Are Toronto's indie record labels in trouble?
As Chart Attack reported yesterday, Toronto punk label Mammoth Cave is going under after seven years in the vinyl business - and not going underground into the basement from which they came. Going way under, for the big forever sleep. The label has been pronounced dead as of this week, via an email newsletter and Facebook post, which in part blames rising costs from Canada Post, the failing Canadian dollar, and a 120% increase in the time it takes to press a record.
"I quit" diatribes hit the internet fast on their feet, and while some are actually worth a laugh more than the shedding of tears (i.e. The Darcys revealing that they view their music as inaccessible art rock), Mammoth's passing hits harder - not just because co-founder Paul Lawton (Ketamines, Century Palm) is one of the city's most outspoken (notorious?) curmudgeons.
Thanks to Mammoth, Simply Saucer's Reckless Agitation 7" was in our Christmas gift guide (it's a frisbee), and they teamed up with Ugly Pop Records last year to run an anti Rob Ford punk show. Teledrome's 2014 self titled LP was an instant cult Canadiana favourite that saw a reissue before the end of the year.
Because it's Friday, here's something a little different: an off the cuff and mostly unedited chat interview with Paul Lawton on the state of vinyl in Canada today, in the interest of people* who just don't get it. (Personally, I'm always on the side of the whining team.)
So, I read your post and the Twitter drama from today. When did you decide to shut down MC?
Paul Lawton: I've been in the on the fence for a long time. We had a solid run - Strange Attractor's "Back to the Cruel World" and Teledrome's "S/T" LP both did really well. And then I repressed Teledrome and sold 10 copies. We used to say that an LP had a year before no one cared, and then music started following the paths of big movies, a.k.a. you get four or five weeks and then no one wants to hear about it.
I think that after 7 years I just got the itch to do something different, and all the outside factors just added up.
That Teledrome record had a lot of people excited. What was Mammoth's mandate? Like you mentioned getting music out that wasn't finding an outlet.
The label started in Lethbridge, Alberta and our motto from day one was "ambition without expectation." We kept seeing all these amazing bands from western Canada being completely ignored and undocumented and decided to put our money where our mouth was.
If everyone's downloading now, why don't you move into being a digital label?
We put out bands from a lot of cities like Sudbury or Moncton that just are being left out because of geography.
Records - and I know this sounds stupid - make me feel something. Digital files do not.
We started to make physical artifacts. Digital files are fleeting and will be lost in time.
Everyone is downloading. I download! But who cares about that? You don't care about your mp3 collection. You don't care about your Spotify subscription. It just doesn't matter. And it's taking music down the toilet with it.
What do you think is turning people off of physical artifacts? Is that just not in line with the way we consume culture anymore, the idea that you're buying something that has a place in history?
I think that after 15 years of having free music, people are used to having free music. Asking them to pay for a record, and then again for shipping which doubles the cost just seems unreasonable. I think that we are, as a culture, ahistorical. It is all about now. I want it now.
We started getting people who would order a record on a Monday complaining about "their order" on a Friday.
You mentioned that other labels are in trouble. Or hinted at it. Yet people are hailing the conquest of the indie label a lot right now. What's going on?
Yeah. I shouldn't have said that. I think that I was speaking for other people.
Look, for us we put thousands of dollars into this thing purely because we wanted to document a scene and a portion of Canadian music history. We decided that in the end we carried our share.
I know that labels who are not hooked to the FACTOR trough are struggling.
What was cutting you off from receiving Factor grants? I know this is one area where you end up getting accused of "whining."
That is a great question. To get in the big grant system, you need at least one "hit"
and then once you have that "hit" you are in, right now forever.
You can keep going back to the trough again and again on the merit of your one hit, enabling you to get access to resources (marketing, tour funding etc) to keep you on top of the game.
We have had records that have sold extremely well, but never enough to crack the barrier. Even though we were 100% Canadian. Even though we marketed our records properly and had distribution.
FACTOR is meant to deliver radio hits. That's why you get a punk band given $25K to record a "radio quality" album so it can get delivered to radio.
I get not wanting to speak for any other labels by saying they're in trouble too. But you do believe it's likely true? And then how do things need to change so Canadian bands can make these artifacts of their work?
So the issues I listed: plant delays, Canada Post [raising prices], the exchange rate - those are hard costs to being a label. It is impossible to be truly independent and not have to deal with those issues.
Without that funding, you are just pouring your own money into it.
So is the only answer funding?
I don't know. Honestly.
What about things like Wyrd Distro, has that helped you out?
The Wyrd Distro is a great idea, but it did not help us out at all really.
