an “iTunes category” and never having seen the designation unclassifiable before researching the book. I almost had to put the book down without turning to page 2 — was Browne a liar or a total ignoramus?
After mercifully brief attempted introductions (the genre discovery story above is the first of seven) to the book, Browne spends about 390 pages relating the nuts and bolts of Sonic Youth’s prehistory and history through about 2006. If you aren’t a big Sonic Youth fan, just skim the group’s Wikipedia article instead of reading this book.
Sonic Youth was my last singular favorite band. I’ve probably listened to their music for thousands of hours, mostly during 1988-1998 (and mostly their music released from 1982-1995). I still try to see them when I can, most recently performing all of Daydream Nation live in Berkeley (a review on what looks like a nice blog) and Thurston Moore’s solo rock project at Amoeba Records and Great American Music Hall, all in 2007, and by far the best, Kim Gordon with Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Trevor Dunn, and Yoshimi at Montalvo Arts last year. So that’s why I stuck with the book.
I learned a few things from the book — I knew the names and sequence of all of the group’s drummers, but didn’t realize how chaotic that sequencing was; I didn’t realize that Moore played with Glenn Branca’s ensembles after Sonic Youth started, not before; nor that Lee Ranaldo came close to leaving the group at one point. I already knew that some members of the group have a pop culture fascination, though it is always sad to see that confirmed in anyone.
Browne writes a fair amount about the band’s business, the success of which is pretty marginal, with one distantly related exception — Gordon received close to $500,000 for her half of X-Girl, a fashion company she co-founded that became popular in Asia (page 319). Sonic Youth’s first three major label albums (released in 1990, 1992, and 1994) first year sales were under 200k, nearly 300k, and nearly 250k respectively (pages 259 and 277). Subsequent (and previous) albums all sold under 100k copies, though I’d have to guess Daydream Nation (1988) has racked up considerably more than that over the past 20 years given its classic status.
I’ll guesstimate that the band has sold 2 million albums over its 26 year history. Given the approximation that artists make $1.60 on each album, Sonic Youth has made only $3.2 million on album sales, or about $120k/year, or $30k/year/band member — in New York City for almost their entire history.
Unsurprisingly live shows have remained their leading source of income (page 386), and through most of their artistically most interesting period (the beginning through 1988, in my opinion) they worked day jobs (pages 151 and 179).
Browne mentions many times the band’s frugality and nearly complete lack of stereotypical rock and roll lifestyles. Presumably this has been important in keeping them together for so long and keeping them creative — although I said above that I consider their early work their most interesting, their subsequent work as a band is still very good, and many of their individual projects continue to be amazing.
Mostly because I love Sonic Youth, I’ve long daydreamed about them doing something with Creative Commons. In 2005 Moore published a column in WIRED that concluded with this:
Once again, we’re being told that home taping (in the form of ripping and burning) is killing music. But it’s not: It simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control music sharing – by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along – is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.