Jane Siberry: Thoughts on Creating a Monster – Mél Hogan

http://www.sheeba.ca/store/home.php

I am supposed to meet Issa for an interview in 15 minutes. My phone rings. It’s Issa. She tells me she is still at the hair salon. She is running late. Could I do her a favour and get her a salad—something with protein, something vegetarian—and meet her at the Green Room at 7 instead. I’ll pay you back, she says.

It’s November in Montreal and it is pouring rain and dark. But because I’m about to interview the woman who sang the best song on my favorite mix tape from my first big love in high school, a little salad-fetching in the dark of the winter night seems totally reasonable. And, as I would later understand, Issa’s straightforwardness is just part of her agenda-free, free-thinking experiment. She lives her politics—and having sold all her belongings, including her house in Toronto—she lives everywhere. The night we spoke she made Montreal her home and I was determined to make it a place she would want to return to often.

I arrive at the Green Room, where she was to perform later that night. She is sitting at the piano, writing up her guest list. She wonders if perhaps there would be a venue better suited for her, somewhere else. The thought passes and we sit down to talk. She is at once intense and soothing, passionate, and present. She tells me she’s recently changed her name (back from Issa) to Jane Siberry.

A bit nervously, I dive right into the idea of ‘improvisation’ without much preparatory small talk. It seems to me improvisation is a core concept of self-determination, of adapting, and of what I would later understand from Jane as freethinking.

MH: Improvisation is certainly not something that is new for you, but would you say you have more creative freedom now that you are free from a major label?

JS: There was a certain point with Warner Brothers when I couldn’t do interesting side projects like when I did Maria, which was not a commercial record. I said no problem. I’ll do it the way I like it, but I will give you a companion EP of the most commercial versions of these songs you could ever want. I will do remixes for you. But they didn’t have a system that could handle that kind of thing. I said we could use the commercial versions for the videos, too.

There are so many hooks in those songs that never repeat, and while I knew how I was going to do it, it didn’t fit into their system. And then I started feeling limited from other things too…

MH: So that was the beginning of your transition away from major label representation?

JS: Yes, the main reason was that they wanted to enforce a producer into what I did. I didn’t think that made sense unless I wanted one. And sometimes I have wanted one. It was a statement they made, so I knew it wasn’t right for me anymore.

MH: So you felt they wanted control over your creative process?

JS: Yes, they wanted to control it very much.

MH: And now, you can’t release some of your own music because of licensing restrictions and copyright issues…

JS: I have learned my lesson. When I enter into a new contract I make sure that it is win-win for everybody. I can never own the masters for When I was a Boy or Maria.

I was trying to figure out with my new name, Issa, how to maintain the rights, full control over my music, which meant not joining SOCAN as ‘Issa’, and it also meant not collecting money from them. So I would lose a lot of money, which is OK. But, unfortunately SOCAN won’t separate Issa and Jane Siberry. So I am just curious—I am not upset or anything—I am just curious as to what controls have to be maintained now before they expand, so that people won’t be penalized for playing my music on their website without paying. Because I say they can. You know that eventually websites will have to pay some kind of collection fee.

MH: So you think one day there will a hit counter or something that will track what everyone listens to, a SOCAN for the web maybe, to distribute fees…

JS: Yes, they will be able to check easily I think, to see what copyrighted music is played on any website. It’s simple. It’s not that difficult a thing.

MH: Would you get rid of copyright altogether?

JS: That’s what I was checking out with my lawyer. Lawyers aren’t used to thinking that way, so I used to brainstorm with him. I would ask him, what would happen if I never put any name on a song? What if I just let them go out with no name? Or make them public domain right away…

MH: Which you can… with Creative Commons licensing.

JS: Yes… can you?

MH: Yes…

JS: …make it public domain already?

MH: Yes. Lawrence Lessig, an American lawyer, argued that copyright was a default… he was proposing that with all the technological changes, the internet in particular, copyright had to be re-thought to accommodate the way things circulate. He is often credited as proposing Creative Commons as an alternative. You have different licenses that allow different permissions. Attribution, non-commercial use, etc.

