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.
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.
"As soon as I saw it and saw what it did, it was just this immediate response, where suddenly, I was like, 'Oh my goodness,'" Toomey says. "This technology has incredible power to break the logjam, to break off the bottleneck, the artificially constrained marketplace that keeps musicians away from fans. If you can make their music available directly, and if you can connect with your fans directly, you know, they wouldn't get to be Michael Jackson, but I don't know that most musicians want to be Michael Jackson. I think most musicians would be happy if they could pay a mortgage payment, have health insurance and maybe hear themselves on the radio every once in a while."
Toomey began working with Thomson to revise the Mechanic's Guide to reflect the changes of the digital age. In November 1999, they teamed up with Insound, an online retailer (www.insound.com) and clearinghouse for pretty much everything concerning independent music and bands, to create a new area on its Web site (The Machine) devoted to the Mechanic's Guide. As Toomey and Thomson began working on it, The Machine expanded to become a living, breathing version of the Guide, including interviews and essays about the current state of music and technology and how they intertwine, as well as a message board to ask and answer questions. But the more they became involved in The Machine, the more they realized it wasn't enough.
After writing an editorial for the Post on the potential of music and technology, Toomey assembled a board of directors for the Future of Music Coalition. The members included Thomson; Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition; intellectual property lawyer Walter F. McDonough; digital music entrepreneur Brian Zisk; and Peter DiCola, a graduate student seeking a law degree and a doctorate in economics. Together, they wrote and published the Future of Music Manifesto, which stated, in part: "We build this organization as an attempt both to address pressing music-technology issues and to serve as a voice for musicians in Washington, D.C., where critical decisions are being made regarding musicians' intellectual property rights without a word from the artists themselves." The Future of Music Coalition was formed not just so musicians would have a voice, but so they'd learn how to use it as well. Mainly, so people would realize that, with the Internet's capabilities, "it's very hard to do things that were done illegally and privately, privately anymore," as Toomey says.
What kind of illegal and private things is she talking about? "Two and a half years ago, the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] snuck some language into a bill that almost took away the copyrights of all artists that go through major label deals," Toomey explains. "And it took almost six weeks for anyone to identify that it happened, right? Last week, the RIAA tried to slip some legislation into an anti-terrorism bill, this bill that's just being passed through the House right now, that would allow them to go onto your computers and destroy any illegally copied files. And what's great is, in less than a week, maybe four days since this thing happened, it's all over the Web."
That doesn't even get into major label record deals, which she says "are terrible because the only people that ever see them are the lawyer who has an investment in getting 15 percent of whatever your big advance is, the artist who is scared to sign and is just putting their faith in the hands of their lawyer and the companies who want you to sign the bad contracts." Given that, perhaps you would expect the 16 songs on Antidote to sound like manifestos, to be little more than the audiotape version of Toomey's speaking engagements. But there is no raging against the machine on Antidote, split into two discs, Chicago and Nashville, to reflect where each set of songs was recorded. At least not the machine you would imagine.
"I don't think it's particularly apolitical to write the songs I wrote," Toomey says, referencing All About Love: New Visions, writer Bell Hooks' feminist and political exploration of notions of love. "I mean, they're very extreme songs. I was on an NPR interview show, and she's like, 'God, that song's despondent. What is that about?' And of course, when she gets off the phone with me, she's going to interview this woman whose husband's body was found in the rubble of the [World Trade Center] tower. He decided he wanted to go down and take photos of it and got buried. And they found his photos after he was dead, and they published them in Newsweek. So she's interviewing this woman, and she's asking me why my songs are despondent." She laughs, thinking about the ridiculousness of the situation.
"All I could say was, 'You recognize that emotion, right? You've felt that, right?' What I'm doing is distilling that feeling into music," Toomey continues. "I think it's important for women to be able to say those kinds of things, too. 'Patsy Cline,' I think, is a really good song, because it really unmasks the privacy of a private relationship, but I think, in a sort of neutral way. I think it's a critique of the roles, the roles that you play in desire. 'Breezewood' starts with a whole critique of media culture, the whole idea of someone paging through a fashion magazine and reading advice to young girls on how to get a man, and the way that you get 'im is by not telling him that you want him. It's not hitting-you-on-the-head feminism, but I'm getting a lot of response from smart women who see it in there."
None of which has anything to do with the definition of a smart, independent woman that MTV and major labels have created, "where you have to look like you're about to give the camera a blow job and saying you're not gonna."
"The worst part about that stuff is that culture reinforces those behaviors," Toomey says. "If you refuse to play that game, you pay for it in some ways. But you also get your life. I think it also intimidates people when you refuse to play games. When I was at 4AD [with Tsunami], there was a woman who was on the label, and she would just go, 'Oh, I don't know if I should sign with you, or if I should sign with a major. I'm just so confused.' And these record execs would just fall over themselves to help the poor, crippled child. We would say, 'We need $2,000 of tour support in order to do this tour.' And they'd be like, 'Well, you know, we'll give you one.' I guess if I said, 'Oh, I'm not sure if I can do this tour. I think I need tour support. I'm not sure.' Then, it'd be like, 'Oh, here, have $3,000. Buy yourself an ice cream.'"
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.