It doesn’t seem possible for this many people to fit into one living room. Students are packed up against the front door of this crumbling Athens rental property, crammed into the corner and shoved next to the coats hanging on the wall. They stand on top of the leather couch that has been pushed against the wide front windows. The air is hot and thick with the smell of deodorant and cologne, doing little to mask the undercurrent of pot and sweat. The door opens every few minutes, releasing a much-needed burst of cool night air as another group snakes into the crowd.
All attention is focused on the back of the room where, obscured by a sea of heads, a band performs. The thud of drums and strums of an electric guitar reverberate from tapestry-covered walls. It’s closing out its set with some covers —Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”— the perfect, belt-at-the-top-of-your-lungs kind of songs. They seem to be working; people sing and dance so hard the floorboards bounce as if they’re hiding springs.
Later in the night, as the next act sets up their equipment, a woman enters the room holding an orange plastic jack-o’-lantern above her head. She’s tall with long brown hair that hangs wildly around her shoulders. There’s something beyond her height that makes her rise above the crowd, something magnetic about her broad, easy smile. With a casual efficiency, Jane Kardotzke works her way across the room, greeting friends and introducing herself to new faces, offering hugs all around. Gradually, her pumpkin is filled with crumpled dollar bills: donations to pay for beer or gas for the bands that have come to play from out of town. Persuading broke college kids to pay for a free concert might seem like a difficult task—but Kardotzke has a knack for it.
“I’ve found the best result is literally looking people in the eyes and being like, ‘Hey dude, this is for these artists who are literally pouring their hearts out to you, and this means so much to me and all these people who make this happen,’” she says.
Kardotzke is a senior at Ohio University studying music production with a minor in marketing. She has been working since last year to grow JAcKD UP, an independent artist collective she founded to organize and promote free concerts for OU students. The name JAcKD UP comes from a combination of Kardotzke’s initials: JAK, and the initials of her friend and business partner Jennifer Kash: JCK.
As the only full-time members of JAcKD UP, Kardotzke and Kash work together to book bands, find venues, provide equipment, promote shows to ensure these events run smoothly. They have managed more than 12 concerts and festivals in the last six months.
“A big part of our brand is recognizing that DIY [holds] a very prominent space in the music industry,” Kardotzke says. “I think that creating an infrastructure for DIY is going to be the next big disrupter.”
House shows have long been a staple of the DIY, or do-it-yourself, music scene: concerts in unconventional venues put on without the backing of the music industry, typically featuring new, unsigned artists playing for cheap or free for exposure. College towns are the perfect places to cultivate fan bases.
Freak Mythology, a funk-rock band based in Cincinnati, has reaped the benefits of performing at Athens house shows. “Athens is interesting because it’s a college town out in the boonies, so 90 percent of the people that live there aren’t really from there,” says Ryan Shepard, guitarist of Freak Mythology. “If you build a following in Athens, you secretly have a following in Pittsburgh.”
The low-budget, unofficial nature of a DIY concert affords a level of intimacy between the audience and performer that is hard to find elsewhere. Kash and Kardotzke talk about being able to feed off of the energy of the band as well as other members of the audience through what they call “collective consciousness.”
“What makes DIY so special is that you have that close, right-in-your-face living room feel,” Kash says. “There’s so much interaction that goes with it, [like] being able to approach the band. [It’s] just normal, human-to-human interaction.”
When she was a freshman at OU, Kardotzke thought she was going to become a guidance counselor. Although she’s always loved music, she says she had no exposure to the music industry in her small hometown of Clyde, Ohio. After her first concert—Cage the Elephant, the summer before she left for college—she was hooked.
“Literally that whole summer was just me going to back-to-back shows all the time,” she says.
Kardotzke doesn’t play an instrument or sing, so she needed to find another way to be involved in the music industry. A friend in a band suggested she be its manager.
“The music business came into my peripheral,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’m good at organizing, I love communicating with people, I just want to dance and be around good music.’ It didn’t seem like it could get much better than that.”
Kardotzke switched her major to music production after her first semester. “I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else at this point,” she says.
Although she felt confident in her decision to pursue music, Kardotzke struggled to integrate into the notoriously exclusive DIY music scene. She went to house shows but didn’t feel the collective consciousness she was looking for. Instead, she felt unwelcome and ostracized for not being “a specific kind of person.”
“It was so strange to me because every concert, every music experience I’d had, had been the opposite of that,” she says.
Kardotzke never forgot that feeling. “That was actually what lit the flame for what JAcKD Up is,” she says. “Music is about us coming together and understanding each other better, not us being separated because we don’t fit into a bubble or into a scene.”
Kardotzke and Kash create shows with a diverse atmosphere by making conscious efforts to attract different crowds. Between the two of them, they have been able to connect with a wide variety of university subcultures.
“We’ll have business school kids mixed with the ultimate frisbee team, mixed with kids who look like they haven’t washed in like a week mixed with other DIY kids, mixed with media school kids,” Kash says.
Whereas some house shows have secret locations or surprise concerts to ensure a certain degree of exclusivity, JAcKD UP productions are widely promoted on social media. “We’re just trying to create a show that is open to the general public,” Kash says.
Kardotzke’s first opportunity to put her idea for JAcKD UP to the test came in October 2018, when a friend asked her to organize a music festival in her backyard. With only two weeks’ notice, Kardotzke assembled a 10-artist lineup and drew a crowd of more than 300 people, raising over $150 in donations.
“For me it was validating,” she says. “It was like, ‘If I did this on my own, I know that I can get other people to believe in this as much as I do.’ And after that, people have consistently come back.”
If the crowds that JAcKD UP productions regularly draw are any indication, Kardotzke and Kash are doing something right. On the other side of the drum set, the bands that work with JAcKD UP are taking note of what sets them apart. Freak Mythology has performed four shows in Athens that have been either directly associated with JAcKD UP or booked thanks to their connections, and they plan on collaborating again.
“They’re just really good people to work with and be involved with because they [have] nothing but good intentions.” Shepard says. “When you think of something like a DIY house show, you know, you’re not going to put the word professionalism in the same sentence, but they make that work.”
The nature of the DIY music scene means that JAcKD UP is unable to sign contracts with bands or venues. Kardotzke and Kash have booked bands months before, only to have them cancel a week before the scheduled show. They’ve learned to be flexible.
“You have to be like water,” Kardotzke says, “Because things will get pulled out from underneath you all the time.”
Occasionally, the unpredictable nature of house shows result in unexpected moments of clarity, reminding Kash that the work she does has an impact. During a recent show, a speaker blew out in the middle of the Athens-based band Judge Russo’s set.
“You couldn’t hear anything that the lead singer was singing, but he had gotten so many of his friends and fans out that they started singing the lyrics for him,” Kash says. “The look on [the band members’] faces when they realized that fans were singing along—it was the first time that we were actually able to pass the torch off and give someone else the chance to be like, ‘Wow I created this, this following right here.’ That’s what it’s all about.”