JS: That means that SOCAN or ASCAP or any collection agency has to know all those fine-tuned definitions of copyright ownership… oh my gosh…

MH: Maybe. I don’t know…

JS: It’s going to create a huge monster.

MH: So it’s not just about music distribution, the effects on creativity, on writing, on making music…

JS: There is something very wrong when people put out music and words that are in the air so that they become part of our language… and then you can’t use those words… which in three words makes a point greater than two linear sentences. And then you can be sued for it. It’s so far from my thoughts that I can’t be quite clear right now, but that’s wrong. That’s not the point of music! And writing… I mean it is a generous thing that has to flow and be pulled forward even further by other people. If you start policing it, it will create more and more distortions, and there already are a lot.

I’m trying to rethink all of this from the ground up and not get myself into a contract that will bind me for the future.

MH: Who is the contract with for your last album?

JS: There is no contract. I own the songs. I own the physical… I paid for the CDs. There is no record label that has any rights to my music. I own the master rights so I can give anyone the right to use this in films and wherever they like. I own the publishing rights for synch licenses. But I am a member of SOCAN – that’s where the hooks are.

MH: That’s interesting because… Well, I don’t know the history of SOCAN but I imagine it was created so that artists get properly recompensed for their creations. I imagine the intentions were different when SOCAN started.

JS: Yes! Correct… but it also represents publishers. So that’s the other side of the equation. So when they get too strong they start pushing forward things that are not artist-friendly. I forget the name of it, but my lawyer Burt Harris did a lot to stop it. If artists didn’t step forward and make a statement, that something naturally defaulted to the publisher, rather than the artist, which was much, much, more in the favour of the publisher.

He went to bat—embarrassed some people—and changed that at SOCAN, and then he died. He taught me so much about it even if I don’t have a brain for retaining it. The shape of his thinking is in me still.

So, yes, SOCAN is supposed to be in the best interest for the artist but we all need to keep working at the agencies that represent us. So this was the first time they had to deal with something like me—where I was saying I don’t want copyright on my Issa songs and I don’t want you putting my financial statements together with Jane Siberry’s because what if I want to send all my Issa royalties to a trust fund or to a charity? I am not going to pay my accountant to separate out all the songs. You have to be able to let artists have different personas.

MH: So [pointing to the new CD With What Shall I Keep Warm?]… here it says Issa and Jane Siberry on the album.

JS: Yes. That’s new in fact. I officially changed my name back to Jane Siberry two weeks ago.

MH: Oh! Really…

JS: Yes. So now my career will be Jane Siberry. Issa is me, but… all the Issa/Jane Siberry things happened before that. So that was an exercise in what SOCAN really represents. But now everything is simplified again.

The third CD of the trilogy will be Jane Siberry.

MH: I was thinking about this, though it doesn’t really have anything to do with the name change per se… but your career path and your trajectory as a musician is particularly interesting because you were a musician before the internet so you have seen “both sides”: the pre- and post-web.

I was wondering how much of this system you have created, the self-determined pricing for example, and the freedom you have allowed yourself, how much of that is based on having a really solid fan base that was created by traditional means… I mean, do you think emerging artist would have…

JS: No… I know exactly what you mean.

I’m not sure how you would handle it but I had a foothold already so that really helped me. For an emerging artist… I think we all, at whatever level we are at, we just have to hunker down and do our best and… just put ourselves in the hands of the greater. And I don’t mean to sound fey or too general but…

MH: So there is no utopia of the internet… more access to more people…

JS: No, because there are still thousands and thousands of musicians vying to be heard. And repetition is a great way for people to get used to people, especially if you are original. So there is no commercial radio anymore. I hope there are some aficionados creating really great stations. They have an open playing field to do that now, right?

But I think it is easier now, for sure, globally. If you have a song that people like, that should be the calling card. It’s not so hard to reach listeners as it used to be… especially without commercial radio.

MH: How did you come up with the idea of a self-determined pricing system online?

