A torrent of words pour out of Gary Kuzminski (39) as he runs through his list of 14 concrete ideas he has come up with to make Chicago’s music scene more visible to tourists and others who would enjoy the art of Chicago’s independent musicians but who do not know about it.
Gary gestures expansively, his blue eyes flashing and holding yours. His square face, framed by a light salt-and-pepper stubble, is dominated by a big grin as he talks. He communicates that he likes you—he probably likes everyone—and that he is eager for you to understand and accept his ideas. A hearty laugh greets many of your responses—especially when he can turn them against himself. Self-important he is not. Passionate he is.
To make sure Gary’s excitement over his ideas does not obscure the practical details, Toby Worschek (37) periodically jumps in to finish Gary’s sentences. Much of the time, he just listens to the byplay, a hint of smile on his lips, which are framed by a tidy mustache and goatee between occasional dimples. Toby and Gary characterize each other as being like brothers.
Toby is passionate about diversity "One of the most important things that happened around Detroit," says Toby, leaning forward over clasped hands, "was discovering funk's power to bring people together. Rock and rap shows tended to draw mostly guys. When you went to a funk show like Parliament-Funkadelic or Prince, everyone was there: males/females, gay/straight, black/white, old and young.”
Gary recounts his start in the music industry. Both his father and grandmother were musicians, so it was in his blood. Initially, however, he concentrated on visual arts, designing, illustrating and distributing concert posters, ‘zines and flyers from his “Sir Real Labs” studio on Chicago’s south side. In 1991, he got involved with David Prince’s “Reactor Magazine”, a DIY zine dedicated to music, technology and the emerging underground electronic youth/rave culture. Reactor opened Gary’s eyes to the culture’s DIY (“Do It Yourself”) philosophy which made heavy use of guerrilla street marketing and rapidly expanding PC-based tools to create, publish and distribute media. Gary was particularly taken with the multi-media shows accompanying the musical performances and events, which were much more cutting edge and interactive than typical concerts He was thus a pioneer in Chicago’s techno-youth movement.
By the in the mid-nineties he was in a couple of bands, “Squishy,” and “Frequency Lab,” Both outings combined electronic with analog instrumentation and concentrated on marrying video and images through MIDI controllers.
Before long he hooked up with Steve Collins’ of theLab project, on Chicago’s west side, [see http://www.spybey.net/being/diaries/chicago97.html; http://www.aracnet.com/~jester/interview/lab.report.interview.html; http://www.aracnet.com/~jester/interview/dvoa-4.interview.html] which occupied two floors of an old warehouse near the United Center on Chicago’s west side. Gary and his buddies were mentored by the amazing collection of talent that comprised the core of the facility. theLab exposed them to early videocasting technologies, low-band pirate FM radio and the concept of timeshifting. More important than this was the revelation that, as an artist, you no longer had to go the traditional nightclub route to get your message out to the masses. It was now possible to stage elaborate multi-media events and perform them live before thousands of people from any location in the world. In addition to the live performances, all of the shows at theLab were meticulously archived and could be experienced at the click of a mouse. The back-library of artist performances was incredible.
Toby was born in Southfield, Michigan in 1970. He can thank his mother for music lessons (she claims that she put up with the drums so she could always keep tabs) and an older brother for an early introduction to funk. School really got under way with the discovery of The Electrifying Mojo on Detroit radio. His nightly broadcasts started with “the Landing of the Mothership” and continued into hours-long excursions of everything from Afrika Bambaataa & Kraftwerk to P-Funk & Prince. There is no doubt that the Electrifying Mojo’s eclectic mix of funk, soul, new wave and early electronic music heavily influenced a whole generation of musicians and was crucial to the development of Detroit Techno. Mojo’s refusal to adhere to musical formats would eventually force him to purchase his own radio time and secure his own sponsors.
As a teenager, Worscheck became a DJ for a small alternative radio station that gave jockeys “opens” (a song of your choosing not pre-approved or in format) and was frequently reprimanded for mixing several tracks into “one song” to avoid playing what was expected. He would later become the format director that successfully lobbied the station manager to do away with the format altogether – no easy feat considering the political climate of the 80’s. The fear was that a new somewhat ambiguous censorship law lovingly crafted by the PMRC could be used effectively to shut down any small operation deemed offensive, with crippling legal defense bills. This would be Worscheck’s first experience with direct action. Unfortunately, criticizing the Reagan administration on air and transmitting excerpts of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl proved to be unsuccessful tactics and his broadcasting privileges were revoked.
