Joe Pug Tells Us How To Get Heard

In recent years, more than a few adroit artists would likely point directly to the blogosphere as the source for much of their fan base and growing success.

Joe Pug, a folk troubadour from Chicago, is one such blog proponent.

A couple of years ago, Pug was barely known outside of his home town. With a harmonica around his neck, a guitar in one hand and his brilliant Nation of Heat EP in the other, Pug devised a strategy for marketing himself that simply wouldn't have been possible only a few years ago.

Pug, understanding that he had an extremely marketable product in the form of his EP, decided upon two chief and increasingly clear paths that would hopefully lead him to greater exposure: personally reaching out to bloggers and just giving his songs away for free.

Two years, another fine free EP, a well-received full-length in the form of this year's Messenger and hundreds of shows around the world later, and it seems as though Pug's business plan has paid off.

"That will be the model for my career," Pug says over the phone from Austin, taking a break from his rigorous tour schedule. "While blogs may have smaller audiences than much of the mainstream media, those audiences are extremely devoted audiences. It really doesn't matter how big—only how rabid."

While great talents have long found ways to break through the clutter in order to make themselves known, Pug would have traveled a decidedly different route had he come up during the '80s or even much of the '90s.

Says Pug: "If it was under the old model, where everything seemed to be going through major labels, I probably would've had to go the publishing route, just to get my name out there and get a couple hundred dollars a week and sign away all of the rights to my songs."

The response toward his steady output of excellent, folk-rock material has given Pug the chance to tour with the multi-talented and revered Steve Earle, among others. Having procured experience from the lessons of getting his name "out there" and creating a brand of sorts, more on-the-job training awaited Pug once he hit the road with artists who have been there, done that.

"When I was starting out and playing open-mic nights and then my own shows in my hometown, I became sort of a big fish in a small pond," he says. "I really thought I knew what was going on until I hit the road with someone like Steve Earle. Guys like him, Justin Townes [Earle] and Josh Ritter just knew so much more than I did. They've been working at it for so long and I've just sat back and watched them work. Compared to two years ago, I feel so much more comfortable with going out on the road, thanks to them."

As he continues down this avenue, Pug knows that publicity and some choice tourmates are not what makes a real connection—especially once he begins to perform in front of a live crowd in a town that he isn't familiar with, or in front of a crowd that might not be very familiar with his work, either.

"I try to get a sense of how familiar the audience is with my work already," he says. "That helps me determine what direction I want to go with my set. If it's an audience that I feel like is just hearing about me and isn't too familiar with me, I give them the Joe Pug 101 class, the songs that I use to say, 'This is me, this is what I do.'"

But Pug knows that even the best-constructed plans aren't often likely to pan out for even the most talented tunesmiths, and he refuses to take all the credit for his breakthrough.

"It's one of those things where I feel like I work really hard at what I do," he says. "But I feel like there's a lot of luck involved, and that luck has helped me have such a great couple of years."

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Kelly Dearmore