Broken Social Scene is just the tip of the iceberg: The history of indie music in this city is the history of Toronto music itself.
With this weekend’s Field Trip festival at Fort York, Arts & Crafts celebrates 10 years of being one of the most successful independent labels in Canadian history, having sold a few million records around the world. It started with Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People, an album the band first licensed to then-fledgling Paper Bag Records in October 2002 before taking it back to launch their own label in early 2003. The sound of that album is what most people think of when they think of indie rock: lots of loud guitars, opaque lyrics, and some experimental soundscapes underneath what are essentially pop songs. A history of independent music in Toronto could easily sound a lot like—well, like various shades of Broken Social Scene.
But it doesn’t. “Indie” does not mean rock—despite what most people who grew up in the ’90s will tell you—and anyone playing melodic music with guitars cannot claim to feel marginalized in a city that has always been in love with rock and folk in their many incarnations. The story of indie music in this town is the history of Toronto music itself.
Some would argue that even though BSS’s Kevin Drew is a co-owner, along with label manager Jeffrey Remedios and recently added partner Kieran Roy, Arts & Crafts isn’t really an independent label. Because it enjoys distribution through a major, multinational label (EMI), it’s clearly separated from the bands who stuff promo envelopes themselves and pinch every penny.
Which raises the question: What is indie, anyway? Every corner of Canada’s recorded music industry has had to fight to even exist, ever since its inception in the 1960s. Before major-label consolidation in the ’70s, most labels were indie. Since the major-label collapse of the 2000s, most labels are indie once again. In between, an us-versus-them narrative took hold: the alternative underground with DIY values set against corporate monoliths guided only by the profit motive.
In Canada, this false dichotomy was complicated more by the fact that local signings were considered tax write-offs by the foreign-owned major labels, as investment legislation required multinationals to reinvest in Canadian culture. Ralph Alfonso, who managed punk pioneers The Diodes—signed to CBS Records (a major)—and later worked at several other music multinationals, says that, inside or outside a corporate structure, being your own fiercest advocate was the best plan for bands. “No one knows what needs to be done better than you do, no matter who you sign to. The Canadian artists with strong management who augmented the [major] label’s efforts with their own resources did well. When I was working at the majors and had access to resources, it was hard dealing with bands that had no real management and an unfocused game plan. They’re the ones that fell through the cracks.”
Being indie doesn’t always mean being a noble bohemian who ends up broke and bitter, and it hasn’t ever since Bernie Finkelstein started True North Records in 1969—with a roster consisting of folk singer Bruce Cockburn and experimental Moog trio Syrinx—and quickly landed distribution through CBS. And lest we forget, Toronto’s longest-running international success story, Rush, has always been an independent band: Their Anthem Records licenses Rush albums to majors around the world, and has occasionally signed other Toronto acts (FM rock staples Max Webster, jazz legend Moe Koffman).
So by all means, let us celebrate Arts & Crafts, which helped brand Toronto itself in the international consciousness. Let us celebrate True North and Finkelstein, who had his entertaining 2012 memoir nominated for the National Business Book Award in April. Let us remember Al Mair’s eclectic Attic Records (1974–1999), which moved gold and platinum records for Triumph, Maestro Fresh-Wes, and Teenage Head, and also launched Anvil’s career. A roll-call of subsequent great Toronto independents, both big and small, would eat up the rest of this article.
But let’s also remember the records themselves, where the goal was not just to capture a unique artistic vision (Rheostatics, Change of Heart), but to illuminate an invisible local scene (dub poet Lillian Allen), challenge preconceptions (riot grrrl progenitors Fifth Column), or even revolutionize music itself (sound-collage artist John Oswald’s Plunderphonics).