Worscheck moved to Chicago in 1990 and worked as an activist and campaign coordinator, employing street theatre and guerilla marketing (including a “crop circle” in a genetically modified soybean test plot that revealed “MONSANTO BIOHAZARD” from news agencies helicopters above). These stunts proved to be very influential and would be applied to countless other ventures in the years to come.
In 1991 he met Gary Kuzminski after a live D-Settlement performance for the birthday of legendary Chicago poet, musician and teacher Marvin Tate. Toby and Gary would later become band mates in several different projects and eventually collaborate on the seminal funk of Mofo Rising. Growing frustrated with their experiences with record label and industry types, the band decided to launch their own label, Aquaphonic Media, which would be largely digital and, as the name suggested, not confined to music alone. Discontent with the trappings of a traditional band, not to mention the business risks being unnecessarily taken by opposing egos were enough to make them seriously reconsider their situation. They quit the band and went on hiatus for a while until the two decided to join forces for one last try – DIY partners in crime. This would inevitably lead to the birth of the conjoined freak black sheep bastard child that is JaGoFF; a multi-pronged assault of hard hitting, bass laden funk loaded with hot button double-entendres that often reveal deeper significance upon closer listening. It is an irreverent, biting social commentary that leaves one guessing if they are for real. Cynical smart-asses or satire possibly? They aren’t saying or they aren’t breaking character. “Either way,” says Toby, “it is highly entertaining and quite possibly offensive--like the news.”
Meanwhile, along with growing bandwidth and the emergence of file-sharing technology, Gary discovered .mp3 files and used “pirate rooms” on AOL, then Hotline, then Napster as the means of distribution. He was not interested in “stealing” popular music but rather in establishing a new distribution channel for indie musicians, who otherwise lacked a practicable way to distribute their music directly to fans. Since they did not have any inclination or desire for major-label contracts, file-sharing proved to be the perfect vehicle for the independent musician.
Kuzminski’s and Worscheck’s commitment to electronic music was in part driven by their growing discontent with the trappings of being in a traditional “band”. After they disbanded Aquaphonic they found that they no longer needed a practice space and technology enabled them to no longer have to pay for use of a high-end recording studio. That, combined with the geographic distance between them meant that it was only natural that the PC and the internet play a key role in the process.
Under the alias, JaGoFF, they recorded a few “one-off” singles and posted them to a handful of music sites, quickly garnering a “#1 Editor’s Pick” on RollingStone.com. CD-R singles made their way through to the nightclub circuit, eventually finding their way to URB Magazine’s “Top 5 Picks” and in 2003 (and again in 2004) JaGoFF was invited on the Vans Warped Tour. Having never performed JaGoFF as a live band, they had no idea how they would go about performing a touring show - nonetheless, they rented a van, headed to the Pontiac Silverdome and dove in head first.
Gary and Toby embrace the term “music guerrilla fighter” to describe their approach to the music scene in Chicago, laughing as they use the term. "We need hard evangelizing. Our mission is to jolt people out of their complacency, to push their buttons. They need to grasp how much is possible with DIY."
In response to the entertainment industry's “iron-fisted tactics” against online media and technology, Gary launched TheRecordIndustry.com (TRI) in 2000, as a resource for independent/DIY musicians (and criticism and satire focused on the major record labels and concert promoters). The better known record industry had a fit, but there was nothing they could do about it. With its spotlight on current news, technology, legislation and IP issues, TRI is widely recognized and has become a touchstone for hundreds of thousands in the real industry.
They reject the idea that inherent limits exist in Chicago on how far a musician can go. "There is no ceiling on what a presently unknown musician can accomplish. The market is the whole world. Nothing is localized any more. Anyway, Chicago and Detroit are well known for their music.
So what’s the problem? I ask. You’ve heard the complaints: Chicago is not supportive of its indie musicians.
"The talent pool is not shallow.” There are not only lots of musicians; there also are lots of people who want to help—publicists, producers, recording studio managers.
