How to ‘Do a Jandek’?

On a recent wikipedia clicking spree I went from the page about Jim O’Rourke to the page about Jandek (via Will Oldham). Jandek is a name I’d heard from a rough trade compilation and just generally from being someone who reads about music endlessly but I’d never particularly bothered checking him out. The moment I started skimming the text I was intrigued.

The story (in summary because you can go read it yourself) is that Jandek is Houston, Tx based musician who has released over 50 albums through his own label since 1978. He has given only two interviews in that time in which he largely refused to discuss his music, and revealed no biographical information about himself – not even his name. He first performed live in 2004, without prior publicity, at a festival in Glasgow and has begun gig more regularly since. Always performing sets of 100% unreleased material backed by musicians who rehearse with him for the first time (sometimes having never heard of him before) on the afternoon of the show.

He promoted early releases by sending copies to college radio stations and taking out print adverts and – having apparently initially sold 2 copies of his first record – was encouraged to release a follow up a few years later after a tiny blossoming of interest from one journalist. He’s released at least one album a year ever since.

Jandek

Jandek

Now having never heard this fellow before I’m instantly besotted with this idea. I’ve ordered a couple of cds and downloaded some mp3s and the music, whilst intriguing and distinctive, has not instantly blown me away. It’s incredibly dissonant, almost to the point of ineptitude, folk blues. Barren sounding, late night spontaneity, out of tune – to me it screams ‘mental illness’. He’s never going to win ‘best vocal’ anytime soon. But go listen and read about him elsewhere, this isn’t what I wanted to talk about….

What really excites me is the way this music exists in an absolute vacuum. The artist behind it has built up a dedicated following without ever uttering a word of comment on his own work. Just gets on with it, puts the stuff out there and lets people make up their own stories. Was he a guy who died in vietnam whose family are releasing years of archived recordings? (clearly not as he now plays live, but this was the theory for a while). Is he a mental patient? Were all the albums recorded in one huge session and are now just being released as a catchup. Who are the other musicians who appear on some of the albums? Why does only one of the songs released in the past ten years have a drumkit on it?

It’s in sharp contrast with how things are now. Musicians are encouraged to blog and be blogged about, tweet themselves to death and be otherwise ubiquitous. I was trying to think whether it would even be possible to ‘do a Jandek’ in this day and age. How would you go about just humbly drawing attention to your self-released album and hope that word of mouth built up? We’re literally swamped with mountains of landfill indie bands and doubtless some amazing music is getting subsumed by the might of well funded marketing.

Lady GaGa - apparently

Will from Stairs to Korea commented to me this week that he’d ‘never been so conscious of being marketed something’ as with Lady GaGa. I can see what he means. She’s everywhere, people are being force fed this narrative about who she is and why she’s good. If she’s not careful there’ll be nothing left of her.

No one knows why Jandek’s so keen to keep his life a secret, it doesn’t matter. The secrecy has gone on so long that’s it’s quite obviously now part of what being a ‘Jandek fan’ is all about. But clearly he doesn’t ‘make music for himself’ otherwise he wouldn’t go to the trouble of ensuring his 50+ catalogue is constantly in print. Remember he has never released a thing on any other label.

So how could you do it? I’ve made a few myspace pages where I post music that isn’t PWL music and pretty much just leave them there to fester. I’ve never had any aspirations that any of the music on these pages would get ‘discovered’ and clearly without a concerted effort from me it isn’t going to be. So clearly just putting something online and hoping isn’t the same as having a stack of yr LPs in the store room of a college radio station where someone can physically find them and go ‘this looks interesting’.

The internet is supposedly this amazing medium for promoting music. And clearly as a distribution network it’s amazing. You can just record something and immediately give the whole world access to it for free – as I did in my last post. But the internet also swamps people with choice. When Jandek took out his humble print adverts back ’78 there were probably sufficiently few publications and fans around that one or two keen-eyed enthusiasts would take a punt to see what was what. The fact he was willing to press on releasing in the face of mostly indifference is to his credit. How could you do that now? I could post a brand new song to this blog every week and maybe some of you would link to it and share it and maybe not. But how would anyone know to bother with my music as opposed to all the other stuff out there?

