How Weird Canada will use $50K to rethink indie music distribution
Weird Canada, an acclaimed music blog which focuses on underground music and features only work by Canadian musicians, has witnessed a ton of huge changes since we interviewed founder Aaron Levin last year. First, the eclectic website Levin runs with his partner Marie LeBlanc Flanagan and a team of volunteers is no longer Toronto-based: Waterloo is home to the new WC headquarters, though Flanagan and Levin make the trek to Toronto often. When I interviewed them on a scorching weekend in July, they were in town promoting a Babysitter show at Izakaya Sushi House.
While the move meant Weird Canada's in-home DIY music venue Infinite Library also had to relocate, this is just a subtle change compared to many of the site's recent transformations. They've received enough government funding to hire three interns; registered Weird Canada as a non profit organization; swelled their volunteer list; updated their on-site map to include all the provinces (congratulations Manitoba); strived to become more open, inclusive, and diverse; and now publish translations of their new site content en franÃ§ais. Then there's the big news: earlier this year, the Weird Canada clan received a FACTOR grant for the sweet sum of $50,000 to start a distribution hub for under-the-radar Canadian albums. If hearing about Flanagan and Levin's accomplishments makes you dizzy, just imagine being this 35-objective power duo.
Articles appear each day praising the closing distance between fans and artists, but Flanagan and Levin see DIY, internet-based musicians struggling to find time to meet the demands of fans, and to reach out to record stores across Canada and the world. They've also noticed that fans of obscure Canadian music are having trouble getting albums delivered, if they can find a way to buy them at all. The blog's non-profit distribution system to remedy all of these ills in their grant proposal to FACTOR was so convincing that, to their own surprise, they got their funding.
Wanting to learn more about how the distro will work both for Toronto based fans and musicians, and for those across Canada, I met up with Flanagan and Levin to get a clearer picture of what the new website will look like, who can list there, and why this is the right idea at the right time. While it's clearly a project still in its planning stages - the site won't launch until January 1, 2014 - it looks like their ambitious plan is set to make a lot of people very happy.
GETTING THE FACTOR GRANT
Flanagan stressed what came first was a long conversation with everyone involved with the website about what direction to take the site. "We decided we wanted to encourage and document and express creative expression across Canada," she explains. As soon as the objective list was published, the accomplishments started rolling in: a win for list makers everywhere. Once their final grant application to Canadian arts granting organization FACTOR, rewritten by Flanagan countless times with the help of volunteers, was submitted, the wait began.
"I remember the night before, there was a fear, because it was such a big project. Maybe we wanted to get denied, because this is a scary, huge ambitious thing," Levin recalls. "[If we didn't get it] we wouldn't have to fail. Then when I got the email, I think I forwarded it to Marie with a note attached that said 'Omg, we're doomed.'"
"I think our feelings were excitement, then anxiety and fear, then more excitement, and then, for me at least, and I think Marie will agree, there was this weird feeling... traditionally our relationship with FACTOR, in the past - our sector of artists traditionally weren't supported by FACTOR, so when we got the grant there was a glimmer of maybe the industry is changing, it's shifting, and this is part of that shift. So as a service that has really far-reaching goals in terms of changing the shape of music distribution in Canada for independent artists and integrating that with the role of granting organizations, it was the feeling that we're on the precipice of something interesting."
THE RUNDOWN ON THE DISTRO
$50,000 seems like a ton of cash, until you take a look at the details of what Flanagan and Levin have planned — then it's no wonder they can't even buy a coffee with the grant money. The Weird Canada online distribution centre will sell individual or wholesale packages of Canadian albums to fans and to record stores world wide, from Kalamazoo to Tokyo.
"Music fans often want to order physical media from Weird Canada-esque artists and they try to order it from Bandcamp, but that requires the musician to package it well, to ship it on time, to be organized, to know where the post office is, and that's not always the case," Flanagan explains. "It's the same with a lot of small independent record labels: they're doing this after their jobs on evenings and weekends when the post office is closed. There's a real need for someone to help with that."
The distro will aim to create a central online base for fans to purchase albums, the benefit of which is that you have a trusted source, and the ability to purchase across artists and labels. "Rather than buying one Aids Wolf cassette from Montreal, a Shearing Pinx cassette from Vancouver and one Alpha Couple cassette from Winnipeg or Toronto, and having to deal with the nuances from ordering direct from each place, you can just go to the Weird Canada store and do that."
"I really feel like you've got this problem with three end points and we can solve all three at once," Flanagan adds. We can offer a box of records to record stores who wouldn't be able to order them individually. We can offer timely well packaged music, and eventually books and merch at some point, to the people who want to buy it, and take the pressure off the artist who should be out there making art."
