WHAT DO THE BLACK CROWES, BLUES TRAVELER, BELA FLECK AND the Flecktones, the Jazz Mandolin Project, Poi Dog Pondering, the Allman Brothers, Rusted Root and DJ Logic have in common? They're all listed on the links page of Jambands.com. This, and the presence of hundreds of other disparate bands on the Jambands site, raises the question: “What constitutes a jamband?” Regardless of whether you even care about the answer, there are important lessons about community, work ethics, DIY and, to be sure, making money to be learned from the exploding jamband scene. “Exploding?” you say. “It's not on my VH1, MTV, KROQ.” It's true, most of these bands' songs hover below the playlist radar of the national corporate clear-channel radio chain. How, then, could jambands be mistaken for anything blowin' up?
Anyone who has long followed popular music knows that in music, as in physics, for every action there's some crazy mofo in a basement somewhere concocting an equal reaction. Thing is, that reaction would traditionally bubble up on college radio, on indie labels and in local scenes until it made enough of a noise for major-label bloodhounds to come sniffing, at which point VH1, MTV, etc., etc. In the jamband scene, musicians and their business partners have no patience for this, and have forged a business model that creates financial self-sufficiency and prosperity right here and now.
Self-financed and self-released recordings and often-grueling live-performance schedules are key to these artists' income, but as we all know, you gotta get an audience in the room first. With no radio or TV and practically no mainstream press support, jambands are reaching thousands of fans via old-fashioned word of mouth, but much more so with tape-trading communities and brilliantly run Web sites. Add to this an ever-growing audience that's not being attended to by the mainstream media, and the underground jamband community can thrive on its own, outside traditional means.
So how do the bands listed above fit together in the jamband universe? Most in the scene agree the crucial factor is the artists' willingness to walk the high wire and improvise.
“Above all else, the one defining factor is that a band is committed to improvisation in the live setting,” says Dan Budnick, editor in chief and founder of Jambands.com. “Beyond that, it's pretty open-ended. When we began the site, my idea was to use it to proselytize, to help get the word out about this emerging scene. These bands are sort of cross-realm: They weren't quite funk bands, they weren't quite jazz bands, they weren't quite folk, Latin or rock. They were this new amalgam of musical styles that was emerging and had a very young audience.” Budnick, 35, did his share of “Dead Tour” back when that was still possible, and his fanhood drove him to write The Phishing Manual, a book about Phish, the band that filled the void left when Jerry Garcia departed for that great jam session in the sky. The book Jambands followed, and along with some volunteers, Budnick launched Jambands.com three years ago.
The theory that the jamband phenom was born out of the demise of the Dead and the semiretirement of Phish works for some, but Budnick emphasizes that the scene is largely made up of kids too young to have seen these bands. That may be, but many jamband kids seem to adhere to the Deadhead philosophy: If one Dead show is great, think how amazing it would be to see the whole tour!
“People want to go to see multiple shows,” claims Lee Seelig, who manages and books Addison Groove Project, OM Trio and other bands at the Boulder, Coloradobased Good Time Entertainment. “The bands usually have pretty large repertoires, and they can play a different set list for a couple of nights without repeating songs. Each song will sound different; the solos are in different places.” According to Budnick, artists show their “reciprocal commitment by allowing taping.” In fact, if the Stonesy rock of the dearly departed Black Crowes seems out of place on the list, consider that the band has steadfastly insisted on allowing unhindered taping at all of its shows.
Indeed, artists seem bound to the jamband scene by virtue of the community of fans more so than by musical similarities. Take solo acoustic artist Howie Day, who neither jams nor is a band. Nonetheless, jamsters trade recordings of his performances with the same zeal reserved for Dave Matthews. According to Day's manager, Boston-based Shawn Radley, “Tape trading is a huge aspect of it. The improvisation is where Howie thinks it's weird that he gets lumped in with these bands. Occasionally he'll improvise and go off with his loop sampler, but basically he writes four-minute pop songs. There's a tape-trading site dedicated to Howie that's been up since January of this year that has 1,000 registered users.”
