Willie Dowling (Jackdaw4)

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Willie Dowling of Jackdaw4

OK, we all saw that video but what is the real reason you’re retiring the band Jackdaw4. What do your bandmates think?
WD: I can’t remember quite how the split was specifically expressed in the video but I remember thinking that there was a great deal of barely disguised truth in it! (I can’t bring myself to watch it again) OK, strap yourself in because I’m going to be brutally honest here, and try and avoid the ‘positive spin’ that is the more usual path with these issues. Not out of some sense of resentment or bitterness, but because, I think this information may be of interest to those who wonder, like me, where the explosions of technologies for both making and listening to music are leading us. I am not presenting a certainty, this is only my personal experience, and after thirty odd years at this, in and out of a couple of successful, and many, less successful bands, I hope my view is at least as valid as anyone else’s. But first of all, let me tell you that there were already cracks in the Jackdaw4 keel prior to the recording of DISSECTICIDE.

Jackdaw4 made four albums over ten years. Essentially, during this time, the internet really came of age and exploded with access to hear/see/buy or “borrow” music, with an endless list of internet platforms and dedicated TV and radio stations to make it all possible. As a result, music has become pretty much ubiquitous. In my childhood in the UK, if you wanted to listen to pop music, there was really only BBC Radio 1 or Top of The Pops on TV once a week, and thus there was a much more palpable ‘thrill’ factor, with far fewer bands and styles of music and transmission methods competing for our attention. Today, with so much music available on tap 24 hours a day from many and multiple sources, there’s almost no need to buy it if you don’t want to, and as a result, I suspect the very cache of music has slipped. It’s what economists might call ‘the law of diminishing returns’. Many of us have iPods or MP3 players stuffed with hundreds of thousands of  songs by thousands of artists, most of which we may rarely if ever listen to. This will undoubtedly have some of your readers remonstrating that; “music is as important to me as it ever was” and I’m sure it is, but for want of a better word, we ‘consume’ music in a very different way.

Despite all the wonderful reviews for Jackdaw4, the associated TV theme tunes, the small, but dedicated amount of fans that we had, the support for Jackdaw4 in terms of our audience size and record sales has barely moved at all over ten years. This has brought up some very interesting peculiarities for which I’m still seeking answers.

The PLEDGE ‘fan-funding’ approach for making DISSECTICIDE was really to be a ‘make or break’ thing. I had hoped that it might be some kind of a game changer, particularly after I produced Ginger Wildheart’s 555% PLEDGE album which had about 6,000 people commit to funding it to one extent or another. To be perfectly blunt, I had hoped that by association with that project, by being in the Ginger videos, by producing and playing on the album and co-writing some of the songs with Ginger, (and of course my long history with Ginger going back to the early Wildhearts) that the knock on effect would be that at least some of those 6,000 people would be interested in PLEDGING for a Jackdaw4 album. In the event, we sold through PLEDGE about the same amount of copies of our album DISSECTICIDE, as we have any of our previous ‘non-pledge’ records, albeit in a more concentrated time period. In other words, we reached very few ‘new’ people.

Although PLEDGE looked like a success by virtue of our hitting 370% of our target figure, that was really smoke and mirrors. I had set our threshold figure very low, since I guessed it would look impressive to hit a high percentage. In the final event, after the various commissions, manufacture costs, postage and what have you, we only just manage to cover costs with very little left over. I had hoped we might raise enough to buy ourselves on to a support tour or at least subsidize a handful of small headline club dates, but I was way, way off mark.

So here’s one of those peculiarities I was referring to; Almost 3,000 people have voluntarily signed up to the Jackdaw4 mailing list over the last ten years. Presumably some were coerced or blackmailed but lets assume that most willingly ‘asked’ to be kept informed of gigs, videos, record releases etc. (I have to be careful here because this may sound like bitterness but I assure you, I’m just curious as to what this statistic might mean); In the final event, less than one third of this number actually pledged for DISSECTICIDE. Now this goes counter to all of the fan-funded PLEDGE style campaigns that I’m aware of. Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign despite having raised such a huge amount of money (was it one and a quarter million dollars?) was actually funded by roughly the same amount of people, approximately 25,000, who bought her last ‘label’ record. Even the Ginger figures of approximately 6,000 ‘ ‘Pledger’s’  is roughly the same amount as are signed up to his various Wildheart’s related groups from over the years. What can we deduce from this? It would appear that Jackdaw4 are uniquely, LESS popular than our fan figures suggest!

