Keepin’ It Real With Joe Pug

If a city’s musical DNA can rub off on someone, then singer/songwriter Joe Pug is right where he should be. Raised in Maryland, Pug was studying to become a playwright at the University of North Carolina when he packed up his guitar and moved to Chicago.
Performing at Lollapalooza.

The Windy City has a rich singer/songwriter heritage. It’s where Andrew Bird hails from and where Jeff Tweedy and Wilco call home. It’s where Steve Goodman convinced Arlo Guthrie to listen to his then-new song, “City Of New Orleans,” in exchange for buying the “Alice’s Restaurant” composer a beer. Chi-Town is also where Goodman, along with his friend John Prine, first gained national attention.

That’s a mighty hefty legacy for an aspiring songwriter to live up to, but Pug appears to be up to the task. Citing influences including Prine, Warren Zevon, John Hiatt, Jesse Winchester, Elliott Smith, Paul Westerberg and Lucinda Williams, Pug, who records for Lightning Rod Records, sounds as if he’s been writing songs and singing all his life. His is a voice dripping Americana while his finely crafted words and melodies linger long after listening.

As a DIY artist in the age of the file-sharing 21st century, Pug is in it for the long haul, building a rep through his songs and live performances. But unlike the days when Prine, Goodman and their contemporaries relied on record labels and radio airplay, Pug’s approach reflects the “free music” vibe brought about by the original Napster and the P2P’s that followed in Shawn Fanning’s digital footsteps.

“When people go to my website, they’ll see a link for sending me an e-mail with their mailing address and how many CDs they would like,” Pug told Pollstar, describing his free music distribution model. “I send them whatever they want, sampler CDs with a few of my songs.”

In true DIY form, Pug fulfills those sampler orders himself, saying those asking for his music when he’s on the road “won’t see the CDs for a while.”

You might remember Pug from last summer when the artist expressed his loathing for hidden ticket charges by announcing his fall “$10 Dollar Tour.” Pug said he was inspired to limit prices after an experience buying tickets for one of his favorite bands, and was shocked to see the final, service-charge laden price tag.

“I did end up buying the tickets because I really love the band,” Pug said. “That is what’s so cruel to me about this. When there is a band you love, you’re going to buy the ticket. It’s almost like you have this captive audience and you’re gouging them. It’s not right. It’s not picking on someone your own size.”

By giving away his music, Pug has seen his fan base and concert audiences grow. What’s more, by relying on word-of-mouth, Pug’s gratis distribution results in fans sharing the discs with their friends, increasing Pug’s exposure among folks looking for new music.

“Friends know their friends’ tastes more than anyone else,” Pug said. “Both with giving away music and the $10 ticket thing, it should be noted that I’m not doing this to be nice or altruistic but that I see this as a very sound business practice. I could be proved wrong, but for the time being I think this will make me more successful in the long run.”

But Pug isn’t a free-music machine. He records for Lightning Rod Records and his album Messenger as well as EPs In The Meantime and Nation Of Heat are available in indie record stores as well as through online services such as iTunes, Amazon MP3 and eMusic.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Pug isn’t going back to writing plays anytime soon.

“The future looks great,” Pug said. “I’m having a blast. It’s staggering how easy this is once you get to work with good people and sort of make a name for yourself and attract a small fan base. Once you have that initial nut, that initial core of people, the fan base seems to grow exponentially. I think the hardest part is getting those first 15 people out in a city. That can take years. But once you get that, if you keep on bringing good shows back to them, it’s simple.”

Now Pug is seeing the results from giving away samples of his music as he crosses the country on a headlining tour accompanied by bassist Matt Schuessler and multi-instrumentalist Bucky Baxter. It’s a night out at a fair price as he makes new fans while solidifying bonds with old ones, all the while perfecting his craft.

“It [songwriting] seems to get harder and harder. And if it doesn’t get harder, it certainly doesn’t get any easier,” Pug said. “I really feel that you don’t learn to write songs, but you have to figure out how to write each song as it comes along and each new song is learning a whole new language.

“You’ll spend a year writing songs, hunkered down spending days writing a song, and it’s still a sub-par song at the end of the day. Then at the end of the week you’ll wake up and just breeze through a song that’s perfect in 10 minutes. You don’t get those easy ones without sitting down and writing the horrible ones.”

“I think the hardest part is getting those first 15 people out in a city. That can take years. But once you get that, if you keep on bringing good shows back to them, it’s simple.”

Joe Pug’s $10 Tour continues in Portland, Ore., at the Doug Fir Lounge Oct. 28. Other include San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill Oct. 29; San Luis Obispo, Calif., at the SLO Brewing Co. Oct. 30; Los Angeles at Spaceland Oct. 31 and La Jolla at The Loft Nov. 1. Click here for the complete schedule and here for Joe Pug’s website.