Jacksonville: A Place to Stay?

For many, Jacksonville is a place to leave. The self-perpetuating myth that Jacksonville has no music worth listening to, no art worth seeing, no commitment to culture at all has meant that, among artists and musicians, it has long been tradition to move to other cities, places with more active and visible “scenes,” to seek success and recognition. From Astronautilus to Tracy Shedd to Shannon Wright to Emperor X, there are plenty of examples of talented hometown musicians making good after moving to larger cities and touring relentlessly. Yet for every national success story, there are scores of Jacksonville bands that have served as peers, inspiration and influence, toiling in obscurity in this, the biggest small town in the South.
In Chapel Hill, there’s Merge; in the Pacific Northwest, there’s Sub Pop and K; in Chicago, there’s Drag City. These independent record labels have served as anchors for the music swirling around them, growing rich music scenes in their respective regions and providing the support and publicity that bands need in order to reach beyond the confines of their hometowns. Unfortunately for many bands coming up in Jacksonville between the late 80s and today, there has been no such label focused on empowering them to sell records in places other than their own merch tables at local and regional shows.
Recently, though, Jacksonville has experienced something of a renaissance. Several local bands, including Black Kids, Electric President, Gospel Music and Sunbears! have made the surprising move to stay in Jacksonville even as they have garnered national recognition and label support. This re-emerging awareness that talent can come out of (and still choose to remain in) Jacksonville has inspired some locals to begin thinking of how to cultivate a music scene akin to the ones bands have flocked to for years.
One such local endeavor is the new Jacksonville record label, Synconation Records, a spin-off of the music blog of the same name. Synconation, the blog, is itself a spin-off of locally produced NPR show State of the Re:Union, with SOTR staffers Brenton Crozier and Ian Latchmansingh deciding to focus more energy on the musical connections they made through the show. Eventually, Crozier says, because “the show wasn’t the right venue to fully utilize those contacts,” he was hit with the idea to start a music blog. He reached out to SBS Studios Experience Designer, Ian Latchmansingh, to discuss what they would each hope to create in a music blog. Crozier concludes, “I came up with the name Synconation, a play on the musical term syncopation, and Ian designed the logo and the website.” Today, the blog has a fully functional website, its own office space and a handful of dedicated contributors.
On their quest to create a Jacksonville “media empire,” as Crozier only half-jokingly calls the endeavor, the two had more in mind than just music reviews. They began to envision ways they could help the local music scene and bring a spotlight to Jacksonville bands. Asked what drove the two to begin thinking of starting a record label, Latchmansingh reflects that he and Crozier ”weren’t completely aware of it when we started a year ago, but our writers are rooted in the local music scene, and we were finding a lot of great bands that were unsigned and not properly promoted.” It wasn’t long before the pair joined with Jacksonville musician and former music store owner, Cash Carter, to get the ball rolling and officially form the label.
With years of experience in local music, Carter is part of what might now be referred to as the “old guard” indie music scene that got its start in the years of Einstein A-Go-Go, a local music venue revered for bringing seminal independent acts to Jacksonville between the late 80s and late 90s. Carter brought experience in distribution, from his time running Downtown record store Moon Colony Razorblade (with local wunderkind Max Wood), and in issues of publicity and touring, from his experience working with Teen Beat Records while playing with Tracy Shedd.
For Carter, Merge Records is a major inspiration with its legendary handshake deals and 50/50 profit splits, not to mention the fact that he knows he’s “going to like anything they put out.” He feels their model is one to emulate. Where major labels are now taking more and more away from musicians in an attempt to correct for the economic downturn, Carter instead sees the answer as a focus on nurturing signed acts and creating a strong culture around that fairness, which he feels will in turn inspire loyal listeners to be loyal supporters of a label.
Carter, Crozier and Latchmansingh are hyper-aware of the fact that the combination of economic slowdown and shifts in the way the public consumes and purchases music will impact the way their label, or any label, is able to function. They take a pragmatic view of the issue. As Latchmansingh puts it, “It incentivizes us to work harder if we plan for a loss first and pay ourselves last…not to say we’re a charity or anything, but money is certainly not our priority.” Crozier notes that the trio have put up their own money for the first pressing and have set up a model whereby they only consider a new release once they’ve recouped the costs of the previous record. In Latchmansingh’s words, Synconation is a “passion project,” and all three agree that they’re in it for the music rather than the profit.
Exactly what Synconation’s musical focus will be is still being defined; as Crozier puts it, starting a label is a “learning process” that the three have been figuring out step by step. One thing is for sure: Where many independent record labels have a sound or ethic that defines them, a certain aesthetic that can sometimes tend toward homogeneity, Synconation’s sound will be formed of the varying tastes of its founders. Latchmansingh grew up listening to dance music and deejaying, Crozier comes from a more pop-oriented background, and Carter is heavily influenced by indie rock circa 1990s Chapel Hill, but the three say their various inclinations intersect and diverge in such a rich way that they feel it will add strength to the label’s pursuits.
Synconation’s first official release, Navigateur’s four-song EP Steadydrift (October 2011), available for free download at http://synconation.bandcamp.com/releases, is what some might describe as “chillwave” or “glitch pop” and features atmospheric grooves and lots of samples. The project of Jacksonville musician Carlos Andujar, Navigateur is, according to Latchmansingh, “synthpop…glitchy and warm, sample-heavy, and still extremely chill.” The label is also working with local duo Sunbears! to press and distribute You Will Live Forever, a full-length vinyl record. While the group has drawn many comparisons to the Flaming Lips, Latchmansingh says he also hears “John Lennon in them, especially their latest single ‘Give Love A Try.’” Either way, Synconation seems to be poised to reach a wide audience, pulling in the niche synthpop crowd as well as the indie kids who are perennially attracted to the likes of the Beatles and the Flaming Lips. Another project the label has in mind is an acknowledgement that much of what’s been done in Jacksonville over the years, music-wise, has been owed to what Carter refers to as “Jax-core bands” like the Beggarweeds, Crowsdell and Common Thread. He says the label would love to re-release some of those influential recordings in order to give the bands recognition they deserved in their time.
Looking forward, Crozier notes that Synconation plans initially to “focus on local acts,” but that once a foundation has been set, the label plans to turn its attention to national acts. The trio also point out that national distribution of releases will be part of the label’s M.O. from the beginning. “Regardless,” Crozier says, “we’ll always place an emphasis on Jacksonville-based acts.” Carter adds, “While we do want to release local artists, we don’t think of ourselves as a local label.” Latchmansingh perhaps sums up the label’s philosophy most succinctly: “We’re national-facing, but our hearts are all here in Jacksonville.”
Asked where they see themselves in five years, Crozier replies, “In five years, we would love to be seen in a national light as a blog and label and a source of pride for Jacksonville and its music scene.” Over the years, Jacksonville has gone from being considered the “Bold New City of the South” to being hit with other, less flattering labels: provincial, redneck, uncultured. If Synconation Records is able to live up to the aspirations of its creators, it stands to serve as one label Jacksonville will benefit from and one more reason to stay in town.