It’s a time of uncertainty, they tell me, and musicians are caught off balance. The old pathways are disappearing and they new ones have not emerged clearly yet. “The uncertainties involve the emergence of new gatekeepers and the levels to which a musician should aspire.”
Too many musicians have not redefined their aspirations. They are stuck thinking that the goal is a record label contract.Not only that, people do not really work together; they won’t venture outside their comfort zone of fellow band members and others they regularly hang out with. "It's strange now to see things so segregated, so segmented. It's crazy. Most of us have the same dreams. The music has all the same roots, the same purpose. Most of it is in 4/4 time, emphasizing a pentatonic blues scale, with emphasis on the downbeats. Nothing inherent in the music separates us.”
Everyone is distracted by a battle involving dinosaurs. "The problem is that the old gatekeepers are fighting over control; they want a piece of everything. When I think about the old elite--the aggressive gatekeepers, the Live Nation, Clear Channel, Lollapalooza--it makes me think, 'we should be picketing all their shows and festivals.'"
“But we can’t even organize a picket line. It’s hard for musicians to work together broadly, and even harder for them to organize effectively for the business side. “Organization is a stigma for people who make music for free. At the same time, they don’t want to make it for free; they want to get paid. Dollars are about the only currency of validation: if you don't sell any albums or draw crowds to paid venues, how can you know that people like your music?”
So money is the measure of success, but Chicago’s indie musicians are not very good at chasing it because, they tell themselves while hanging out with their friends and drinking beer, they are too busy making music.While neither Gary nor Toby challenges the role of money as a validator, they also scoff at the preoccupation with getting a major label deal. “You’re not going to get a major label deal, unless you are already famous or you are the son or daughter of someone famous. And if you got one, it would just put you into debt.”
Musicians, if they really want to go to the next level, have to break free of their fantasies of getting a major label deal and “We’re in a revolution. If you want to rise to the top, you have to be a revolutionary. I was fortunate enough to be able to study improv, under Martin DeMatt when I was attending Columbia College. One of the best things I learned was the aphorism, 'Be prepared to fail gloriously.’ Take it to the limit. Throw a house party and perform if you can't play anywhere else. Jump in!"
"Whatever your message is, you can pull people into it with music."
Gary and Toby are not immune, themselves, from the desire to make more money from their music, but they have a cause. "We'll keep doing what we do regardless, but we'd like to quit our day jobs." Gary stops. Then he laughs that big laugh and says, "We're resigned to the reality that we may never be able to quit our day jobs."
Their band, JaGoFF, www.myspace.com/jagoff, is the umbrella and the brand for their efforts. JaGoFF’s 2007 album presents an experimental collage of home-made samples, electronic music, raunchy lyrics, inflammatory messages, and rhythms that draw in the listener. A funk flavor predominates, but gospel hints are thrown in from time to time amidst sprinklings of rap. The feel is African American, but the musicians are white guys from Michigan, and Chicago’s southside. They reach for a genre that might seem foreign because they know that all popular and anti-establishment music in American shares common roots.
The two of them boil over with concrete ideas to make people think of Chicago as a music city:
"Get promotional brochures into the airport and hotel rooms—not just for the big national acts; let people know about the richness of Chicago’s music at all levels;
“ Allow posters at El and Metra stations"
"Don't interfere with street music"
"Establish a local Chicago music registry, Madison has Ishtimus and Madison Daily Page"
"Organize a monthly co-sponsored music industry mixer; introduce people to each other in an informal context"
"Develop a list of fair contract terms for both clubs and bands; distribute a one-page model contract"
"Set up a hedge fund to steer investment into new bands"
A thousand ideas, presented forcefully and persuasively.
"Make a music video insert for "Street Wise," the paper the homeless people sell
"Teach gang-vulnerable kids how to do music videos. Think of "Hitting the Deck" and "Break Dance Chicago"
"Go to underserved Chicago City Colleges and get their buy in"
"Set up a CMC booth at Lollapalooza; shame the sponsors into doing it."
"Do the same thing at Taste of Chicago"
"Set up WiFi hotspots that promote downloads and play lists"
If Gary and Toby were in charge of promoting Chicago as a music city, everyone in the world would think of it as such. It would help, of course, if the little micro-communities they want to help could break free from “hanging out” with each other and join the movement.
Guerrilla tactics flourish in a time of revolution.