A Creative Movement Grows In Brooklyn: Mason Jar Brings The Art Back To Music

The nine-member multi-discipline collective known as Mason Jar Music doesn’t do big budget music shows. But that doesn’t mean the group doesn’t have big ambitions for creating music experiences, and now the group’s exquisitely curated performances and artisanal approach to production and video are attracting bigger names.

A Creative Movement Grows In Brooklyn: Mason Jar Brings The Art Back To Music
Mason Jar Music Presents Feist Sasha Arutyunova 2011

One pleasant fall evening last year, a collection of in-the-know music industry folks and die-hard Feist fans filed into the Church of the Intercession in Harlem to see the singer play a secret rock show. Downstairs in the dank catacombs 23 musicians–including a 16-piece orchestra, the members of arresting all-girl acapella group Mountain Man, assorted members of Broken Social Scene and Beck’s touring band–plus 100 or so spectators and a gangster AV crew bore witness to a very unusual rock show. Leslie Feist’s specific performance, which she would later approximate at more traditional venues in NY and elsewhere, was remarkable, but on this night she was only one of several elements–the unusual space, the reverent atmosphere, to name a few others–that made the show transcendent. It was as if every last sensory detail of the evening, from the venue to the featured artist to the outfits worn by the orchestra, had been designed and expertly executed to convey a singular experience.

Photo by Tyler Gray

It had. Turns out this idea of hosting hyper-curated rock shows in nontraditional venues is the brainchild of Mason Jar Music. The collective of nine post-collegiate artists (musicians, producers, cinematographers, videographers) all live together in a big house in the residential immigrant neighborhood Kensington in deepest Brooklyn, where they have a dining room, a weekly bathroom cleaning schedule, and a fully functioning recording and production studio in the basement. From here, they’ve bootstrapped a new approach to music that incorporates live performance and video but transcends both; creating experiences that bring both the Mason Jar team and the artists closer to the heart of making music and art–connecting with fans and, would you believe it, having fun.

Photo by Sasha Arutyunova

“I was working with this folk band called The Relatives,” explains Jon Seale, one of Mason Jar’s founders, when asked about the inception of the non-venue as venue idea. “One of the guys in that band had been my partner doing film scores, and he also had a folk band. So we thought, what if we arrange an orchestral film score, but for your folk band. We filmed it in this church that I was volunteering at. We worked at night and the higher-ups at the church had no idea we were there. It felt really amazing to be in this gigantic space at night in New York City. It got bigger and bigger and eventually it was like, what if it’s not just us that we’re working with? What if we approach some of our musical heroes?”

Almost a year ago they did exactly that, sending out a ton of emails to artists they liked. “There was definitely a lot of scrolling through iTunes and saying, like, oh, that would be great!” Knobler recalls. “And then we’d go on their website and look up their management.” Thanks to the skills of their in-house cinematographer, “we had some really beautiful material to send out to people,” Seale says. Artists started saying yes. They did performance videos in the Feist vein (albeit without live audiences at first, which adds a whole new level of technical complexity) with the Wood Brothers, Abigail Washburn, Laura Gibson, and Josh Garrels among others. “But for a while it was still like, don’t tell people we’re 20 years old,” Knobler recalls, laughing. “There were never any pictures of us on the website.” Eventually, they reached out to Feist and she agreed to participate. Next thing they knew, they were setting up microphones in a crypt in Harlem.

Photo by Tyler Gray

This idea–that a new musical experience, in this case a branded approach to performance and video making–would come out of the organic impulses of a group of artists living the communal life is exactly what the Mason Jar founders hoped for. “We both have a background of playing in bands, and writing music, and we both knew that we wanted to be record producers, professionally,” explains Dan Knobler, a Mason Jar cofounder and former classmate of Seales’s at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch. The school focuses on the technical expertise required for whatever arm of the music industry its students wish to pursue, but always with an eye toward starting a real business.

As Knobler says, “the department is very oriented towards …” “…creating creative entrepreneurs,” Seale finishes, adding, “I think there was some guilt, among the faculty about pushing us out into this post-apocalyptic period of the music business where there’s not really any roadmaps to success. That’s the story of this house. We just figured, let’s pull together and try to make it happen, otherwise, there would be no way we would be able to be in the black. Hopefully it will propel us to do it on a more sustainable level. We’re making music, which is more than a lot of other people can say.”

But the Mason Jar founders also knew they wanted to keep vibrant, DIY, free-form approach to music and art that has traditionally been considered ideologically anti-corporate and practically anti-profit. The solution was community living–putting together a collective of individually talented, principled young artists and then building a business model that takes advantage of that group’s agility. With nine different artists of varied expertise living under one roof, plus the virtual Rolodex of other artists in a wider network, there is almost no musical-oriented project–from straight-up recording and production to music video conceptualizing and execution to documentary filmmaking–that the group can’t deliver. Knobler’s girlfriend Carrie, the only woman in the house, is even developing a cooking show shot on site by the Mason Jar guys and posted online.

A trailer for Mason Jar Music documentary The Sea In Between

The next question becomes: What’s in it for the artist? “I don’t think anything we do is greater than what the artist does,” Seale insists. “Our job is to create a vessel for them to communicate with an audience in the most succinct way.” Still, a primary element of the Mason Jar approach involves refocusing the spotlight from the proverbial rock star to the entire rock experience. When it works, it elevates the performer, through the context in which he or she is placed, to a much higher level. But it also requires the artist to relinquish center stage, so to speak, and accept they are just part of the larger performance experience. “Part of the big selling point is that it’s not just a music video, not just another version of this tune, it’s like a whole new interpretation. The artists come out of it, not just with like a girl and an acoustic guitar, they come out of it with this completely reimagined way of hearing the song,” Seale explains. “This is attractive to the artist. It’s less attractive to the management.”

Mason Jar’s ethos appeals to the back-to-your roots boho iconoclast in every professionally creative individual, as these videos are made virtually for free. The collective pays its bills by collecting a percentage from the work brought in–film scoring, production, session work etc.–from the members. But these multi-sensory live musical films are conducted mostly on a volunteer basis. Modest funds come from Kickstarter campaigns and the occasional grant, but that money goes to “rent timpanis” if they need them, “or pay for gas or pizza to feed the players” Knobler explains. Nobody has an expense account. “I think the musicians are really inspired by that,” Knobler continues, “by the idea that we’re just all doing this creative thing for fun.”

Ah, yes, fun. That does seem to be an essential element of the Mason Jar Music brand. As kids in their very early 20s with the right blend of humility and ambition, they have that as-of-yet-untested but intoxicating certainty that there is absolutely nothing they can’t accomplish. Not surprisingly, they’ve got pig plans for the future, including a feature documentary on musician Josh Garrels called The Sea In Between.

“Right now, the people who know about Mason Jar Music, know about it being this one series of videos,” Seale says, “which is cool, but we feel like we have more to offer. We’d like to do is branch out with some more series and showcase some of the other things we can do. However, even within what we’ve already been doing, we’d like to blow it up to the most bombastic level.” He stops and smiles. “I think that whatever success we’ve had has really gone to our heads.” Knobler laughs, adding, “We’ll call in any idea and be like, “We can do that! There’s nothing stopping us from doing that!” For example? “Our big master plan,” Knobler says, “is Mason Jar Presents John Legend and The Roots with the National Philharmonic, in the Capitol Building.”