The co-founder and head honcho of local indie label Paper Bag Records on a decade of highs (Broken Social Scene), lows (controller.controller), and ones that got away.
1. Paper Bag Records has always had deep ties to Toronto’s music scene, right down to where they got their name.
Larocque and his future business partners began talking about starting a record label at the 2002 launch party for MTV Canada. He says they wanted to model their Toronto-focused imprint on Guelph’s community-driven Three Gut Records. “I thought, ‘It seems like there’s a hole in the market here. Maybe we should find some Toronto bands and see if we can get some support behind [them].’’’ As a sales rep at Outside Music, Larocque worked closely with local record shops, one of which inspired the name of the label. “That originated from Rotate This,” he says, “based on the paper bags they still use today to put their vinyl in.”
2. They were the launch pad for one of Toronto’s greatest albums.
The fact that Paper Bag Records’ first-ever release was You Forgot it in People, the star-making album by hometown heroes Broken Social Scene, is a detail that often gets left out of BSS’s illustrious history. Larocque believes the album’s great success was a tipping point for the national indie-rock explosion that soon followed. “Canadian music at the time was exciting,” he says, “but it had yet to reach the fever pitch that the BSS record created, I feel.” Only 3,000 copies of the album were released on Paper Bag before the BSS crew abruptly jumped ship to start their own label, Arts & Crafts. The loss was a devastating blow to the brand-new label. “That was hard,” Larocque recalls. “I remember having that meeting with Kevin [Drew] and him telling us. We fought pretty hard to keep [them], but they’d already made their decision. Bands get better opportunities offered to them, and they take them. To feel hurt or bent out of shape about it is just not worth it.”
3. They also helped cement Pitchfork’s status as an indie-rock kingmaker.
Larocque was a regular reader of Pitchfork before Paper Bag Records was even an idea. When You Forgot It In People was released, he thought the website’s founder, Ryan Schreiber, might like it. “I took a chance and sent Pitchfork the record, and I got a one-line e-mail from Ryan. It just said, ‘Check out this review I gave to your band.’” The glowing 9.2 review raised BSS’s profile, but it also helped establish Pitchfork as the go-to resource for uncovering the best new bands. “It helped both of them move into this new place,” says Larocque. “I spoke to Ryan about that, and he said [Pitchfork] had gotten a new audience they probably didn’t have before.”
4. But even after all that success, one breakup nearly ruined Paper Bag forever.
Larocque was sure he had a winner in Toronto post-punks controller.controller, whose debut full-length, X-Amounts, dropped in 2005. Looking back, he admits the label committed more cash to the project than it should have. “It was one of those records we overpaid on, and something we learned many lessons from. We basically put all our eggs in one basket, and then the band broke up.” The album’s collapse sent the label into a financial tailspin. “Years three and four were dark days for us. We must’ve almost gone out of business three times.”
5. Amid all the hits, they missed out on signing Arcade Fire and Metric.
The label’s current roster is packed with Juno and Polaris Prize nominees (Austra, The Rural Alberta Advantage, and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, to name a few), but Larocque admits he’s whiffed on a few soon-to-be huge up-and-comers. “Metric was a band that had been pitched my way by Torq from Stars. At the time, we had just signed Stars, and it wasn’t the next step we were trying to make, sound-wise.” Metric wasn’t the only major signing that slipped out of Paper Bag’s hands. “In 2003, I had a meeting with Win and Régine [of Arcade Fire] at the Rivoli, and we had a discussion over dinner. They probably don’t even remember who I am now!”
Paper Bag Records timeline
Fall 2002: Founded by Larocque, Amanda Newman, and Enrique Soissa.
October 2002: Release Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People.
2003: Unsuccessfully vie to release Arcade Fire’s debut album.
Winter/Spring 2006: Sign Newmarket unknowns Tokyo Police Club.
August 2006: Expand outside Canada with a record by Denmark’s Under Byen.
October 2006: PBR post-punk band controller.controller breaks up; label almost goes under.
July 2007: Tokyo Police Club leave PBR to sign with Saddle Creek.
2009: Larocque’s partners leave and he carries on as owner, president, and CEO.
2012: PBR nets four Juno noms, more than the label has earned in its entire history.
Paper Bag Records’ 10th Anniversary Concert Series runs from Sept. 27–29 at The Great Hall (1087 Queen St. W.). For the full lineup and ticket info, see paperbagrecords.com.