Importing Our Own The World Wants Canadian Music, But Is Our Industry Woefully Unprepared?

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.”

If appreciation is anything to go by, the UK was the right place at the right time for Born Ruffians. As well as getting the offer to release the EP alone, flying to England to sign a deal made sense considering there was attention for the Ruffians overseas even before the band put pen to paper. A Canadian-hungry media across the pond was more than they could say about their own country. "I remember there was a time when we thought, ‘Does Canada hate us?’ We weren’t even getting live reviews — nobody seemed to notice that we had been playing literally once a week opening for any band we could,” recalls Hamelin. "And a lot more was going on in the UK for us — a review in NME and interviews in some big magazines [like Dazed & Confused]. When we started opening up for bigger UK bands over here, the labels started to get wise but it was too late. It was almost like ‘Wait till we know about them before we do anything.’”

"I’m always surprised at how few A&R people there are or label reps anywhere [in Canada],” says Leila Hebden. "Toronto must have at least eight reputable indie labels at the moment, so if any given new band is playing in town with a lot of buzz around them, I see no reason why there isn’t one or two record label reps at each show. It doesn’t make any sense.” After working as a tour manager for four years, then as a publicist for Paper Bag Records for another two, Hebden began Dote Management (along with Lindsay Lynch). The Ruffians were her first clients, and after limited Canadian interest fell through, she went back home and found labels like XL and Warp were interested. She sees it as a signifier of how determined American and UK industries are compared to Canada. "It’s pretty hard to get people from labels down to see shows here. I go back home [to the UK] once every month and see shows there, and even in New York there are always a whole load of label reps everywhere.”

Born Ruffians are done questioning Canada’s affection though. "Things are happening evenly everywhere now. We just did a Canadian tour [in April] and it went awesome,” admits Hamelin. "It feels like we can hit those small towns and people will come out and local magazines will write about us. We still are a Canadian band, we love Canada.”

Compared to the U.S. and the UK, Canada has never been a thriving environment for arts and entertainment, that’s no secret. As far as making a living touring and selling records in Canada goes, it works for some bands, but only a select few can actually sustain a good living in the Great White North. "If you want to be successful, Canada is not a big market as far as numbers go,” LaLonde admits. "The population is pretty small compared to the States.” The Ruffians took inspiration for their career path from watching some of their favourite bands cross the border. "They went outside of Canada to find a label, and they’re successful because of it,” says Hamelin.

"When you are a band that knows nothing about the Canadian music industry — which is as small as my fist — and most of your favourite records came from outside of beautiful Canada, naturally you’re going to send your demos abroad,” says Leon Taheny, the Toronto-based producer behind Final Fantasy’s Polaris Music Prize-winning He Poos Clouds. He too went south to find a record deal for his band, the boisterous indie rock purveyors known as Germans.

With a few labels interested, Germans chose to sign with the Portland, OR-based Arena Rock Recording Co. Taheny’s reason for leaving Canada was purely business — but he takes a far less subtle approach in explaining it. "Who do you choose to release your record in North America? There are good labels in Canada, but there’s more music and more money in the U.S. And German$ always end with $$$$$$!!!!!!!” Taheny wrote in an email while vacationing in Ireland. "If you want to get your music going in the States, where there is so much more music and so many more people ready to hear it, why not go with the dudes who live there?”

Hamilton’s Junior Boys can also relate. Once a bedroom project of songwriter Jeremy Greenspan, the neo-romantic electro pop duo (also including Matt Didemus) have prospered worldwide for the last four years thanks to the British indie labels KIN and Domino. "Probably the fact that they wanted to sign us was the most attractive quality. No one wanted to sign us,” says Greenspan. Though still living in Hamilton, Greenspan doesn’t feel Junior Boys were ever focused on the Canadian market. "I’ve always thought of us as a Canadian band, but I’ve never thought of us as part of the Canadian music industry at all,” he says. "At the time [we were signed], I just wasn’t thinking about Canada. It wasn’t part of my agenda. It has changed in the sense that now we have a nice following in Canada, so I obviously want to please our fans here.”

Greenspan recognises that Canadian artists really have a decision to make as far as their intentions in a country with a relatively small industry. "I think the Canadian music industry — which I see as having a lot of problems — has two types of bands in Canada: ones that do things the way we’ve done them, where I don’t think they spend a disproportionate amount of their effort [on] making it in Canada. And then there are bands that are part of this machinery that is based on, in my opinion, this culture of insulation, where you have record labels that sign bands in Canada with the intention of getting them big and touring in Canada to have Canadian notoriety. And then they don’t really compete or work to become anything in the rest of the world. There are tons of examples of bands that are huge in Canada — they play sold out arenas — and if they cross any border outside of Canada they don’t have much of an audience. That was the kind of thing that I wanted to avoid at all costs; I just didn’t want to be a part of that.”