A large part of WC's plan involves encouraging and engaging with record stores, including sending them recommendations and curated lists, potential Weird Canada sections in the store, or offering genre or geography-based packages.
One piece of very exciting news for music fans: Levin grinned when I asked if the Weird Canada distro will accept both new and old, backstock releases and divulged: "I have a line on a record dealer in Toronto who has a lot of deadstock of sealed Canadian punk LPs that we're hoping will make an appearance."
HOW IT WORKS FOR MUSICIANS
While application to be in the distro will be open to all Canadian artists, artists who are wildly successful (Levin gives Feist as an example) may be told to reconsider. "The way we curate the site is rather than having exclusionary boundaries on what we'll cover, we have a set of priorities: music in a physical format; music from remote areas; music in genres that are traditionally unrepresented; music that is self-recorded and or self released... For the distro it will be similar, except much more broad. We'll be able to include so many artists that we don't right now."
Typically musicians would be the ones to reach out to Weird Canada, starting with a simple online Google form. The more info artists supply, the easier their releases will be for customers to find. Once their music is in the distro, artists will have access to a portal online to see how sales are doing or request payment at anytime.
Levin stresses building a low maintenance tool for artists and taking stress off musicians' shoulders about reaching out to record stores. "The goal is [customers] have the information they need, artists have lowest amount of barriers getting information to us, and there are as few barriers as possible for us." Ideas to address details like artist submitted images vs internally photographed physical items are still being floated around.
The added service charge will be negligible due to low cost recovery. Levin explains: "each artist determines how much they want per record and that's how much they get each time it sells". Weird Canada will then add a service charge of only about $1 or so. "We flirted with implementing percentages, but wanted to make things simple for artists." Artists will be welcome keep selling on Bandcamp and at live shows as well.
They add that the distro will complement Weird Canada, but will not be writing about bands just because they sell their music: the site will continue to focus on its priorities, with volunteer writers across the country bringing music they love to the table.
WORKING THE KINKS OUT
One of my biggest questions about the system was more or less a tirade at Canada Post's absurd mailing rates for small packages. Thanks to CanPost, if a small act like Toronto's Doom Tickler wants to mail five, $5 cassette EPs to a distro within Canada, shipping will cost at least $11, maybe more, and bam, half her profit is devoured. She can't ask the distro to compensate this amount: there will be new shipping costs to the distro when an order comes through. While in some ways for a small independent artist it's not about the financial payoff, it takes a lot of work and money to put out a physical release and seeing a grand total of $1 or $2 per item can burn. I asked Flanagan and Levin what the discussion had been so far about issues like this.
"There are a lot of ways around that kind of shipping," Levin replies. "Doom Tickler, for example, wouldn't have to ship: people who are in Toronto and touring through Toronto - there are a lot of alternatives that are cheaper." Jesse Locke, Weird Canada's managing editor, is Toronto-based and has already agreed to receive packages on behalf of the Waterloo-based distro from touring bands, or musicians' traveling friends or relatives.
While to me these resourceful and optimistic plans of relying on community centers like record stores and touring bands sounds like a potentially volatile system, I've seen DIY spirit combined with tight organization pull off some equally precarious, inspiring projects: it just might work.
The other major advantage of having a centralized store is that shipping costs will be offset on multiple item/artist orders, something that's not possible if one is ordering directly from artists. Even if an artist like Doom Tickler had to charge more per item when selling in the Weird Canada distro (say $7 to compensate for shipping instead of $5, plus a $1 Weird Canada charge), fans and record stores would ultimately save money by ordering everything they want in one go.
WHAT WILL THE DISTRO LOOK LIKE?
Weird Canada are still working on hiring a designer (job alert!) to make decisions about how the distro will look for users. Flanagan attributes this in part to FACTOR itself.
"We weren't even allowed to start on the project until the first of this month, so we just signed a contract with the developer and gave him his down payment. We were allowed to do the things we did before the grant but otherwise there's a rule at FACTOR about the amount of time between your letter of intent and when you start the project, so we've just been on hold. I don't think it's bad actually as it's given us time to reflect on some things."
Levin plans a "buy" button to exist on each article on the main blog. "While that certainly does introduce some conflict of interest issues as a volunteer-run non-profit organization, I feel its value will circumvent that," Levin says. "The overall goal is to advance how people discover music on the site: giving people the opportunity to pivot several descriptors like geography, format, musical genres in a free text search; being able to provide a bridge from the discovery based part of the site to the online store. Then to mirror some of that discoverability in the store itself."
