Independence and ambiguous music: Q&A with Jars of Clay

Back in March I flew up to Easterfest in Queensland - it's the largest Christian music festival in the country. At the time I was doing research for a possible book on Christian musicians who are taking their music independent, although that idea didn't quite pan out.

Jars of Clay were my target for this particular mission - they've recently started releasing their music under an independent label and I wanted to talk about not only that, but trends in their music in general.

We actually ended up having a great discussion about independence in music, but also about the interpretation of art in general - especially restrictions placed on "Christian" art and what the purpose of evangelical art is really supposed to be.

I tried selling it to a few places, but none have really panned out. So I'm going to post it here - at least that way, someone can read it. Hope you enjoy. 

(The Q&A is with lead singer Dan Haseltine and keyboardist Charlie Lowell).


Dan: We were signed onto Essential Records when we first started, and there was a lot of…our label being bought by other labels. We were the coffee table that came with the apartment, we liked to say.

We were in a contract for about 13 years, and at various points I think we were grateful for the work that was done in our major label model but also incredibly frustrated because it's so difficult…you can't pick up the phone and say, "we have an issue we want to talk about", and we couldn’t even point to who was working on what point of our career

Also, we were only partially in control creatively, in terms of what we were passionate about - it wasn’t something that the label was passionate about, and there were conflicts there. After being in the industry for a long time, we found that everybody was guessing for the most part, just because something was working for a major label didn’t mean they were more educated in making decisions in the art world than we were.

We felt more empowered over the years to step out of that system. When we finished that contract, we took a lot of time to figure out if we wanted to jump out and sign with another major label..

At that point the independent music scene was really starting to develop.

Patrick: What years were these?

Dan: This is about 1999-2000, when we started to feel the swell of the independent scene.

Charlie: 1999?

Dan: It was during Good Monsters.

Charlie: We get our years mixed up.

Dan: About that era. We felt there were other options, and we tried it out with the Christmas recorded and tried to build a mock label. That was our first engagement with music as an independent group…rather than with a major label. We liked the experience a lot.

It wasn’t terribly sustainable in that form but got our…we dipped our toe and felt it was the right temperature.

Patrick: When you say sustainable do you mean profitable?

Dan: It was profitable for us, but the team it was a lot of work. As a logistical model for how to organize a team and put out a record, it was flawed.

Charlie: For me that’s been the surprise. Inland is our first, independent, "we are handpicking the distribution" and so on, all those elements we need, we did all that about a year ago. And hand-picked our seven or eight players, and it's a ton of heavy lifting, a ton of meetings. You really do put away, for the most part, you put away your artist hat and you get out your marketing cap.

Patrick: How is that a challenge?

Charlie: It goes on and on, it’s a long process. I don’t say that begrudgingly, or that we wouldn’t do it again. But we grew up with these systems and then having to…part of Inland that we loved was not having to come up with a radio single or appease this radio department and give them these tools, we really had very few boundaries as to what we could create.

Patrick: I'm getting the sense this album is perhaps more creatively what you wanted it to be compared to some of the previous albums.

Dan: Not necessarily compared to the previous albums, but it felt more freeing to…we didn't have to second guess or think about the other voices. For better or worse because we weren’t thinking about radio, we weren’t thinking about the marketing, we were just trying to be artists. And that was important. We made a record that we're proud of and we love it.

And then I think at that point the good thing is, we picked every person we want on the project, when you work on the label there's a radio team and they may or may not be excited about it. The marketing team may not be excited about the artwork, or any of that stuff. And we got to find people who were excited about the project and had the passion for what it was, and said, we want you, we want people who are passionate about the project to work on it.

At the end of the day those people are going to be selling it and pushing it out to the masses –we want them to be passionate about it. That was exciting. I don't know if we'd ever really felt like that.

Patrick: One of the things I spoke with Audrey Assad about was her fatigue with the contemporary Christian music industry. I know you've said before there are nuances to your association with that group, but I'm guessing in your record producing in the past there's been that element. Is going independent a way to break free of that? Or is not really an issue?

Charlie: I think part of it is not having to jump through hoops. One of the pet peeves we didn’t have to do was the "story behind the song". So here's the track list, give me two sentences about what it means and so on.

Patrick: Is that common?

Charlie: For us, yeah. For our label. I would expect most major labels that would be common.

That's for radio interviews and so on, yeah?

Charlie: Yeah but it undermines the context of people hearing a song and contextualizing their story and falling in love with it. That was one tangible example of we're not going to do story behind the song.

Patrick: It's not sexy to write, "this song is whatever you want it to be"

Charlie: Right! But that's implied in creativity and art.

Dan: There's also the rub between art is art for art's sake, and art is a tool for something else. A gross generalization of the Christian music industry is that music is just a tool for something else.

Patrick: When you say "gross generalization", do you mean peoples’ understanding of it?

Dan: The way it's used in Christian culture is that music is a means to get to something else. There's an agenda there, it's to move someone into something else, or to corral them, or to get them into an emotional place. I think we've always hated that about that industry is that music, the ability to perform and create music and just sit in it, there's power in just that, when you separate it.