We many not like to admit it, but Greenspan’s not alone. When Steve Hamelin says "We didn’t want to be just another ‘Canrock’ band,” he’s not ashamed of being Canadian, he’s speaking for many out there trying to survive while maintaining artistic integrity. Greenspan blames this pitfall on "the totally Canadian business model, which is basically, ‘we don’t like to compete globally. We like to protect ourselves as much as possible.’

"We have systems in place to make sure that happens, be it government protection and all sorts of laws like radio stations can only play this much, which basically makes it so that these Canadian artists aren’t really part of the international music world,” Greenspan continues. "They’re just their own little thing. What I find bad about that is it sends the wrong message to Canadian fans, basically saying, ‘We’re not good enough on an international level. And you should be listening to this.’ Culturally, things always fail when they’re dictated like that. So I’ve always thought that the Canadian Content Regulations, all that kind of stuff, was a massive mistake.”

Airing these opinions, of course, doesn’t always sit well with some people. "Every time I say these kinds of things people think, ‘Oh well, they’re not really Canadian…’ That’s the sad thing about it,” he says. "But I think of us very much as a Canadian band. I just don’t happen to think that protecting Canadian culture is such a good idea.”

But Canadian culture can always use some help. One of the biggest factors in encouraging artists to sign with labels within Canada is actually FACTOR itself: the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Record. Introduced to help with recording, touring and promotion, FACTOR has been a vital resource for Canadian bands. However, it does not apply to artists that have gone outside of our country’s limits. "[If you leave] it just means you don’t get to tap into all of the great things we have here, like FACTOR and VideoFACT,” offers Paper Bag Records co-founder Trevor Larocque. "What it also means is that you don’t have a manager that has given you that insight.”

Paper Bag Records has played a vital part in Canada’s recent emergence. Label owners Larocque and Enrique Soissa released breakthrough albums by both Broken Social Scene and Stars, and most recently transformed Tokyo Police Club from an unknown teenage band in Newmarket to one of the world’s most buzzed-about acts. Larocque is fully aware of the quixotic foreign record deals some bands go in search of, but he feels there is a strong argument to be made for staying home.

"I’ve travelled the world, and we have it pretty damn sweet here. People say to me, ‘You guys have it so easy,’” Larocque says. "I think it’s a little close-minded [to just leave]. Bands need someone to say, ‘These are all of the options.’ And then if and when you make the decision not to take what your country can offer, then don’t. But don’t complain about it either.”

Larocque recognises that FACTOR isn’t exactly a straightforward process. "Maybe you don’t know how FACTOR works because you are a band. You hire someone on to let you know that you are a Canadian band and if you sign to a Canadian label then you can get all of these great things that are offered through the FACTOR system. If you don’t want to get that support, then go the other route.”

The mention of FACTOR to someone like Taheny gets an extended chuckle and a sardonic response. "FACTOR’s forms are too much for us to handle,” he writes. "We got an email from SOCAN once telling us to apply for a showcase grant for the CMJ Marathon (in New York City), so we did, but then they told us we couldn’t get the money ’cause we weren’t actually [SOCAN] members. Now we are, but Germans are broke as shit! We are a Canadian band, made our record in Canada, have never played a show in the States and love donairs. Is that enough to get a grant? Someone email us about this — we need money!”

Leila Hebden, despite her band’s ineligibility for government funding, agrees with Larocque about the importance of programs like FACTOR. "If you look at how government funding works here, it’s always in the band’s best interests to have a Canadian label behind them so they can tap into that financial support these indie bands need for touring or whatever,” she admits.

What’s apparent here is that our domestic music industry isn’t set up to appease every Canadian artist. In some cases, like Basia Bulat and Junior Boys, artists get an offer they can’t refuse. Born Ruffians, on the other hand, couldn’t find the right offer to fit their needs, so they booked an international flight. While it’s easy to point a finger at Canada’s much smaller market, prominent Canadian indie labels like Paper Bag, Arts + Crafts and Maple have done an admirable job building relatively unknown artists into some of our most popular and successful exports.

As Larocque puts it, "Maybe we just don’t like the music or it’s not for us at that time. Maybe it does have a more European sound that’s better fitted on a label over there. Or maybe the band have been touring the U.S. for a while and already have label interest down there and some people up here just arrived late. But is it any different in any other country? I doubt it. People like to draw attention to things here, because that’s just what we do. We like to say, ‘Oh well, Canada missed out’ or, ‘Here’s another example of how a label didn’t help out a Canadian band.’ That’s all bullshit.”