JS: I think one of the most telling moments was when I was standing at my door, from inside, and I was watching a man on a bench, 50 feet from me, and I locked the door: I stood there and I closed the door and I locked the door. And I was in a house, safe, and he was outside, and I just hated that so much. Which doesn’t mean you invite everyone into your home, but it’s almost as though I invited myself out of my home. It upsets me so much that I, at least in my own little world, don’t want to police things. So I am not exactly an example of a good business model that would make a profit money-wise, but I think it is a business model that is in the air because a lot of people are like-minded and more empowered than they used to be.

A lot of people ask for my template for the store. People can download from a neutral place and it is part of a greater open-source system, so I won’t ever be responsible if it doesn’t work. It will be autonomous. It will be self-sufficient.

MH: In terms of the self-determined part, how do you determine value? How do you determine how much a song is worth? Is it not about money at all?

JS: No, I do have my own sense. I have to. If someone asks me to do a show for $300 I will definitely say “no”. It’s not like I want to do everything for free. I do value things and some things should be really expensive. At a certain time… I didn’t answer your question clearly but… I value that it is a transaction, which is why I don’t say “free” much though I suppose I just did, but I mean a “gift from the artist”…Or, “pay it forward”. Because I am also in this world and if you are “paying it forward” I am also benefiting.

It’s not necessarily daring though; it’s almost from frustration. Anger at being policed. At being disrespected. At feeling the dumbing down of everyone…

At least I have created space for myself. And I have such high regard for everyone… I feel really blessed to have the people around me, the people who like my music. They have pulled me way more forward than I would have gone myself. Every idea I have, someone tops it. And improves it… [laughs]

MH: Like what?

JS: Well I had self-determined pricing at my shows, people could put in what they want, and I overheard someone say “I don’t have any money to pay for the CD, but it’s OK, I’ll just go to her site today and pay through her site, through PayPal”… just thinking for herself. And now that’s in my system…yes, if you don’t have cash, go to my store tonight. That kind of thinking. And I love to see that. That’s just one example…

MH: But it’s all about trust, right, ultimately?

JS: Yes, trust, but I don’t call it the “honour system”.

The honour system means that you will pay what the person expects, but I mean you pay what feels right to you, and wheeling into that is the respect for me, too. But it’s not a guilt trip. There is no expected pay. It just kills me when people want me to see them put money in the box. Because they still feel guilty for taking something… that’s a sad reflection of where we are at… I don’t know. In my own little world I just try to do my thing.

MH: And I see that your new CD is available through CD Baby.

JS: They’re amazing. Derek Sivers, who started it—he is no longer there and it might change but—they don’t control anything. Anyone can distribute through them. Just send 5 CDs. Anyone. They don’t say no. So all I need is a mail order company… to me they are just a mail order company. I’ve done mail order before and it is not a good use of my time [laughs].

MH: Right, but CD baby doesn’t offer the self-determined pricing.

JS: No, I’ll still have that on my site for the downloads but not for the physical CD.

MH: Or maybe CD Baby will adopt your system for the artists who want the self-determined option?

JS: That has been mentioned. But they always take 4 dollars per CD. So they would need to have a default of 4 dollars, and that’s easy enough to program, so that they always get their amount.

MH: A lot of people are downloading music “illegally”, a lot of people are using torrents and Limewire and things like that to access music. What are your thoughts on this?

JS: I love downloading. I can’t tell you how useful it has been when I have to do a cover version and I go to Limewire and get 20 versions of Nature Boy. It’s so efficient! I don’t pay a dollar a song. I use my own sense of balance. I buy lots of CDs from bands that I never listen to.

MH: Finding more of a balance… things had titled too much and the internet…

JS: …is showing a leveling effect.

MH: The other thing I find interesting is that when I do an online search for “Jane Siberry” or “Issa”, your music comes up on LastFM and MySpace and sites like that…

JS: What’s LastFM?

MH: Oh, so you don’t know that you are on LastFM? [laughs]

JS: No…what is LastFM?