Of course, “tape trading” has been technologically upgraded to “file sharing,” the same basic thing minus postage and cassette tape. “Howie played Butte, Montana, and kids in the first three rows were singing the words to every single song,” Radley testifies. “The record isn't in stores, it's not on the radio; the only way these kids can get it is by downloading it or trading discs.”
IN THE JAM WORLD, TRADING PROVIDES THE proof that the band is for real. “We owe a huge amount of thanks to people making tapes, because it's given us such an opportunity to show the differentiation between shows,” says Mark Roberge, acoustic guitarist and vocalist with OAR (Of a Revolution). “Every show is different, and you can't just say it and not back it up.”
Roberge offhandedly admits his band's first two albums weren't even composed before they began rolling tape. “All we did, and what we still do, is we don't practice too often. The song 'That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,' which has catapulted us into people's ears, was off-the-cuff completely. The first verse was written, but the second part was completely improvised, and it kind of stuck.” Roberge improvises lyrics and melodies with the same fluidity that his bandmates create extended solos. OAR's early recordings, tracked and mixed in mere hours, were self-released on their own Everfine label, with the business end handled by Mark's brother Dave.
“We started selling those and made a CD with Discmakers, just going in and paying $1,000 for a couple hundred CDs or whatever. We didn't have the resources, experience, knowledge or money to do it any other way.”
OAR have steadily increased the size of venues they play by constant touring. From humble beginnings at backyard parties (which they still do for friends and longtime fans), they now play larger clubs and small theaters, ranging from 500 on the road to 4,000-seaters in Columbus, home of the band's alma mater, Ohio State. They can fill the House of Blues here in Los Angeles. On top of the rabid file sharing and tape trading, fans are purchasing the band's CDs at live shows or through Web sites — in OAR's case, mostly CD Baby, a site devoted largely to private labels. Web sales are so brisk that their latest, Risen, debuted at No. 11 on Billboard's Internet chart, which tracks SoundScan sales posted by Amazon.com, CDNow and smaller sites. The chart position represents a first week's sale somewhere in the 2,000-unit range.
Live work can also fund recording and home labels. In Howie Day's case, the Bangor, Maine, native juggled classwork with substantial touring during his senior year in high school. Radley caught a set three years ago when Day, then just 17, opened for Ziggy Marley. The pair began a partnership, and Radley secured Day a showcase at a NACA (National Association for Campus Activities) Conference. Day played for 1,500 college talent buyers, which directly led to four months of work in the lucrative college market.
Day self-financed the recording and the manufacturing of his debut EP and follow-up album, Australia. “He looks at what he's doing now and sees he has a good thing going,” says Radley. “He's in control of his own destiny. He released a four-song EP in 1999, which sold 8,000 copies in a year. The full-length came out in November 2000 and sold over 15,000 copies. He owns his own label, he self-finances the recording and the duplication. He pockets $8.80 a record. That's selling it for $10.”
According to Radley, Day is being courted by a number of major labels, but is feeling cautious. Given the way a major label charges back expenses to the artist, Radley estimates that a major would have to sell seven to eight times as many Day discs to generate a royalty equal to what Day is paying himself already.
DISCS BY HOWIE DAY AND OAR ARE DIFFICULT TO find at chain and even indie shops, but are prevalent at numerous Web sites that specialize in selling self-produced and smaller indie-label releases. Budnick's Jambands.com is strictly editorial, and is financially supported by advertisers; it has all the latest news and monthly reviews on new music by bands as varied as Soulive and Sonic Youth. Other sites, such as Awarestore.com, sell complete catalogs of underground jammers like Dispatch; Awarestore recently listed Dispatch's Who Are We Living For as one of its best-sellers, while Dispatch member Pete Francis' solo album sits high on its chart. Dispatch also has a high chart entry, and OAR recently had two selections in the Top 10.
Even more scene-specific, and offering marketing tools for bands and promotions that involve the fans, is the Homegrown Music Network at homegrownmusic.net. Here, CDs are sold, shows are listed, contests are run, news is reported and fans volunteer for street-team promotions. Run by Lee Crumpton in Simpson, North Carolina, HGMN is unique in that it gets bands and fans working and networking together at a variety of levels, yet it is still primarily a CD distributor. Anyone can participate and post on the site, but posting in the news section requires a paid membership, which costs venues $125 and bands $300 per year.
