The Woody Allen of Indie Folk

Continuing with Simon Joyner. If you read that story, you may wonder how he’s managed to continue to release records when listening to them can be, for the most part, rather dismal exercises.

There isn’t a lot of dancing happening when Simon is on your record player. What he does ain’t exactly “pop music.” In fact, I would argue that Simon is anti-pop. His motivation for writing music has little to do with trying to entertain the Great Wad. Instead, his records are personal confessions, emotional exorcisms and deep-rooted examinations of the pains and struggles of trying to understand the whys and what fors of his life.

There’s nothing easy about listening to Ghosts. You’re not likely to hear the record spinning in the background at your next loft party or beer bust. Ghosts is for afterward, when you’re weighing your regrets. It’s a four-sided slab of pain dipped in a gravy of despair. You experience the darkness of a Joyner song and wonder why you’d ever come back to it. You do it because you remember that ache, that sense of dread, and the notion that amidst all this uncertainty, you are not alone.

Needless to say, Simon Joyner records aren't going to make anyone a millionaire. So why do record labels keep taking a chance on Joyner? When I saw that Joyner was putting together a Kickstarter campaign around the making of Ghosts, I assumed it might have something to do with his current record label, Team Love, slowing down on its releases, and that Joyner was one of the casualties. But he said that wasn’t the case at all.

“Team Love would have done it,” Joyner said. “But I didn’t want to saddle anyone with a double album that I wanted to be in nice packaging that would be expensive to produce.”

He said other labels he’s worked with -- Jagjaguwar (who released 2006’s Skeleton Blues) and Ba Da Bing Records -- would have done it, too. People don’t put out his records to make mad bank, they do it because they love Simon Joyner records. Even so, when the quarterly sales statements arrive, Joyner said he feels guilty.

“I say, ‘Why did you put this out? I’m so sorry. I’m glad that you have that Grammy on your label so you don’t mind this little vanity project I’ve got going on.’ When I see how far in the red my records invariably are in the first year before they break even, I always feel a little bit bad, but they do it because they like what I do.”

Kickstarter is a crowd funding website that makes it easy for people to fund creative projects whose commercial appeal is questionable. It’s another way to fund a record outside of the traditional record label system. Users donate to a project and in addition to reaping the undying gratitude of the artist, they also get something tangible in return. In this case, for a certain pledge level, users got a copy of Ghosts before its release date, along with a digital download of the recording and other goodies including T-shirts, earlier Simon Joyner releases, etc.

Kickstarter allowed Joyner to enlist in greater numbers those who appreciate his music. “Everyone who has that same inclination to support me only has to put in a little bit,” Joyner said, “instead of a record label putting in a huge amount of money.”

Joyner says Kickstarter puts power in the hands of the creative people and the people who appreciate them. “There’s a certain amount of, I wouldn’t call it ‘begging,’ but telling it like it is that has to be done,” he said. “If you have too much pride for that, then don’t use it.”

Joyner pionted out that times have changed for artists. There used to be more benefactors and people who supported the arts simply because they could. Consumers, he said, have distanced themselves from the things they value. Kickstarter brings them back inside. “It reminds them that they’re invested (in the project or artist) whether they like it or not,” he said. “There’s not always going to be someone on a white horse to save the day. If you like this, then support it in a more grassroots way. I think the art that comes out of (Kickstarter) will be more diverse, interesting and creative.”

Using Kickstarter also avoids the pressures that record labels can put on a project to make it more marketable. “There are practical concerns when people run a business,” Joyner said. “Things get changed, compromised, smoothed around the edges. With Kickstarter, no one is calling the shots but the artist.”

Despite the success of Joyner’s Kickstarter campaign, record companies are involved in Ghosts. Revolver is distributing the vinyl to records stores around the globe, while Ba-Da-Bing Records is handling its digital distribution. There always will be someone willing to take a chance on a Joyner project. Joyner explains it this way.

“I always go to the new Woody Allen movie,” he said. “There was a stretch when his movies weren’t so good, but I still got something out of them. And then he comes back and wows me again. An artist has to be constantly evolving. They will either fall on their face or take it to another level. It should be challenging to follow someone’s career. They’re going to do things you don’t like and things you like. The pressure is on the fan to open their mind to what the artist is trying to do.”

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 07:57 am
on Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

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