And what can one say therefore for the ‘fan-funding’ method? Presumably that this model works very well if you have an existing fan-base, but is probably redundant if you’re an unknown artist, and makes little difference if you’re a band struggling to expand a small but loyal audience like Jackdaw4. And so confronted by these figures we were left facing the same old problem. How could we grow the band so that it is at least economically sustainable? Two of the band decided enough was enough and quit, (it was a happy divorce!) and this really only served to confirm and echo my own position, and finalise the decision to fold. As I said, we were already wobbling before starting the DISSECTICIDE campaign.
So that’s the story in brief. I’d have loved for Jackdaw4 to have played more frequently, and people would often complain that we barely toured. In ten years, we were only ever offered three support tours. There were two Ginger acoustic tours which John Steel and I did relatively easily. I took a gamble on the third tour offer, thinking it would mean that we would pick up new fans and CD/digital sales. That was supporting ‘Electric Six’ in 2011, and sad to say, we lost a small fortune. It seemed to me that although we went down a storm, every single night, (Electric Six themselves were fantastic and very supportive and helpful) there was no positive knock on effect in terms of CD/digital sales or attendance at our next headline show.

And after ten years, even when we would headline a one-off London show, where at least we would fill or sell out a small venue, we could only just cover our costs if we kept it to a maximum of a couple of rehearsals. Bear in mind – no one got paid anything. Ever. I’m only talking about the costs of simply running a band like rehearsal time, van hire, touring accommodation etc.

As much as I despise the monetary system and complain bitterly in song after song about it’s various manifestations and real injustices (as opposed to the comparatively trivial gripes and moans of a musician) , I am in the end as forced to live under it’s dictates as anyone else. Put simply, I could not afford to run Jackdaw4 anymore.

Having just read the above back I would be genuinely curious to know what you and your readers make of any and all of the above. Views on fan-funded music would be welcome; Views on your relationship with buying/viewing music and how it might have changed over the years. Whether you can imagine a different model or method of building awareness of a band? And where do you think this is leading presently and what of the future for new music?

The following answers to your questions will be much shorter I promise you!

With “Dissecticide” you certainly have gone out on a high note. In fact I can’t remember the last time a band broke-up ahead of plans, and set up a final LP, video and concert in tandem. Was this album conceived as a swan-song from the very beginning?
WD: I think it was very much in the back of my mind that it might be. We’d been struggling for a while and seemed to be endlessly asking ourselves the same questions but getting nowhere. It seemed apparent to me that unless something magnificent happened with DISSECTICIDE and PLEDGE, that we were on our last legs.

The big question: What’s next for Willie Dowling?
WD: Long term, I honestly don’t know. For a while I thought about quitting but I’m not sure I’d know how to go about it! It seems I may instead be opting for some kind of slow fizzle-out, which arguably started some years ago. So; I’m doing a one off acoustic gig with Chris Catalyst (Eureka Machines) at the 12 Bar Club, Denmark Street in London on September 21st playing some of his songs and some of mine. And Jon Poole (The Cardiacs/ The Wildhearts) and I have been recording some songs over the last few months that we’re likely to release at some point although quite how we’ll do it is up for debate. Which is one of the reasons I’d be very interested to know yours and your readers views on the issues raised in my above essay!

Are you staying in the music business? A solo album in the future?
WD: You see I’m not really in the music business in so far as I understand it. I guess I was when I was a session musician or signed to a label, but for the past fifteen years or so, I have been very firmly excluded from the music business. I just continue to make music. The only way I can make a living at it is by composing for the occasional TV show which I suppose I should be grateful for, but in truth I’d rather be making albums and touring.

Will you still be curating the web site? Any chance of outtakes and demos or rarities from past Jackdaw4 albums?
WD: I think the website goes on for the time being, and the Facebooks and Twitters but I’m hoping that people will know that the band is gone and if they’re interested, will switch or at least sign up to the Willie Dowling social media sites.  Willie Dowling on Twitter: @WillieDowlingJ4, Willie Dowling on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/williedowling

At least if we all stay in touch this way, it won’t feel entirely like starting all over again from the bottom of the pile!

And there will be a final live album which was recorded at the final show at The Borderline. I hope to make this available quite soon. As for rarities, well there are a number of Jackdaw4  tracks left over that haven’t found places on our previous records, but I haven’t quite decided what to do with them yet.

I’m going through Jackdaw4 withdrawal! What should I listen to next?
WD: Bryan Scary and The Shredding Tears. Best thing I’ve heard since Jellyfish. Unquestionably.

With you ever collaborate with other like-minded tunesmiths like Andy Partridge (XTC) or Thomas Walsh (Pugwash)?
WD: I’d love to collaborate. (Particularly with Bryan Scary).  Ginger’s the only one who ever asks me though and I tend to say ‘no’ for accumulative personal reasons. You know, sometimes I feel like I give Ginger a really hard time. In twenty five odd years, he’s never been anything other than supportive and generous with me.

Thanks for the interview, we’ll all miss Jackdaw4 terribly!
WD: Perhaps not as much as I will, but you’re very welcome!

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