Despite the fee and a sizable paid membership, Crumpton says, “The cash flow comes primarily through the sales of the artists' merchandise, but behind the scenes, we're helping those guys communicate. We have e-mail lists that allow the bands and their managements, the booking agents and the clubs to all talk to each other. We have an online database for our members containing thousands of press contacts, radio contacts, venues, festivals and Internet resources. We also have somewhere between 350 and 400 reps scattered across the country, volunteers who are really passionate about the music and want to help the bands.”
Good Times' Seelig acknowledges HGMN's value but feels the lack of exclusivity has begun to dilute it. “Homegrown Music Network is a big group that invites bands to join them, so it's kind of like a club, but it's more like a network of bands they think are in this genre. It's useful, but as they keep expanding, it's not the most special thing to be a part of anymore.”
Crumpton contends that not just anyone can become a member. “We're very selective about who we invite. A band can't just send in a check and be a member. They have to submit their material, their music goes through an evaluation process with our staff. We also evaluate other aspects, like are they touring full-time, do they have organization behind them, management or someone on their team getting the job done? We also look at how much effort they're putting into their marketing and promotion, if they have a Web site or not. We're looking for well-rounded bands who have gone beyond being part-time bands, that are doing it as a full-time career.”
Focusing much more on venues and live performance is Jambase.com, located in Mill Valley and run by Ted Kartzman and Andy Gadiel. Originally based in Chicago, the duo were dot-com whiz kids who headed for San Francisco during the boom. They were hired to launch Musicfans.com, and launched their own Jambase.com in their spare time. As Musicfans.com fizzled, their project caught fire. Gadiel was running the Phish band site and at one point had 160,000 members. They saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
“We positioned it as a real community hub,” says Kartzman. “If you like this band, tell other people about it. If you see a concert out there that you would go to, add the show. We have 300 people adding shows on any given day. We have 6,000 bands in the database.”
The continuous input of information is useful to agents as well as fans. Seelig notes that he uses the site to check competition when routing tours for his clients. Kartzman claims, “We started to really sell this direct-
marketing concept and our ability to reach our members. Our membership was growing like crazy, up to 150,000. When you add in the direct-marketing element — sending e-mails based on region for specific bands or promoters — that's when we really turned into a product and started developing clients.”
The membership is available to Jambase's clients. “We have an e-mail list of about 40,000 people that has a ZIP code attached to everybody,” Kartzman explains. “People will be touring in New York, and we'll send an
e-mail to our 4,000 people that live within 75 miles of New York, or our 3,000 people that live within 75 miles of Boston.” Further, the troops are about to be mobilized. “When people register for Jambase, they get the ability to check the box that says they'd be willing to help promote shows in their area. I've got 8,000 kids ready to do that.” Surfing and posting on Jambase is free, but advertising and direct e-mail promotions cost depending on the placement or size.
THAT THE JAMBAND PHENOMENON THRIVES OWES to a fan base that numbers into the hundreds of thousands of listeners who strategically use the Web as their walkie-talkie. “Within the jam-groove scene,” figures Budnick, “I think we've realized the promise of the Web in terms of community. The scene is a reaction to the prefabricated music of the late 1990s, people looking for something that was a little bit different from artists doing the same show night after night. As more and more people became interested in it, young musicians became interested in it.”
“The one thing that kind of jells the whole scene together is the fans,” says Crumpton. “The fans themselves are open-minded to new forms of music and improvisational-based music. They like going to see that live.”
“I don't think this community embraces Top 40 pop acts,” concludes Kartzman. “I think they kind of resent it, because our musicians are really talented, they're not getting any MTV play, they're not getting any major-label play, but they're still selling out shows across the country. 'Jamband' defines the type of listener more than it does the type of band. We've had a DJ Logic feature — a guy who's the centerpiece of his band playing turntables, but he's improvising and scratching every night, and he's got a slammin' band behind him. He totally fits into the community, and the kids just ate it up.”