Double Shift

Jenny Toomey tries to figure out the future of music--for herself and everyone else

If Jenny Toomey were like most musicians, she would only talk about her new album, what it was like to make it, what the songs are about, that kind of thing. And she would be entitled: The double-disc Antidote, her solo debut and first album since Tsunami's A Brilliant Mistake in 1997, is a daunting, haunting record, where guitars share space with cellos and violins and broken hearts, where love is too often a dead end and a broken promise. Antidote is beautiful and sad, the soundtrack for a rainy afternoon spent filling ashtrays and emptying wine bottles.

In the course of a 30-minute conversation, Toomey does talk about Antidote--quite a bit, actually--but she has too many other things on her mind and on her plate to stop there, to get too wrapped up in self-promotion. Toomey isn't like most musicians, because, well, she isn't just a musician; you could say she's the guardian angel of musicians. Since June 2000, Toomey has been the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a not-for-profit organization designed "to educate the media, policymakers and the public about music and technology issues," as the FMC Web site (www.futureofmusic.org) says. So while she's on the road playing shows to promote the release of Antidote (on NYC-indie Misra Records), she's also stopping along the way to speak at universities about how new technology affects musicians and how they could and should be using the Internet to their advantage. Somewhere in there, she's also trying to find enough time in between to be a normal person, not the woman onstage with a guitar or a list of statistics. Just Jenny Toomey.

Meet Jenny Toomey, activist, and Jenny Toomey, musician. Somewhere in there is Jenny Toomey, person.
Meet Jenny Toomey, activist, and Jenny Toomey, musician. Somewhere in there is Jenny Toomey, person.

Listening to her speak, you realize it's not easy just being Jenny Toomey. Wait, that's not quite right. It's exhausting being Jenny Toomey, being an activist and a musician and, just as important, a person. It's not easy either, but saying that might imply that Toomey isn't up to the task, that she isn't capable of handling it all, that she comes off, as she says, as some "pathetic, crippled artist person." Nothing could be further from the truth: If anyone can be three people at once, it's Toomey.

"I'm not following any specific precedent," Toomey says of the combined speaking/rocking tour. She's in Chicago now, performing at Schubas in a few hours after speaking at the University of Illinois at Chicago earlier in the day. "I don't know if it makes an artist a better person to only do art. Sometimes, I think it makes them a worse person. Maybe a better artist, but a worse person. It is hard juggling the activist head and the musician head. And it's also really hard juggling both those heads with the private head, because both of those are about being a persona, in some ways. But that said, I'd just get bored if I could only be one or the other. I want to know about these issues, and I want other artists to know about it. I think it's sad, because I think most artists can understand it, but they just assume they can't. They turn off for the first 30 minutes, but if they just paid attention for 30 full minutes, they'd get it. They'd get the basic facts, and then everything else would just fall into place."

Toomey has spent more than a decade making sure things fall into place. She began when she and Tsunami band mate Kristin Thomson ran Simple Machines, a record label that put out more than 70 releases from 1990 until April 1998, when it finally closed up shop for good. Simple Machines was the home for records by such bands as Superchunk, Jawbox, Seaweed and Unrest, among others, as well as Toomey's various groups, including Tsunami, Grenadine, Liquorice and Geek. It was an independent record label in every sense of the word, proof that you really could do it yourself, that a label could produce good music and put it out the right way.

As important as any single record Simple Machines released, though, was the 24-page An Introductory Mechanic's Guide to Putting Out Records, Cassettes and CDs, a matter-of-fact handbook that broke down the process of releasing records and CDs into easy-to-follow instructions. Besides being the launching point for many independent labels, the Mechanic's Guide taught artists how important it was to maintain control of their work. It was a lonely voice, screaming to be heard over the empty promises of A&R reps, the label lackeys doing anything and everything to convince musicians to sign their lives and their songs away to the highest bidder.

When Simple Machines shut down, Toomey didn't stop using that voice. She took a job at the Washington Post as a copywriter, while also writing music and technology reviews for the Post, Village Voice and CNET, among others. One of her assignments for the Post--reviewing an MP3 jukebox for Fast Forward, the Post's technology section--opened her eyes to the effects new technology could have on independent music. The Future of Music Coalition was born in that assignment, once Toomey realized the opportunities that were out there, the power to which she was just being introduced.

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