Published Oct 01, 2005It used to be that Santa wouldn't appear until after Halloween, but for the music industry, Christmas has always come early most major label product gearing up for a holiday push hits retail shelves in September. But this year, an unusual number of high profile, independently released Canadian artists are swimming in the big tank. Competing for rack space, press coverage, radio airtime and touring spots are some of Canada's biggest up-and-comers, signs that point not only to the health of the Canadian indie scene but also the loosening grip that major labels hold on our music consumption.
"It's a very difficult time to get rack space if you're a mid- to small-sized band," says Sonic Unyon co-owner Tim Potocic. "It's almost impossible to get with all of the big-time releases coming out. There's been a shift though because the independent community's gotten a lot stronger in the last few years, which is mostly because the majors are having a problem locating and keeping good new music. With indies, they're flourishing and doing quite well."
"It signifies the maturation of these bands, their arrival at another level such that they can release records in the teeth of the toughest competition that the industry has to offer and not only survive but prosper," says industry veteran and Maple Music General Manager Kim Cooke.
"I think it's a culmination of the attention and success that Canadian indie bands have had in the past three or four years," says Enrique Soissa, co-manager of Paper Bag Records. "These artists have struck a chord with people and it's that next step of success that we're seeing now."
That next step finds Paper Bag a label that normally puts out five records a year releasing three records (FemBots, Deadly Snakes, and Controller.Controller) within two months. "It's a battle for press coverage and shelf space and everyone's going to put their top priority forward," Soissa says.
It might seem like a particularly odd time to be launching a new label, but former V2 staffer Evan Newman is doing just that with the Baudelaire Label. With Tangiers' The Family Myth as his flagship release, Newman thinks the time to strike is now. While summer provides its own competitive environment major package tours like Warped, priorities split by vacations, weather and outdoor sports, and a scattered audience autumn finds young listeners back at school and back amongst their peers. "Everyone wants to tour when school's back because the indie rock target is that 18 to 24 demographic," says Newman, "which means a band getting out there in September or October, putting out a record and supporting it. With Tangiers, it's a new label with an established band and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to get it out, fresh into the school year, which gives them a solid three months of touring before the weather goes bad."
Canadians are accustomed to severe winters and adjust accordingly. Similarly, the music industry treats January and February like the icy deserts they are, slowing release schedules and tour itineraries considerably. This country's climate makes the beginning of the school year September to November a particularly crucial time for bands on any label to reach their audiences. "With the size Canada is, the only viable places to play outside of the school year are larger markets and the distance between them is huge," Newman says. "At least when school's on, you can hit the smaller markets on your way. That's where the most receptive audiences are and they actually hold a lot of power. Also, schools have entertainment budgets and are able to pay bands a lot more than they'd get playing a club."
University and college media are also instrumental in exposing new music and most indie labels compete to make their presence felt at this level. "Campus and community radio means a lot to us and it only makes sense that they're going to get the most attention from their listeners when they're back in school, so that's when I want to have something ready to go," Soissa says.
While some labels strategise, there is an argument to be made for coincidences. As Mint Records enjoys the success of the New Pornographers' latest, Twin Cinema, label founder Bill Baker claims release dates weren't a huge consideration. "There was no real plan about when we were going to put this record out," he says. "Originally it was going to come out in the summer but some things happened to delay that and now it's out. The flipside of that is, if it were a smaller release that we didn't think could compete we would've been less inclined to move forward with it. When it came time to put it out in August, there definitely was a conversation along the lines of, Is this going to get lost? Should we hold it until next year?' and we thought it'd be okay."
For some of these new records, getting lost in the shuffle initially is a real possibility. According to retailers, however, this deluge is not detrimental to bands, fans, or stores. "It gets people in the store," explains Jason Copplestone, inventory buyer at tastemaking retailer Soundscapes in Toronto. "Whether they're buying the new Metric record or the Constantines or the FemBots, they're going to see that, Wow, that other record's out too.' Sure, they might have to divide their money a bit and they might not buy them all the first day they're out but, over the course of a couple of months, they will."
Independent acts of course operate differently and define a successful release strategy differently than the major labels, which have adopted an "opening weekend" success measure similar to Hollywood's. Major labels tend to blitz the public consciousness with ads for new records up to their release date and then move onto the next priority product. Tighter budgets for indies result in staggered advertising for any given release, which in turn contributes to a gradual growth fuelled by positive word of mouth months after a record hits the streets.
"I don't think any of these bands look for those first day or first week sales," says Copplestone. "They're not in it for that and they know it takes time. The old Broken [Social Scene] record [2002's You Forgot It In People] is still in the top 20 at our store! These are not records looking for Eminem-type sales out of the gate. It might be strategy, it might not, but either way it's going to work out well for us."
Mark Logan, owner of Encore Records in Kitchener ON, also believes this barrage of releases will satiate indie rock fanatics before it overwhelms them. "The cool thing is, after November to the end of January, there's nothing and it's a good catch-up time for people," he says. "The only thing you really run the risk of is that they'll forget."
Besides word of mouth, media coverage is integral in generating interest about an artist. While sales of an album have time to grow at the indie level, magazines, newspapers, and online resources strive to cover releases while they're still fresh, lest they seem dated. With the numerous high-profile records coming out this fall, space is certainly limited and some bands may not receive the type of exposure they deserve.
Despite the competition, most of the principles artists, label heads and retail employees see this as a great sign for Canadian independent music. "If you're into music, you know what you want and what you'll buy," Logan suggests. "It does keep them coming back into the stores too because there are five to ten things they want."
The Canuck Release Feast
Cuff the Duke K'Naan The Wolfnote Kobayashi
The High Dials Boys Night Out
The New Pornographers The Trews Moka Only
The Real McKenzies Protest the Hero C'Mon Tricky Woo
Corb Lund FemBots Immaculate Machine Frontier Index
Sexsmith and Kerr The Ladies and Gentlemen Matthew Good
Mathematik Rick White Luke Doucet Metric Pocket Dwellers
The Deadly Snakes Matthew Barber Wolf Parade Neil Young
Ashley MacIsaac Bruce Cockburn Cowboy Junkies Nickelback
Our Lady Peace Simple Plan
Broken Social Scene Tangiers Eternia Elliott Brood
Kiss Me Deadly Constantines Controller.Controller
Holy Fuck Propagandhi Cryptopsy Richie Hawtin