Charlie: Maybe even more powerful.

Dan: I think you make records differently when you're making it on its own and have it be its own experience, versus, making it so you can play it on the radio so you can get people to come to events or whatever. Music starts to become more like commercials.

Patrick: This is one of the things I got frustrated with in regard to Noah – people complaining it's not an accurate story. It's not an evangelistic tool.

Dan: It's actually probably closer to the intent of the original story – to be a great story and draw people in and inspire, versus using the story of Noah to getting people to do something. That's the rub. I think we've been able to breathe a little easier in our own system.

Patrick: I feel like there's been a swell of Christian artists going independent in the past three or four years. I wonder if that's a general push in the Christian scene, or just dissatisfaction with the industry – maybe both? Do you have any thoughts?

Dan: What you're describing, let's look at the artists not going independent. They're mostly the worship artists I'd say. Because that’s what supported. The horizontal message of artists looking at the world and describing it, that line has been drawn and left. People don’t feel that’s as important. All the artists outside of the worship movement we don't have the support we need, the only mechanism we have to get out to our fans is to create an independent system and support.

Most of the artists that do that see the importance of the prophetic voice in music, it’s the thing that describes the world back to us so we can see things and make changes. If "God, I worship you, you're amazing and fantastic", you're kind of just…sitting there. We're not moving. And we're not engaging with our community and we're not making changes or getting our hands dirty and that’s what we think is important. God might be saying, "can't you just…that guy over there needs your help. I'm actually over there".

The trend in Christian music is mostly based in that and that collection as artists saying there's no one supporting us.

Charlie: It forces you to get creative. I think because sales are down, streaming is up, radio is so, this skinny slice of pie, forces artists that aren’t, don’t feel drawn or interested, to go and create some other systems, it's great because it'll take a while, probably unearth some great not only great art but some new innovative systems.

Patrick: You certainly have to try harder. Someone like Jimmy Needham who is kickstarting his stuff, that takes hard work.

Dan: We come from a large and broad audience, and then moving into the independent music scene from that. It would be incredible trying to create a fan-base from that.

Patrick: I wonder where it goes from here. Is there a point where you go back to major labels?

Charlie: We haven't really talked about the economics but it's gotten a lot more narrow and there's less to work with. Even an artist on a level like Katy Perry – they're selling a quarter of the records they used to and they can't support a huge tour like that. They can't afford it in a couple of years, everyone is going to shift and figure out how to make it work.

Patrick: What does that mean for you guys then? You guys started, obviously, in the 1990s when cash was flowing. What has that meant for you guys in terms of supporting yourselves?

Dan: We have to stop looking at ourselves as a band and start looking as a creative partnership. It's not music, it's other forms of expression, books, doing more for film and television, etc. Things like that, and then its just engaging fans in a different level, and that's a lot more work.  Who knows? It doesn’t feel sustainable totally, even for a band like us.

We do a lot of different things outside the band to subsidize and keep food on the table in our houses, and that’s just art. Art is moving back to that patronage model, where people look at artists and say, "we feel your voice is important, we're going to support your voice".

Charlie: You get a little bit of that with Kickstarter.

Patrick: When you say that you’ve had to subsidise your efforts, has that always been the case?

Charlie: No, just in the last year or two. And I don’t want to sound like we're complaining, but if you want to get something done, you have to go and do it. We drive our van to the gig, we don’t tour on a bus anymore. The fluff goes away and if you want to be out here doing this, this is how you sustain it.

Dan: I'm always…I chuckle when people ask has it affected you when people stop buying music, and it's like, well, of course. How could it not? Because you don’t make any money, it still costs money to create a record, and I think people have the misconception that they look at these other artists who make an album on Garage Band and think it doesn’t cost anything, , and there you have your stuff and you record it. Only a couple thousand dollars. But if you're doing it at a level like we are, yes it's cheaper than it used to be, but it still costs money to leverage what we do, and hope that people are going to listen and if people love it they invest.

Patrick: Is there a point where you think creating music wont be sustainable?

Dan: Yeah. I think so.

Patrick: What'll happen?

Dan: We'll do other things.

Charlie: I would say these days touring is less sustianable than making music. At least at home in Nashville we've got a studio and a property where we can record and mix and do stuff there. But touring is less sustainable.

Patrick: I don’t want to sound sensationalist. But is there a point where you call it a day?

Dan: The value of it is, beyond the economics of this, there are other economics to play. At the end of the day its not fair to our families if we're not coming down and sustaining our homes. It’s not only a passion and a vocation but its also an occupation, it’s a career and if we can't be a career, for whatever reasons, then the right thing for us to do is honestly look at it and say, just because we love doing it doesn’t mean we get to anymore. That’s a conversation we'll get to have when the time comes.

Charlie: At the same time we're 20 years in and it has supported us for that amount of time. That’s amazing. There is a tremendous amount of gratefulness…but also frustration the model has changed and it’s a little harder than it used to be to get stuff done.