By Vish KhannaNAME: Burnt Oak DATE OF BIRTH: 2005 RELEASES TO DATE: 20 BIGGEST SELLER: Richard Laviolette A Little Less Like a Rock, A Little More Like Home CURRENT RELEASES: Griffin and The True Believers Yeah We All Are; Chris Yang & Richard Laviolette Hands & Feats EP; Elbow Beach Surf Club Billy Club EP ONLINE: www.burntoak.ca
Following a tradition of DIY promotion in Guelph, the Burnt Oak collective is among the most dedicated musical forces in Southern Ontario. Initiated by Brad McInerney, Ryan Newell, and Chris Yang in 2005, Burnt Oak became renowned for basement shows at a house on Grange Street before evolving into an outlet for independent-minded musicians. With an eclectic roster including underground folk star Richard Laviolette, the math-pop rock trio Households, and electro-punks Green Go, Burnt Oak eschews musical boundaries in favour of liberating, communal ideals about accessibility to subversive art.
"We started the label to unite things that were already happening,” McInerney explains. "We were all silk-screening our own albums, recording our own material, touring, and setting up shows in our basement. Starting a record label wasn’t something that we planned, it just happened because it made sense to come together as a community to make things easier.”
Burnt Oak’s open-ended artistic stance and diligent, grassroots promotion of all-ages, pay-what-you-can shows and affordably priced releases recalls the modus operandi of labels like Dischord and Constellation, where documenting the work of friends is a serious endeavour, executed with care and thoughtful attention."It’s hard to point to a specific identity or ethos for a large community of diverse artists,” McInerney admits. "Aesthetically we’ve always put a lot of thought and energy into our packaging; all of our releases are silk-screened and a large number of them are sewn together with loose threads. We’ve also formed a close community of musicians and most of our artists will tour together. A lot of the people involved with Burnt Oak are very active politically, booking shows for local and touring bands, and publishing zines. Our identity is very closely tied to Guelph.”Beyond Guelph, their roster includes New York’s theatrical Griffin and the True Believers and the bizarre funk/hip-hop trio Slow Hand Motëm, who hail from Dundas, Ontario. Further outreach has offered greater perspective for the young Canadian label."Every once in a while we’ll get an email or letter from someone in Europe or the States and they’ll be doing the same stuff we are,” McInerney says. "It’s exciting to hear from them and share experiences [because] we don’t have much of a basis for comparison.”
Despite great strides and growing exposure, Burnt Oak remains modestly successful. "Right now we’re operating as an artist-run co-operative,” he says. "People take on different roles depending on our work and touring schedules, and personal time constraints.”With approximately 3,300 records sold, Burnt Oak has done remarkably well in spite of some economic obstacles. Any revenue generated by record sales and shows goes back into the label to fund the next release. In lieu of formal marketing expenditures, advertising is often limited to silk-screened posters and word of mouth. Distribution is currently handled in-house, mostly due to the fact that most prominent distributors have balked at Burnt Oak’s handmade, slim case packaging.
"We do our online ordering through thebluehouse.org,” McInerney says. "We’re in the process of overhauling our website to be more inclusive and we’ve been throwing around the idea of selling mp3s online but, because of the amount of energy that goes into our packaging, a lot of people are reluctant to do it.”
Endearingly resistant to external considerations, Burnt Oak have boldly stuck to their vision, mixing a righteous energy with common sense. "Our only practical goal so far has been to make sure that there’s enough money to continue putting out releases, and we’ve managed to do that — although just barely,” McInerney says. "In a broader sense we hope to create an artistic community where people working on different projects [collaborate] and support each other.”