THE 25 MOST INFLUENTIAL TORONTO INDIE MUSIC ALBUMS
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Canada didn’t have a recording industry until the 1960s. Radio rarely played Canadian records, claiming there weren’t any. They were partially right. To rectify that, radio stations CFRB in Toronto and CJAD in Montreal started the Canadian Talent Library Trust, recording mostly easy-listening and jazz artists to distribute to radio libraries across the country. The label branched out over the years, releasing early work by Gordon Lightfoot, blues singer Salome Bey, Cuban bandleader Chicho Valle, and even two albums by reggae giant Jackie Mittoo.
Rock ’n ’roll indie labels like Roman and Red Leaf captured Toronto’s Yonge Street and Yorkville scenes, but only put out singles. Distributors like Arc and Quality invested in local acts but couldn’t offer sufficient promotion. Such was the fate that befell Wayne McGhie & the Sounds of Joy, a funk and reggae band whose one album—their 1970 self-titled debut—became a collector’s item, eventually reissued in 2004 by Seattle label Light in the Attic. That same label also gathered many shockingly unheralded reggae and R&B classics of ’60s and ’70s Toronto—all from long-forgotten indie 45s, if they were released at all—on the essential 2006 compilation Jamaica to Toronto, which rivals any Motown or Stax collection (yes, it’s that good).
The year after True North appeared, Daffodil—another album-focused, independent Toronto label—was launched in 1970 by three immigrants: British EMI employee Frank Davies, Australian music journalist Ritchie Yorke, and, initially, American rockabilly bandleader Ronnie Hawkins. (The latter quickly sold his share.) They signed a distribution deal with EMI and opened an office in the EMI building near the Toronto airport—the exact same trajectory experienced by Arts & Crafts’ Jeff Remedios 33 years later. Over the next 12 years, Daffodil put out singles and albums by Crowbar (“Oh, What a Feeling,” the first number-one hit of the CanCon era), A Foot in Cold Water (“(Make Me Do) Anything You Want”), Klaatu (“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”), and a young Tom Cochrane (pre–Red Rider).
Entrepreneurs like Davies and Finkelstein—and Ross Reynolds of the GRT label (Ian Thomas, Lighthouse, Ishan People)—were the reason indie music thrived through the ’70s and ’80s. For the most part, artists didn’t get their hands dirty. Says Finkelstein, “The artists I worked with—and I think it is true of that whole generation, whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Bruce Cockburn or even Rough Trade—didn’t want to be involved in the business of music. That wasn’t sexy. It is now. What artists wanted then was a way to make the music exactly the way they wanted, and they were involved with making sure the covers turned out the way they wanted. But once that happened, they weren’t that interested in making sure that there was an ad being run here or a radio promo being done there. That was something business people did for them.”
There was one other major Canadian act who was deeply involved in the business’s early days. But he kept it a secret for years, because he didn’t want his working-class image to be sullied by the fact he was a “bigwig owner of a record company,” Stompin’ Tom Connors says in his autobiography, The Connors Tone. Connors started Boot Records on Bathurst Street in 1971 with his manager and his publisher, putting out not just folk, country, and bluegrass records, but the first three albums by classical music superstar Liona Boyd, Aboriginal artists, Polish polka bands—and even some seminal Toronto reggae, through a sub-label, Generation. Connors would be the last Toronto(ish) artist of note to cross the art-business ownership divide until Kevin Drew in 2002.
“Today,” says Finkelstein, “artists want to do it all.” At Arts & Crafts, Remedios says, “It’s a balance. Some artists are really involved and quite sophisticated in their business knowledge. Artists are getting more savvy altogether.”
A PARTIAL LIST OF TORONTO INDIE ACTS, 1967–PRESENT
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In 2009, Metric—a band that always aimed for the industry’s highest rungs while signing with indie labels of various sizes around the world, including Toronto’s Last Gang—opted to release their fourth (and best) album, Fantasies, on their own, licensed to various distributors, much like their obvious business model, Radiohead’s last two albums. Fantasies sold over 500,000 copies in the process.
The flip side of the outsourced distribution model is the indie labels that literally employ arts and crafts to distribute their product. The Constantines and their friends at Three Gut Records held a party before the release of their 2001 debut, putting together interlocking cardboard packaging that included a wooden match, lending new credence to the rock cliché “incendiary.” Innovative design alone doesn’t push product, of course: it helped that the music inside was a roaring rock album.
