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.
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.
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?
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
Pagan Wanderer Lu’s Junk Shop – where I post bits of instrumentals and stuff