A landing page will feature selections like new music, "unpopular" (for popular items), and curated lists by site contributors or other personalities. Levin imagines a page for each release with links to where people can listen online, and the ability to filter searches based on genre, geography, record label or format: "we want it to be discoverable from user standpoint."
The partners are open to using tools like Discogs to list and sell albums, depending on how much time and resources they have to work with.
WHERE WILL ALL THIS MUSIC GO?
To start, the albums will be kept in the Weird Canada offices in Waterloo, under the guidance of Flanagan. "I've already been looking into systems. I love researching, so I've been reading about how libraries did things in the past, looking into QR codes and bar codes, shelving by artist or format: I love thinking about that kind of system. It's going to overrun our offices with music, which is fine because they're already in that state."
Levin also seems to have some bibliographic instincts lodged deep within his core. "I've been looking into how even Amazon stores their stuff, or Walmart, even though we're not going to be an Amazon or a Walmart and don't agree with those companies at all, they have solved massive storage problems, so we have to do a lot of research into the most efficient way. It will come to our home and like everything we do at Weird Canada we will put a tremendous amount of effort and research into making sure it's done effectively, efficiently, and in a trusted way. We want people to come and visit us and see the distro and it not to be a chaotic ramble of unsleeved 7"s." They spoke excitedly about a trip to Numero Group's excellently organized, library style, hive of activity storage in Chicago.
Albums that don't move after years of waiting may get shipped back to the artist, or Weird Canada might ask the artist to come back for it while touring or while a friend is touring. "That's a nice thing about artists is that they are touring, hopefully a lot." Levin said. They'll also be avoiding deadstock by focusing on small amounts, and keeping track of what makes sense for each artist and genre number wise.
THE REACTION SO FAR
"Overwhelmingly positive, and a lot of surprise." Flanagan tells me. "But it's hard to tell," Levin adds, "you never hear the things people are critical about, and I think that's always something people in organizations should be cognizant about. You hear the good things and the things your friends say, but it's really hard to hear what the enemies are saying. Maybe there are a ton of people who are like "so what." It's also been clouded by the FACTOR relationship: a lot of people were excited by the fact that FACTOR was funding such a project."
They haven't formally reached out to any Toronto or Canada-wide record stores because FACTOR did not allow them to yet, but say everyone their record store outreach volunteer has talked to has expressed excitement.
WANT TO BE A PART OF IT?
Weird Canada exists due to a staff of writers who are all volunteer based. Flanagan then leads the growing team of hundred and fifty volunteers to fulfill the myriad of objectives the team has laid out, depending on interest, skill level, and time commitment.
She is actively seeking new volunteers every day, stressing that every bit counts. "[Volunteers] who have a lot of time often decide to lead projects, working with other volunteers. People who have a little bit of time do little pieces: Photoshop contributor pictures into circles, or design a banner for our YouTube header, or they might write for Weird Canada or translate. A lot of them edit. They help with strategy: for example an objective is to think about accessibility, who has access to the space and who doesn't, and let's talk about it. So there is a team of about seven people who just work with me on that... so when we take action it's thoughtful action that represents a lot of people's voices".
They team are also always looking for feedback on the site, and ideas for their various objectives, including the developing distribution center.
WEIRD CANADA'S ADVICE FOR GETTING A FACTOR GRANT
Levin, Flanagan, and company are currently publishing not only their own successful grants, but those of others on the Weird Canada website, under the impassioned (and frankly awesome) flag of being an open business. "When I was trying to write grants I couldn't find anyone who had done this" Flanagan said. Weird Canada is currently accepting both successful and failed grant applications.
One piece of advice they'd give to people applying for FACTOR? In Flanagan's words: talk to FACTOR. "Call them. Talk to them. They're human beings on the other end of the phone, and they can tell you about grants that might be relevant to you or not. Problems they can see. Talk to them early, long before the grant is due."
"It's their job to field the call from the artist that says here's what I do, how can you fund me," Levin asserts. It's a basic piece of advice, but mind blowing at the same time.
Weird Canada's marketing plans, however, are secret due to FACTOR rules. Flanagan explains: "marketing plans are secret, you don't want to give away the surprise." Levin hints at a national launch party, but refuses to say anything more. We'll have to wait until January, but in the meantime, the discussion at Weird Canada will continue, ideally with as many voices as possible.
Photo of Flanagan and Levin by Colin Medley. Photos of Aids Wolf by Bruce Emberley.
Aubrey Jax is using words on Twitter.
Join the conversation Load comments