Joe Pug: music coming to you in the mail
Joe Pug spends 250 days a year on the road. When he’s back home in Chicago, he spends his time addressing envelopes and making trips to the post office.
Pug markets himself by sending out free CD samplers to anyone who asks – and sends them as many as they ask for to pass on to their friends. He’s no longer sure exactly how many he’s sent out, but it’s definitely in excess of 15,000.
“It may be a terrible wager but it’s been working pretty good so far,” Pug says. “It’s sort of the drug dealing theory where you give them the first taste free and then you get them hooked.”
Many artists attract listeners by offering free MP3 downloads, but Pug is convinced that the work involved in sending out real CDs is worth the effort.
“There’s something about receiving that physical package in the mail. You can have a free download all day long, but when you jump in your friend’s car and say ‘This is really good, what is it?’ and they say, ‘Oh yeah, take this with you.’ When you go and get in your car you’re going to toss it in, almost absent-mindedly. It’s just an effective way of doing it.
And the proof: “The more CDs I give away, the more records I sell.”
At 26, and with just two years of full-time performing behind him, Pug is getting himself known very quickly. His first full album, Messenger, was released earlier this year, and he is one of the nominees in the new or emerging artist category of the Americana Music Association awards this year, alongside artists like Hayes Carll and Corb Lund who’ve spent years working to become overnight successes.
Pug supported Steve Earle in the UK last year, and in April played support for Josh Ritter on a tour of Ireland, as well as breaking off to do a handful of solo gigs. He’s back in the UK this summer for the Cambridge Folk Festival, the End of the Road Festival in Wiltshire and the Open House Festival in Belfast, followed by a short Irish tour.
That music was the direction his life should follow was a late revelation to Pug. He studied playwriting at the University of North Carolina until he suddenly realized, at the beginning of his final year, that he was deeply unhappy, and he headed home to Chicago. But even then, his path wasn’t clear to him.
“I wasn’t leaving school to play music. I was leaving school to leave school. I hung around for a while in Chicago just working and at night I’d go home and read a book. Finally I thought, there’s got to be more to life than this. So I started going out to play just to hang out and do something that was fulfilling. And that’s what led me back into music.”
Pug’s 2008 EP, Nation of Heat, received no US radio play, but he plugged away at getting himself known by sending out his CDs and touring relentlessly, and he’s sanguine about the lack of airplay.
“There’s never going to be again a sort of homogenous culture where everyone listens to good music on the radio and everyone participates in sort of hearing this new band that’s just come out. It’s going to be a lot more splintered. In some ways it’s kind of too bad, but in other ways it’s all right. You get a smaller but a more loyal fan base.
He’s had a little more luck with airplay for his new album, but he’s realistic about the reasons why: “There’s a few tunes where I play with my band, and of course they like that.”
Pug finds it hard to describe what he sings about – there are a couple of anti-war songs but he doesn’t see himself as a political singer – and prefers that people listen to his music or come to his shows and find out for themselves.
“I hope that it affects them in some way. The worst possible thing that could happen is someone walks in and they have a beer and watch it and then they walk out and forget that they ever saw it. Whether they disagree or dig it, I’d like it to affect them, sort of be a part of their life for a second.”
And in music, Pug says, he has found the thing that he was looking for when he dropped out of college – happiness.
“I’m not the richest dude on the face of the earth and I spend 250 days a year on the road away from my family, but that being said I’m pretty happy.”
Free CD samplers from Joe Pug: E-mail him at email@example.com, with your name, postal address, e-mail address and how many CDs you’d like.
Joe Pug on Backroads