What do Loreena McKennitt, Moxy Frivous, the Lost Dakotas, the Lowest of the Low and the Waltons have in common? They produced successful recordings as independents, without help from a major record label.
"You have to be prepared to go out there and sell your product," says Moxy Frvous' Jean Ghomeshi. "You can't just turn up at a store one day with some tapes and then forget about it. It's a constant campaign."
by JENNIFER NINE
THE "MAKE ME A ROCK STAR MYTH" is a durable swindle. Sign with a major label, and it's fame, fortune, "money for nothing and y our chicks for free." Or so the story goes.
But there's an alternative to those glittering promises. As "niche" artists (folk, blues, worldbeat, New Age) have long known, and alternative pop/rock acts have discovered in the last decade, there are other options. In Canada, the best alternative is doing it yourself.
Scarborough's Barenaked Ladies are an example everyone from The Record to your grandparents can cite since, before signing to New York-based Sire Records, they sold a staggering 85,000 copies of their self-titled cassette. But they're not alone: Loreena McKennitt began selling her own records in 1985; currently, names like Lowest of the Low, Moxy Frvous, Sara Craig, Grasshopper and the Lost Dakotas are hitting store shelves the independent way, without the help of a multinational record company.
The result? Better music, perhaps. Smarter bands, certainly. Play record mogul yourself, their experience suggests, and you won't get fooled again.
Quasi-a capella quartet and current Morningside faves <blockquote> have racked up 25,000 sales of their eponymous cassette. Frvous guy Jean Ghomeshi observes, "In folk circles, it's not a big deal to make your own record and sell it, but in pop and rock, which is where we grew up, artists are socialized to think that the be-all and end-all is getting a major record deal -- and it's simply not true. Not only can it be done without a record company, but a group can reap more of the benefits without one. We've been salaried for months on the profits of our cassette sales. Step number one is unchaining yourself from the idea of needing a major to do things for you."
Ghomeshi's inspiration is Stratford's Loreena McKennitt, whose eclectic, Celtic pop was considered a poor commercial prospect by the industry. But by the time she signed a distribution deal with Warner, she'd sold over 100,000 copies of her first three recordings via her own indie label, Quinlan Road, which began life as little more than a kitchen table.
McKennitt says that expecting the record industry to look out for your interests "is really naive, and it's a very paternalistic industry in that sense. There are many entities within the business that have vested interests in keeping the structure the way it is."
McKennitt learned the process herself by asking a lot of questions and using source material like the book that became her music business bible, How to Make & Sell Your Own Recordings: A Guide for the Nineties (Revised 4th Edition) by Diane Sward Rapaport (Prentice-Hall), which she calls "calmly inspiring, without glossing over the realities of the work involved."
Major labels want volume -- quantity first, quality maybe -- and nowhere is this more true than in Canada, where, as branch plants of foreign-based companies, fast profits can be an overriding concern. In the pessimistic view, the legacy has been a 25-year hangover of third-rate American corporate rock clones and inoffensive, cheaply made CanCon quota fillers.
You don't have to be an anarchist noise terrorist to smell the rot. As Lowest of the Low guitarist Steve Stanley argues, "The success a lot of independent acts are having suggests a real backlash against the Honeymoon Suites of the mid-'80s, against record companies not having any idea of what's going on. There are a lot of good bands doing well out there, and still we're getting Sven Gali and Big House [from the majors]. That's a drag."
From a band sitting on its collective duff, that might sound like sign-me sour grapes, except that the Low, one of the city's strongest live draws, have sold nearly 7,000 CDs and cassettes of their first album, Shakespeare My Butt, in a little over a year. As Stanley points out, the Low's sales eclipse those of many domestic acts on major labels.
According to those who have taken the indie route, releasing your own record might also give you the confidence to be a little more selective when the big boys come calling. The Waltons, who have just signed to Warner Music Canada on the strength of the success of their Lik My Trakter indie release (Warner reissues the album Feb. 2), are a case in point. The band's Jason Plumb, speaking prior to the deal, observed dryly, "If you're doing well, there'll always be somebody wanting to get in on a little of your action. You've just got to remember that there are plenty of gophers in the field."