MH: LastFm is a bit like MySpace. It’s a UK-based website with music streaming, videos, concert listings, comments, and so on. It’s more chic than MySpace… It has links to buying the album and to similar artists.

You have a huge fan base there, commenting on your work and your music and your tour so…

How does that change your relationship to your fan base? And your perception of yourself… do you track yourself more?

JS: I try not to. You can imagine how self-conscious that might make you feel…so I try to let people do their thing and not eavesdrop. But I make it a rule not to join any forums or if people send me things in forums to look at… people need their privacy. They need it just as I do.

MH: And not knowing you are on LastFM doesn’t feel like a breach?

JS: No. I mean, how can you stop it? It’s natural, right? I mean, that’s the same thought process. You can police it or you can work with it. And policing never works, I don’t think.

But that’s an open thing and not a private thing so I might go look at that…

MH: I use Grooveshark—I don’t know if you have ever heard of it—but basically it just streams music without downloading…

JS: Oh cool!

MH: Yeah, I just punch in Jane Siberry and a list of a hundred songs comes up… all your albums mixed together…

JS: That is fantastic!

MH: So that’s not coming from you?

JS: No and I’m so glad. I couldn’t do it… I don’t have the energy to do it or the time. But that is great and that is the way it should be.

MH: In one place I also read that you wrote 33 songs in 33 days and another place I read you thought the good rate for releasing music would be about 3 tracks every ten years.

JS: Yes… I said both things. And I did write a song a day until I got to 33 songs but they were not consecutive days…I would wait until I had money, and then go into the studio and do one song a day.

MH: And offline, you have your salons.

JS: The only reason a salon is good is because it is efficient. The people are happy to have you and they are respectful. It’s not that I mind clubs—I love beautiful concert halls and I love the theatre—you can give more to the audience, the lights, you know, everything works for you. But right now the salons are more efficient, matching with the artist’s energy and the audience. And I say, “don’t spend any money,” and then I take all the ticket money.

When did we ever get into this idea that we are holding back out music unless you give us something? That to me seems to be the ultimate basic distortion. Hopefully other ways will come forward. Oddly enough this salon thing, I get treated like a queen and I can do with very little money, people are putting me up…I don’t care anymore, I used to love hotels…

The salon thing is very efficient. Instead of thinking I can’t do this alone unless I get 2500 dollars, I get picked up at the airport, I get accommodation, I get food, I get treated as someone who has something to offer. And you don’t need much money, so maybe there is some kind of answer there.

MH: And now you are touring. You have sold all your belongings, including your house in Toronto, as a means to be free to make your music.

JS: Yes, for now. The point was to not control, so I can’t control it if it does change back… to having a place.

MH: But it is definitely linked to distributing music online, to freeing yourself from a label…

JS: I would work with a record label if that felt right, too.

MH: Oh yeah?

JS: I did check out some but… I really want music to reach people and it is hard without promotion. So I have put myself in the hands of the universe. There are many ways to get my music out there—in a film—and so on. I am not deliberately trying to shoot myself in the foot.

MH: Ok, so it is an openness in every direction and not a harsh political statement.

JS: Yeah. You got it. There is a subtle difference but you get it.

Anyway. I really like your questions and what you are trying to get at and I really respect that so I am happy to help in any way possible…

Jane and I talk for a good hour, and I feel we are speaking the same language and have the same hopes for arts… though her ideas are far more developed, more lived, more refined than my own. After the conversation, Jane asks me to tend to her merchandise table, which includes taking tickets at the door. I oblige, all too happy to be able to return the favour—and what I come to understand is the balanced transaction she believes in. The Green Room fills up quickly, with people willingly dropping 20 dollar bills into the CD box even after I explain, on behalf of Jane, that they are free to pay later through her website, or via other means. People insist on paying for her performance—in a sense rejecting the idea that is at the core of Jane’s distribution system—adamant about the way worth is determined through money. The room is full, and Jane gives all of herself and transforms the slightly dive-y Green Room into a magical happening, living up in every way to her reputation as an enchanting performer.