The Internet, earlier today

The Internet, earlier today

Music promotion is seen as a necessary evil but it fundamentally changes the way music is produced. In the year prior to making a conscious decision to try and get my music heard more widely (something I consider began in 2005), I released three EPs and one album all containing brand new songs. This is the same amount I have released in the four years since then, and it’s not because I’ve slowed down writing. I find this utterly frustrating, and completely at odds with how I’d like to work. But it’s a concession I make because I want people to hear what I do.

There are lots of bands out there who got a name for being prolific and just releasing relentlessly – the Mountain Goats, the Fall, Will Oldham, etc – and pretty much bludgeoned the alternative music fanbase demographic into submission by sheer volume of material. I’m not even convinced an artist like that could get started today. Is there anyone out there being so prolific? Maybe there is and I don’t know them. People are lucky if they get to release one album every two or three years.

In their creative heyday the Beatles and David Bowie averaged two albums a year. I think the shift has been towards labels spending vast amounts on one album in an ‘all or nothing’ move and then the Lady GaGa success stories subsidise the less commercially successful ones. Except that because the labels view all releases as lottery tickets rather than investments the ones that ‘fail’ get dropped. They’re not using Lady GaGa to subsidise the new Captain Beefheart, they’re using Lady GaGa to subsidise all the failed Lady GaGas. Which is kind of fucked up.

I fear we’re heading for an industry which actively stifles new and creative music. There will be no new Jandeks because the industry has grown so big it’s swollen into every niche. A humble voice saying ‘here’s my stuff, hope you like it’ gets drowned out by the big marketing machine’s cash fuelled hum. They’ve even figured out how to fake a word of mouth buzz! Thereby negating any possibility of real word of mouth. You now have to go to supposedly independent music ‘gateways’, cap in hand, competing for the same limited space as those who have so much clout that they don’t need it. There are beacons of hope sure – like Bearded Magazine, who seem to understand everything I’m saying here and have made it central to their ethos – but they, in turn, are competing for attention against better funded magazines.

So is it hopeless? Can there be another Jandek? What do you think?
———–
For those who care, here are some of the myspace pages I’ve made up over the years:
The Magic Cicadas
ampi_regaek
Pagan Wanderer Lu’s Junk Shop – where I post bits of instrumentals and stuff

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13 Responses to “How to ‘Do a Jandek’?”

  1. BRNLV Says:

    You write very nicely Andy!

    My first thoughts are:

    I wonder if he’s independently wealthy? Pressing records is an expensive business, especially if you’ve no audience.

    Also, I wonder how many people there are with boxes upon boxes of unsold records and absolutely no profile out there, for every Jandek…

    • paganwandererlu Says:

      @ BRNLV:

      I suspect you’re right that he is independently wealthy, in the sense that his day job pays for the music. There’s evidence for this gathered by fans. He definitely works. He also sells the albums very cheaply (about $4 each if you buy in bulk, including postage). So quite likely. I’d be astonished if he makes a living off the music.

      I think I cling to this romantic idea that if music is any good sooner or later someone will find out about it – even if it’s decades later. This is clearly absolute shit, as there are bound to be brilliant bands out there who for one reason or another never get anywhere. But apparently Jandek went for most of the 80s selling records in the 100s of copies and just kept going. Clearly he’s content to just have them out there.

  2. Daniel Says:

    i do like your writings andy. they’re always nice to read. one thing, tho, re: newer super prolific artists – have you seen the deerhunter / atlas sound blog? bradford cox has given away a wealth of material there. his latest thing is these Atlas Sound ‘virtual 7″s’ – an a-side, a b-side, and a cover.

    it’s especially interesting he should do it this way as he has the sort of profile whereby he could probably farm all of these things out to little bedroom indies for 500-run ltd pressings quite easily, yet he chooses to give it all away.

    i think the only other indie artist i can think of in recent years is of montreal, who’ve been putting out albums roughly every 18 months for most of this decade, alongside regular 7″s (usually farmed out to bedroom indies, actually) and mini albums as well.

    the end.