"Going the indie route," adds Ghomeshi, "particularly in terms of manufacturing, distributing and selling your work, is important in getting to understand the industry. Now I know what a record company is going to do, when and if they put our record out. Now we're in a position to say, `Hey, don't shit me. I know what's going on out there.' "
Despite the depth of talent in Toronto and elsewhere, and despite the majors' seeming reluctance to risk signing it, the current indie boom might not have happened had it not been for what Ghomeshi calls "the glasnost at retail level."
Across the board, bands cite a new willingness by record retail chains, particularly Sam the Record Man and HMV, to pay more than lip service to the grass roots. Both chains' major Yonge St. stores now publish indie charts and set aside sections for indie product. "The openings at retail were essential," says Ghomeshi.
According to buyer Cam Mitchell of Roblan, the distribution arm of Sam's, support has always been there. "The change has been in bands actually finding out that they can go to retail and be accepted. It's not that big a deal for us to help them out."
Grant Kien, a floor supervisor at HMV on Yonge St. says his store makes indie music a priority. "I'm staggered by the amount of support I've had [from colleagues]. Independent music has always been there -- it's just that no one's promoted it this much before."
Both buyers claim to try to stock at least a little of everything. "Our main concern is in having a good selection, and the only thing we're giving up is shelf space," says Kien. "We're not A&R men, and we don't claim to be."
That's the good news. But putting out your own record takes money, even though CD prices have come down and a dizzying range of small and large companies want your business. According to Stanley, the money for Shakespeare My Butt "was strictly out of our own pockets. It took 10 grand to make the album, including the first manufacturing run, even though most of the recording was done for free."
Stanley's own experience as a graphic artist and favors from various friends helped knock about $5,000 off the band's costs. Of course, releasing the album on CD as well as cassette was pricey, but in retrospect, and with three CFNY chart singles to their credit, Stanley calls it a good move. "At the time, because money was so low, we didn't know whether to do a disc or not, but you just don't get taken seriously -- by print, by radio, even college radio -- without one."
Moxy Frvous, on the other hand, are happy with their cassette-only approach. Ghomeshi says the cassette was initially "just a little tape for friends and fans and family." And, he points out, "Making a good tape doesn't take incredibly large amounts of money."
Then there's the legwork. Paul Dakota, whose band the Lost Dakotas have sold over 4,000 copies of Last Train to Kipling, says, "It's definitely a lot of work, especially when you're practising and gigging. We're completely autonomous and self-distributed, and the price we pay is being busy." Distribution "is a pretty full-time job right now, but it's not that hard. If Sam's orders a hundred CDs, I pack them up and take them over on my bike.
"My suggestion is that, before you do anything, you talk to a lot of people, and if you're reasonable, they'll help," he adds. "I guess the key is the two Ps -- Persistent and Polite."
Ghomeshi says the extra work is worth it: "With all respect to the bands who have signed distribution deals, our extra work is balanced off against the fact that we'd be making less than half of the money we are now. If we had a distributor, we'd literally have to sell twice as many. But you have to be prepared to go out there and sell your product. You can't just turn up at a store one day with some tapes, and then forget about it. It's a constant campaign."
"It's really important to play live," Ghomeshi continues. "There's no way we could have come remotely close to those sales if we weren't gigging. And wherever you play, take your product with you."
Off-stage sales at concerts, say bands, can account for as much as half of total sales, and provide ready cash on the road. The Low's Steve Stanley explains the math: "Outside of Toronto, when we were first playing in other cities, we might sell 20 copies. But by the time we came back, those 20 people would have played it for friends and bought another 20 people to the next show, and we'd sell some more."
Bands who make the formula work can expect a growing audience -- and attention from the major labels. "If you're starting your own fire, people are going to clue in," says Paul Dakota. "But signing a deal isn't necessarily when your problems end, it's when they start. Be aware of what their motives are. Don't kid yourself."
After coming so far independently, Stanley agrees that it's hard to take the final step: "Making mistakes ourselves, learning what works for us, makes the thought of somebody coming in and not only taking over part of the creative control, but also becoming a bank to us, scare me."