Importing Our Own
The World Wants Canadian Music, But Is Our Industry Woefully Unprepared?
A balmy June day in Toronto, and a trip to local College Street CD retailer Soundscapes on "new release Tuesday” is in order. Undoubtedly still a tradition in the city for many music enthusiasts, it’s not an album released that day that catches my attention, but an import that came out two weeks earlier on Rough Trade Records in the UK. The shop is well known for stocking imports that will either find an eventual domestic release or live their lives with a $28.99 sticker, but this import is of special interest because the artist is from London — Ontario, not England. The name Basia Bulat may not ring many bells yet in Canada, but it did ring the bell for Geoff Travis, the owner and founder of Rough Trade responsible for signing the likes of the Smiths, the Strokes and fellow Canadians the Hidden Cameras. Out of the blue, this fresh-faced, chamber folk/pop singer-songwriter was signed to one of the most influential indie record labels in the world before any Canadians could take notice.
"My friend Howard [Bilerman] said to me, ‘I really want to help you find a good home for this. I really care about this record,’” Bulat says, "And I was really touched because he works with so many bands, so that meant a lot to me.” Bilerman, of course, knew what he was talking about — not only did he produce Basia’s (pronounced "basha”) debut, Oh, My Darling, he’s also overseen recordings by the Dears, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Arcade Fire, who used to call him their drummer.
"I never expected anything, and I never anticipated that somehow it would find its way to the ears of Geoff Travis,” she admits with genuine innocence. "I didn’t realise [Howard] had sent it — I found out after. I thought someone was playing a trick on me actually, when I first heard from Geoff. Then I realised that it was real and became very excited that our little pet project had been heard by someone from across the world.”
Though she’s toured around Ontario a few times — most recently with Great Lake Swimmers — Bulat never pursued any labels in Canada, nor vice versa. Instead it took a famous ear from across the pond to recognise her gift. She appears humbled by her situation, admitting, "Sometimes people in a different place will first identify with what you’re doing. I think I’m just lucky to be Canadian at a time when people are interested in Canadian music.”
Bulat’s sentiments speak loudly for Canada’s contemporary music scene. Now more than ever before, the outside world is keeping a level eye on what our nation’s recording artists have to offer. So much so that finding an initial record deal in Canada — be it with your local bedroom imprint or major-label-distributed indie — isn’t always at the top of the priority list for new bands.
Arcade Fire admitted that the North Carolina-based Merge Records was essentially their first and — depending on where you heard it — only option when they were shopping Funeral around in 2004. Fellow Montrealers Wolf Parade happily accepted a Sub Pop deal for their debut (albeit on the strong recommendation of Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock). And while very few bands out there can offer a debut album as strong as those two did, over the last few years there have been more than a fair share of indie bands that have crossed the border to find interested labels — and that’s not even taking into consideration the countless punk, metal and hardcore bands that signed contracts elsewhere (a whole other story, and culture, in itself).
Unlike Basia Bulat’s surprise offer, Toronto’s Born Ruffians, a quirky trio of 20 year olds pushing hooky yet irregular indie rock, worked hard to lock up their record deal with Warp Records and XL Recordings (they have now signed exclusively to Warp worldwide) — though originally they were looking to release their EP locally. "When we first started the band the goal was to put out a record in Toronto on a local label and become well known in the city,” admits drummer Steve Hamelin. "We hadn’t really thought beyond that first step, so when [the record deal] kinda just happened, we were like, ‘Warp? Huh?’”
As attractive as a globe-spanning, influential label like Warp is, its reputation wasn’t the only reason why Born Ruffians chose them. When the band met with a few Canadian labels to discuss offers, "they wanted multiple albums and we strictly wanted to do just an EP. [And one of the labels] didn’t have enough money at the time to do that,” says singer/guitarist Luke LaLonde. Still focusing on the EP, their English-born manager Leila Hebden explored connections abroad to help find a label that best suited their immediate needs. "We just came in hard-balling,” confesses Hamelin. "I don’t know why we were so ballsy at that point though!” LaLonde gives all the credit to their manager. "I think it was mostly Leila — she gave us our balls,” he jests. "It was definitely good to have her giving us advice like, ‘Don’t sign your life away to a label.’ It worked out well and now we can be happy with the label we have.”
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