    • paganwandererlu Says:

      yeah, they’re good examples daniel. I’ve not bothered getting the bradford cox stuff as I’m not mad keen on atlas sound. deerhunter I like…

      I think it’s much easier for american acts to do this sort of thing by virtue of the much wider market they’re able to sell to. if you can sell a record to 1% of american indie fans that’s probably enough to fund a pressing of your next album. Which personally is all I’d ever aspire to.

      Not the case in the UK really. 1% of UK indie fans probably = about the same number of people who read my blog.

  3. Daniel Says:

    BRNLV – I’ve read that supposedly Mr Jandek is some kind of stocks trader or something. i would suspect that’s how he funds these things.

  4. yo soy Says:

    Andy, have you ever listened to The Shaggs?

    • paganwandererlu Says:

      No I’ve not. What are they like?

      • yo soy Says:

        Strange outsider music – give 3 Herman’s Hermits fans (who are all sisters) a drum kit and a couple of guitars and expect them to become huge popstars. There’s quite an interesting back story to them as well, which you can read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shaggs and here: http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/meet_shaggs.html

        and you can listen to them here:

        I can’t find Philosophy of the World, which is my favourite song of theirs, but I think you can find it on certain ‘free’ mp3 sites.

        None of this is to do with you’re blog, really, but it did remind me of scouring Napster in the olden days searching for undiscovered music. Which would then take me about 3 days to download

  5. thirtyflies Says:

    Jandek sells his CD’s at cost.

  6. scobie Says:

    This is a good article; I’ve also started to get into him, and think his is the most personal music I’ve ever heard. There’s no filter; there’s not an A&R man, there’s not a label, there’s not even a designer getting in the way of the package that Jandek is delivering. Plus, I see this as such a personal thing to him. It’s like he exorcising these songs out of himself, rather than writing them. As opposed to Robert Pollard, who releases records at an almost Jandekian rate, but in his case [Pollard’s] it’s more that he sat around in his homemade bar with some buddies, had a bunch of beers, and so he knocks out half-a-dozen songs with kooky titles. He does it for fun, and to meet people and maybe make some money, whereas for Jandek, it’s something much, much more cathartic. And your mentions of Lady Gaga are interesting since I always see her on blogs, but have no idea of who she is (let alone what she sounds like). She’s basically a one-woman Spice Girls (or, to go back a few generation, The Monkees) in that she’s totally manufactured. Even Madonna was smart, and had some tunes and staying power, whereas people like Lady Gaga are almost the musical equivalent of reality TV. To juxtapose her to Jandek is devilishly apt. Also, on the question of him being “independently wealthy,” I certainly agree that he takes a loss in terms of selling his records. But to call him “independent wealthy” make him seem like a rich guy. I highly doubt that. Instead, I think he has a fairly routine white collar day job, and releasing these records is his hobby (he also travels a bit, as evidenced by some of his European snapshot covers in the past few years). Also, some of the shots from his covers show his surroundings to be decidedly middle class, so he’s hardly a trust-fund or inheritance type. Instead, this is where most of his discretionary income goes. Anyway, well done. Good article, and my own favorite Jandek record is “Blue Corpse.” Check it out.

  7. Interview with For Folk’s Sake « Pagan Wanderer Lu’s Blog Says:

    […] also talked more about Jandek (see previous post). I received a box of 20 of his albums last week, working my way through them now. Only 36 to go to […]

  8. Why John Maus is my awesome | Self-Doubt Gun Says:

    […] that survive only through the miracle of home recording (see also Jandek – who I’ve written about before, Daniel Johnston […]

  9. Handsome Pete Says:

    The most popular band I can think of that doesn’t do publicity stuff is New Order. Also, since Jandek is anonymous, it’s impossible to know if he releases stuff on other labels.

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