So you wanna be in a rock band?: Successfully merging commerce with craft
It is still chiefly the case that if one succeeds in this business, both in terms of achieving economic remuneration and popularity among the “unwashed” masses, they will be labelled a “sellout”, and almost invariably, as a result, their once loyal underground following will dissipate.
While this conviction maintains a certain degree of truth value, at least in regards to the increasingly limited realm of major labels, the same cannot be said of the independent sphere.
Demonstrated by these three highly successful musician-cum-label owners, art and commerce do not have to be at odds. In fact, in the case of G7 Welcoming Committee Records, the independent label owned and operated by Manitoba-based politically charged punk rockers, Chris Hannah and Jord Samolesk, of Propagandi fame, promoting a subversive anti-capitalist agenda would actually work in one’s favour in terms of getting signed.
As the subject matter primarily revolves around the indie music scene, providing an overview of how each of my interview subjects got started, along with their definitions of what constitutes an indie label seems, to me, an appropriate point at which to begin.
Robert Calder, trumpet player for Vancouver pop band The Salteens, and co-founder of Boompa Records, which includes, Matt Sharp (Weezer), among other notable acts, on its roster, established his label in 2003.
Driven by what he characterizes as both ambition and naivety, despite the fact that The Salteens had already successfully acquired label representation for their studio releases, Calder was interested in creating his own company that kept at its forefront practises that are sustainable from both a business and artistic point of view. In his own experiences as a professional touring musician, he remembers moments, in the heat of business, in which it was forgotten what artists require to be generative.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise, that Calder defines a true indie label as one that is not founded solely on the premise of achieving profits. In fact, he goes so far as to state that if a project is proposed to one of his artists that is highly lucrative, but has the potential to be draining for them, it is this latter factor that will be afforded more weight when it ultimately comes to making the decision.
In his own words, “the plight of the struggling artist should be about growth and development, not unmet expectations.”
Though, Tim Potocic, drummer of 90s-inspired Hamilton rock band Tristan Psionic, like Calder, had established a recognizable degree of acclaim within the indie scene, the impetus fuelling the development of his independent label and distributor, Sonic Unyon, was rooted more in necessity than aspiration.
Contesting that both he and his bandmates perceived the music biz as a larger entity than it is in actual fact, Potocic, put rather simply, “didn’t really think that [any labels] would be interested in helping [him take his band to the next level].” As a musical group whose mentality very much centred around the D.I.Y. mantra, coupled with the fact that all of Tristan Psionic’s members were schooled in either business, economics, or admin, even though he openly admits that initially they didn’t really know what they were doing, Potocic always had faith that they’d be able to handle whatever came their way; Sonic Unyon’s near-20 year (and counting) stint is certainly a testament that this was true.
Like our next guest, Chris Hannah, Potocic is hesitant to designate a single business model as being definitively “indie”. In his view, what makes Sonic Unyon artist-friendly fundamentally comes down to having a good team, working with like-minded people, and splitting everything (both expenses and profits) 50/50 between his artists and the label.
While Potocic strongly believes in giving his performers free reign when it comes to the creative process, he also appreciates the perseverance and drudgery that goes into making a band successful. For that very reason, when it comes to scouting new talent, it’s the acts that demonstrate the strongest work ethics that really grab his attention.