Likewise, the artists’ collective Blocks Recording Club—including Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy)—were frantically hand-assembling intricate packaging of his albums Has a Good Home (2005) and He Poos Clouds (2006) when Pallett was opening sold-out shows for the red-hot Arcade Fire and won the inaugural Polaris Music Prize.
Both acts—as well as The Hidden Cameras, who worked regularly with queer art impresario Will Munro—were a throwback to when Toronto’s music and art scenes intersected regularly, when visual collective General Idea collaborated with Rough Trade, or when Clive Robertson, who co-founded the art magazine Fuse, put out recordings by Fifth Column, Lillian Allen, new wave freaks The Government, and jangle-pop band Plasterscene Replicas. The Music Gallery, Toronto’s centre of avant-garde music since 1976, was founded with arts grants and ran its own record label from 1977 to 1981, putting out the Glass Orchestra, electronic whale music, Inuit throat singing, “continuous music” pianist Lubomyr Melnyk and other oddballs. Toronto’s jazz scene in the ’70s focused around Sackville Records, founded in 1968 as an offshoot of Bill Smith’s Coda magazine.
Of course, DIY methods are never the exclusive domain of outcasts from the mainstream: Canada’s premier blues band, Downchild (the direct inspiration for the Blues Brothers), recorded their 1971 debut in a parking garage at Rochdale College and distributed it by hand. In 1991, the soon-to-be million-selling, utterly mainstream Barenaked Ladies single-handedly changed perceptions of indie music in Canada when their cassette-only EP sold over 80,000 copies. It was distributed solely by singer Steven Page’s father, whose upstart company, Page Publications, was also instrumental in Lowest of the Low’s indie-rock success. Take that, cool kids.
The one musical genre you would think would be full of hustle and entrepreneurial spirit—hip-hop—produced artists and managers, but not labels. The story of this city’s hip-hop scene is mainly that of managers like Farley Flex (Maestro Fresh-Wes), Ivan Berry (Michie Mee, Dream Warriors), and DJ Ron Nelson. Though Maestro wasn’t signed directly to Attic—he was on tiny N.Y.C. label LMR—it was Attic’s dogged persistence as a distributor that made the Canadian industry pay serious attention to not just their artist but the genre in general. T-dot’s hip-hop indie game-changer wouldn’t come until 2009, when Drake “got rich off a mix tape,” as he would later boast. So Far Gone, released for free online, ostensibly through Drake’s October’s Very Own imprint, spawned top-10 singles and made him a North American sensation. In turn, Drake’s Twitter account single-handedly built buzz for another Toronto act, The Weeknd, who shunned all publicity and became a star after releasing three albums gratis on his website in the space of a year. Both acts joined forces with major labels shortly after their breakthroughs. This year, local R&B singer Rochelle Jordan is tapped by critics to follow in their footsteps.
Some successful artists choose the independent route out of principle; most do so out of necessity. But, according to Remedios, today’s undisputed king of Toronto’s indie castle, “Major versus indie is truly an irrelevant argument now. Both have strengths. Both have weaknesses. Artists have more choice than ever.”
So when we gather at Fort York this weekend, where our troops once fended off an American invasion, raise a can of specially commissioned limited-edition microbrew and toast not just Arts & Crafts—the tide that lifted all this city’s boats in the last decade—but the foundations that made this city the musical mecca it is today.
ARTS & CRAFTS GOES WORLDWIDE
For a decade now, Arts & Crafts Productions has functioned as Toronto’s go-to source for the best in homegrown indie talent. This weekend, the label celebrates its 10th anniversary with the Field Trip Music & Arts Festival, a one-day affair featuring fun, food, and performances by some of the best artists on the label’s roster. Get reacquainted with Arts & Crafts’ history with this cheat sheet.—Rob Duffy