DJ Shadow: On futile ground?

DJ Shadow has taken a stand against the web's impact on musicians. He tells Angus Batey why he's 'marketing' his new album by covertly placing it in London charity shops

The label says it all," says DJ Shadow, holding up a copy of a 12in single. The murky green image at the centre of the vinyl shows a hunched vagrant poking a stick around in an old oil drum. The logo reads: The New Futility.

"That's my new imprint," Shadow says, smiling thinly. "It's hard to figure out how to make an impact, you know? You just feel like you're shooting into a void – especially online. The internet benefits pop very well, but if you don't wanna make that kind of music, The New Futility is just what it feels like.

"That's not a 'woe is me' kind of thing. But as somebody who loves music, I don't like what I see happening. I don't like the fact that rappers I worked with five years ago no longer rap because they're not gonna make any money, so what's the point? Not everybody who made great music got into it for the love of art: some of 'em got into it as a means of making a living, and some of the music that they made along the way changed people's lives."

Go back to October 2010, and Josh Davis is fighting another round in his deeply personal battle against what he sees as the devaluation of music. He's still some months away from conceiving the marketing campaign for his fourth album, The Less You Know, the Better, in which he will attempt to raise the intellectual tone of discussions of art in social media – but he is already clear on what is lacking.

The artist whose debut, the oft-praised 1996 album Endtroducing…, bore the footnote "this album reflects a lifetime of vinyl culture" has often struggled to navigate a coherent path through the digital world. This is why he is undertaking an almost stubbornly obscure negative image of a conventional marketing campaign – wandering into a handful of charity shops in the West End of London to covertly plant his new music on their shelves, leaving it to be uncovered by fellow musical archaeologists and vinyl obsessives.

This anti-shopping spree is the first of three meetings with Shadow over nine months. We were there to watch in May of this year, as he undertook more conventional promotional duties, recording a Radio 1 interview with Zane Lowe in London before getting on the train for an on-stage interview at the Great Escape festival in Brighton. And we've seen how his worries about music's commercial infrastructure have affected his live performances, as he rebuilt the barrier between audience and artist on stage at the Parklife festival in Manchester in June.

This long, strange trip began in the first days of 2010, when Shadow's anger about what the web was doing to music boiled over in the form of an impassioned, eloquent and controversial posting on his own website. "If you're holding your breath, waiting for me to boost my cool quotient by giving my music away for free, it's not going to happen," he wrote. "I know how much energy I put into what I do, and how long it takes me to make something I'm satisfied with. Giving that away just feels wrong to me. I'd rather sell it to 100 people who value it as I do than give it away to 1,000 who could care less."

"What that piece was about was my frustration that no other artist I was talking to – who all had the same views – were willing to step out and say, 'OK, hey, consumer public: you're hurting us now, you're not just hurting the labels,'" he says 10 months later. "Music is an ecosystem and if you take half of the art and commerce equation away, a lot of people suffer – not just the cigar-chomping mafia record companies that people like to have as their archetype when they're stealing music. People think it's about money – that this is about my standard of living, or I need more pinky rings or a fur coat or something. I think it's really hard for people to understand that it's actually not about that, at all, on so many levels: it's about music surviving."

All these ideas and emotions were still swirling around by the end of last year, when Shadow got back to his home in California to continue work on The Less You Know, the Better. Yet it quickly became apparent that, even for an artist who routinely takes three or four years to make an album, finishing the record was the easy part of the job.

"The biggest fear of any artist is just being ignored," he says, when we met again in May. "And, unfortunately, that's a very common fate for a lot of people who make music these days. As the music that I was making was, in my opinion, becoming better and better, it became more and more imperative to figure out how to not let it be lost or ignored or left by the roadside. Whereas 15 years ago, there would have been enough infrastructure, possibly, to accommodate a cult artist such as myself, in 2011, it's pop success or death. So I have to fight for this music's recognition."

Conventional wisdom suggests musicians can win that recognition via social media, but not everyone finds that sits comfortably with their own artistic values. Shadow's charity-shop plan was in keeping with his art, but had limited scope for drawing attention to his music. So at the start of this year, he went to the library to teach himself about advertising and marketing. He hoped to learn what had been tried, and then settle upon something that hadn't.

"Nowadays I think we're all conditioned," he says. "Everybody knows they're being sold to. We're all willing dupes – we're all mediating everything. Every 10-year-old is savvy about advertising. We react to it by going online and discussing it – usually by basically just going: 'Everything sucks.' So I started imagining what would happen if you put that layer of mediation into the information."

The result is the strange form of anti-marketing Shadow embarked on with the release of the I Gotta Rok EP in May. On its sleeve, pencil cartoon caricatures of a laptop, a mobile phone and an iPad – the tools of social media interaction – slink around making arch but empty critical evaluations. These characters will be constant companions: they join Shadow in a promotional photograph for the album's second single, I'm Excited, turn up to make "corrections" on press releases sent to the media (crossing out anything positive and replacing it with derisive or dismissive commentary), and dance around his website, spraying snark and defacing the pages.

"'Who cares?' and 'This sucks' is the main information that proliferates the internet," says Shadow, whose aim is to pre-empt empty negativity by ridiculing it before it's been deployed. "But also sort of steal it, and subvert it," he continues, "with the ultimate goal, as a musician and as an artist, of removing 'This sucks' and 'Who cares?' from the dialogue, so that we can get back to some real, critical thought. To the point where, if somebody were to respond to something music-based by saying 'This sucks' or 'Who cares?', instantly they look like an idiot. And maybe, somehow, artists may no longer have to feel like used-car salesmen – like they have to hustle on the street corner and be louder than the next  guy.

"There's only so far, unfortunately, that passion for music will go in a lot of people's eye. I have no interest in committing career suicide, but I feel a responsibility to provoke. I'm not sure the extent to which people know that we're about to turn a corner. We've been in this mode now for about 15 years, where people have become so savvy, but yet we've come to a sort of inability to cross a line beyond vitriol and, just [say], 'I hate everything.'"

These theories have even found their way into his live performances. Since the release of his second LP, The Private Press, in 2002, Shadow has made extensive and inventive use of video in his live sets. His tour, Live from the Shadowsphere, finds him performing inside a globe-shaped screen, with film projected on to, behind and over it. Occasionally, the video becomes a window into the sphere, showing Shadow at work; at other times, an opening reveals him to the audience. It's almost a parody of today's online artist-fan interactions: Shadow opens himself up to his fans, but only to a limited extent, and always on his own terms and timetable.

"It has felt very undignified, sometimes, to be an artist in the last few years," he says. "It used to be that there was a label there to be the monetary side of the business; now every artist has had to adopt the street-corner hustle. But it's not one-size-fits-all. I'm not comfortable doing that. Do I wanna sell records? Of course I do. Do I wanna be successful? Of course. But it gets tiring and wearying, feeling like you're always trying to figure out new ways to scam people, when really what you wanna do is just sell the music you make, or get it out there."

The Less You Know, the Better is out 5 September on Island. I'm Excited is out on 1 August. DJ Shadow is at the Village Underground, London, 7-9 September, and at Bestival on 11 September.


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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