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Photo from Drew McLellan’s flickr stream

The Grammy-award winning Jars of Clay took to the internet as soon as they started in the early 1990s. I spoke with guitarist Stephen Mason about the significance of connecting with fans over the course of their career. He began by referencing Lewis Hyde’s classic 1982 book The Gift that argues for understanding the flow of art in terms of social and cultural (gift) rather than market economics.

Oh, great.  So we can go right into talking about things in terms of gift economy, if you want.
Mason: Exactly.  And that, I think, sees everyone survive, because artists are alive when they create.  And people that consume art are alive when they receive it, and they pass it on and they share it.  And that’s the antithesis of the music industry that we came out of when we signed in the ‘90s. It was bloody, to say the least.

In what sense was it bloody in the ’90s?  Because the recording industry was going into its peak, right?
Mason: Yeah, yeah.  Well, that’s the thing.  That’s where the money grubbing went.  There was so much money being made, and yet, access to music was at an all-time low in terms of people being able to access their artists that they loved, that they’re passionate about.  You know, the people they champion.  The only inside track you had was to join a fan club or just basically to spend more money to get any amount of extra news.  And now, I think it’s absolutely laughable that we’re offering those same things every day, hoping people will just listen for free. You know, in terms of Twitter and Facebook.

When you were doing those things early on, like getting on the Jars of Clay fan board on AOL in 1994 or 95, were you trying to overcome those distribution barriers and build a more direct relationship from the start?
Mason: Absolutely.  Because we wanted to know what was moving people about the music.  In our case, that was equally exciting and terrifying because the interesting thing about art is what you put out and what people perceive are many times completely different. But it helped us establish– you know, for us, we weren’t pop enough and we certainly weren’t evangelical enough to fit in either camp too well.  So it actually helped articulate our place a bit, the space that we occupied.

Do you still pay a lot of attention to the discourse around you that’s out there?
Mason: Yes, but some of what we’re articulating is just the maturity of 15, 16 years.  When we first started we were golden kids. We couldn’t do a lot wrong, because things kind of out of the box worked really well for us.  But I think there’s a maturity to knowing how to engage and also walking a fine line because for us, where we stand politically and socially doesn’t mirror everybody that listens to our music.  So there’s a maturity involved in knowing what to put out, how to challenge an audience and then how to just sit back and listen sometimes as well.

Twitter, especially, offers that in a way– it’s not one-sided, because people can respond, but we can choose to engage that stuff more clearly.   Twitter is the most vibrant and interactive, I would say, of all [the ways to connect with fans online].  And that might just be what we’ve given ourselves to, because we’re all using smartphones, so we can, in a moment, send something out that’s funny or that’s moving us, or something contemplative. That’s probably our favorite thing, beyond our actual .com site. But honestly, I think it’s all happening in real time so much these days.  Even by the time it would get to the .com site, we’re past it.

Do you have any feelings about some of the more creative but also potentially problematic things that people do on there, like creating fan art or remixes, for example?
Mason: Oh, I think it’s cool.  I mean, honestly, it’s people getting involved and interested in finding ways to– in its own way, it’s a response.  These days, it would be foolish to just say anything other than, “I’m excited that people are engaging.” We’re really really grateful for those fans because those are the people that spread what we’re doing in a really specific way.

You were talking earlier about maturing and being able to handle better the kinds of things that you run into with your audience and I assume learning to let go and let your audience do their own thing and not feeling that you have to control it all the time part of that?
Mason: I think so. Yeah, it’s finishing something and then letting it go and be what it’s going to be and allowing other people the freedom to write, to engage with it, mess with it, morph it into other things.  That is what helps keep artists viable in some regards. That’s why I’m excited to see how copyright law develops in the future, because anybody with a laptop can do something that way.

But you view that more as exciting opportunity for engaging the conversation than as threat to creative control and livelihood?
Mason: I think so because again,  I have to trust in the gift economy idea. Because honestly at the end of the day I would rather be surrounded by people that I know and love that are creative and that are moving and changing cultural currents than isolate myself in the conversation of infringement and the limits it puts on the art. It puts us in the corner that’s not as interactive and that’s not as alive. It’s not as much life in it and that’s the risk.  There’s always going to be that risk. But I’ve been encouraged that there’s survival.  There’s survival in the heart of that instead of the opposite.


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