I think the answer is that you have good people willing to take on the burden of documenting unheralded Canadian music and lose money until they can't.
So indie music is just not sustainable?
There are lots of labels in Canada doing that right now: Pleasance, Telephone Explosion, Bruised Tongue, Debt Offensive in Calgary, LaTiDa in Victoria - just owning it. You try and break even, if you don't, you don't. Indie music has never been sustainable. Music is not sustainable.
You have all these people doing the grunt work, and doing an amazing job of it. But the success is illusory.
I got so many emails yesterday from people who we inspired to put out records, and were shocked when we decided to stop. From my perspective, we got to a point where I honestly didn't think anyone cared at all outside of a few people.
Did you read our interview with NO LOVE, where Jakob Rehlinger talks about people who want to stay in the underground VS people who aren't happy there and will shmooze their way into mainstream?
Yes! That interview is great. I found it super inspiring. I think I am not happy being underground and I'm also not interested in getting into the mainstream. So fuck me, right?
There are people who just continue to exist in spite of being actively ignored. Take Strange Attractor from Sudbury.
"I think I am not happy being underground and I'm also not interested in getting into the mainstream." - Why do you think that is? Is it partially resentment of the success of mediocrity vs. the bands you love struggling?
I think doing music, you want respect and recognition. But you don't need to sit on any throne. You put out records, you want, at bare minimum, people to buy those records.
So a lot of people will say "if no one is buying these records, they must be shitty." Why is that false?
It's exactly what we've been battling from day one. Right now we are in a cultural state where you have to be X popular for anyone to take you seriously.
People will actively ignore you unless you get very specific kinds of attention. And even then. The reason is that there are 2 billion Bandcamps and Soundclouds coming at you from all sides all the time, and you only have the time to devote to the stuff that will be good.
I wrote that Weird Canada piece on how to reach out to media, and one criticism was that a similar piece should exist about how media should approach bands. Do you think that's part of the problem? That no one is actively looking for new music anymore?
I don't think people are not looking for new music. It's that it is impossible to process what is worth paying attention to. So they wait until they hear about it enough.
The problem for us was that we didn't have the resources to get to that bare-minimum level of attention to even sell through a small run. One shift in the seven years was that I used to be able to email 30-40 bloggers and music writers directly.
Then they got so bombarded that you had to be with "the right" pr person for anyone to listen to what you were delivering. It's the same problem. Music writers can't possibly process everything coming at them. You said it best actually: "content fatigue."
What do you say to inevitable accusations that you're a whiner for making the post? And why is getting the discussion out there important to you?
The only response is that people in this country are so afraid to critique the music gatekeepers because they don't want to get left out. And so people are not used to seeing valid critique, so they can only identify it as "whining."
Plus, in the case of a band like Greys, you have this cognitive dissonance of being in a punk band but also getting paid really well by the grant system.
I think that the whole "why I want this out there" is that people build up these illusions that are completely false. There isn't enough information of what lies ahead for a new label or band. I think ultimately people think they are the exception to the rule.
Like "oh, that's because Mammoth Cave sucks." But the truth is that we can't innovate without this discussion.
I'd like to make this a little different than every other interview anyone's done with you about these issues. In your opinion what are the keys to a better music scene, where labels aren't folding when they can't balance them with their dayjobs anymore?
The key to a better music scene, or community if you will, is to stop chasing ghosts and start looking for ways to structurally support musicians on a much broader scale.
Take 1/4 of the money Arts and Crafts got last year and pay for 30 bands to support themselves on the road for a week. Start investing in infrastructure like lessons, studios, rehearsal spaces and performance areas. Spread the love, lower the barriers to access.
Limit yearly maximums for the top 1% of the Canadian music industry. Subsidize shipping for art and cultural materials, like records. I can go on...
Were you surprised to see a band like Greys, a punk band who have had so much support locally, react negatively to your post?
Not really. I was more surprised there wasn't more of it. When you are delivering bad news, people respond negatively. Instead we got an outpouring of support from around the globe.
The bad news being that vinyl in Canada is in trouble?
The bad news being that Canadian music is in trouble. You have FFWD, The Artery in Edmonton, and Mammoth Cave all closing in one week. They all have different reasons, but the overall cultural shifts are the same.
Yes! They should be, but they won't. To me it seems like they are another mouthpiece to the Canadian music haves. I'd like to be proven wrong. I play music all the time in Toronto and I cannot see a single benefit or improvement yet from that agency.
Are indie labels headed for trouble? Let us know in the comments.
*Full disclosure: Colin from Greys writes for blogTO Music, and our non-Colin music team was all about that Greys LP.
Photo by Matt Forsythe
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