Canadian music label celebrates 10 years of great sounds Special

Posted Jun 5, 2013 by Cate Kustanczy
In the ten years since its founding, Canadian music label Arts and Crafts has become one of the most important names in the music world, with names like Feist, Metric, Stars, and Broken Social Scene on its roster.
Broken Social Scene will be reuniting for a live gig at Field Trip on June 8th.
Broken Social Scene will be reuniting for a live gig at Field Trip on June 8th.
Danielle St. Laurent / rockitpromos
With over 150 releases by 40 artists since 2003, the label is celebrating its anniversary a number of ways; there's a music release offering unique pairings of its most well-known artists (including Feist and Timber Timbre, Amy Millan and Dan Mangan, and Chilly Gonzalez and Stars, among many others); a fashion collaboration with designer Jeremy Laing on t-shirts designed by musicians and artists for charity; a short story contest; a photography exhibit featuring the work of longtime friend and colleague Norman Wong; an outdoor concert June 8. The latter is, perhaps, the best reflection of Arts and Crafts and its indie-meets-urban-smart ethos. Cleverly named Field Trip and featuring fifteen well-known (& well-loved) A&C acts, the event will also have local food and wine purveyors, a bicycle valet, artwork from Norman Wong, and what's being billed as an “Etsy Village.” The fest, taking place at Toronto’s historic Fort York Garrison, seems like a perfect distillation of the A&C aesthetic, one that is partly rootsy, partly urban, but completely and utterly connected to the city in which it was founded.
When Jeffrey Remedios began Arts and Crafts with musician and Broken Social Scene co-founder Kevin Drew in 2003, they weren’t aiming to have any particular sound. In an email, Remedios explains that “Kevin and I became partners in Arts & Crafts... so I think that gave him the trust and confidence as he could just overrule me. “
Released at the end of May   Arts & Crafts: X  is a collaborative album featuring unique artist pair...
Released at the end of May, "Arts & Crafts: X" is a collaborative album featuring unique artist pairings from the A&C roster.
rockit promos
Brendan Canning, the other co-founder of Broken Social Scene (or BSS), recalls, “We were the beginning!” He laughs, adding that the support A&C has provided over the past decade has been helpful. “That’s what good management should do, at the very least,” he explains one sunny afternoon, “they should be there to support your career If your career is taking off, you better hope you have a good team in place -that’s what it comes down to."
Broken Social Scene’s popularity did indeed take off, and the band toured extensively, playing to crowds in the United Kingdom, Europe, and South America; they were also involved with numerous film scores and soundtracks, before calling an indefinite hiatus in 2011. It’s a testament to the success of a label that is able to boast of having many beloved, popular bands under its roof.
“I think it’s really encouraging and it’s satisfying,” observes Canadian journalist and self-professed "music geek" Alan Cross. “There have been a number of independent Canadian labels over the years. Very few of them are still with us. You have a standalone label like Arts & Crafts, they’re not only national but international. I remember when Jeffrey first started the label, everybody had the same response, like, 'Really dude? how much money do you have to lose on this venture?' But they’ve managed to do a pretty good job.”
Making a go of it in the brutal Canadian music world isn’t easy, but, as Cross notes, A&C has had the benefit of Remedios’ past know-how as a record executive with major label EMI/Virgin. “it helps with the business end of things, though at the same time, there are real issues of cash flow. You have to somehow have a band or two that become a hit, and that is never a sure thing.“
“I started at Virgin when I was 17 as an unpaid lackey,” Remedios recalls, “and left as a exec with staff. I kind of grew up working there and learned all kinds of amazing things. I guess at the start of A&C, I went in with the idea that success in music was scalable. That came from working The Rolling Stones, Daft Punk and Smashing Pumpkins records.”
That sense of scalability is perhaps best encapsulated with the success of Broken Social Scene, whose sprawling membership and live performances are the stuff of music legend. Despite four albums, a book, and even a movie, it was through their stellar live work the band really made its name, not just at home, but around the world.
“Records are a calling card for your live shows,” Cross observes. “Broken Social Scene toured, and they had a lot of... how many people in the band? Six? Eight? Eleven?! It became an interesting sort of collective, and members were able to spin off do their own thing -one of the spinoffs is Feist, who had massive success with an iPod commercial, or Stars, or Metric, that’s pretty good... that speaks to the talent of the band and people involved with the Broken Social Scene collective, but the idea of lightning hitting so many places almost simultaneously when it comes to popularity, that’s the stuff you dream of and never expect.”
Indeed, it was Broken Social Scene who really provided the impetus for Remedios and Drew to start the label. As Remedios tells it, “I loved what they were doing. [...]The first few years we worked with artists related to Broken Social Scene in some way or another. In that fashion, we worked with some amazing artists - Stars, Feist, Jason Collett, Apostle of Hustle. That group set the bar so high that we've just strived to maintain that ever since.”
“Broken Social Scene were kind of at the center of it all, in my humble opinion,” says Canning in his laid-back, if thoughtful style, reminiscing over various band members. “Feist obviously, she moved to France and signed an international deal, so... Arts and Crafts were in a favorable position to pick up the domestic side of that... it’s just kind of, like all those different people nurturing their craft for a number of years, and then maybe there was a good crop of us that managed to succeed a little bit together.”
Leslie Feist is one of the many popular A&C artists playing Field Trip  a celebration of the music l...
Leslie Feist is one of the many popular A&C artists playing Field Trip, a celebration of the music label's tenth anniversary.
Norman Wong / rockit promos
Various Arts and Crafts acts who've caught fire the last few years include British neo-soul act Cold Specks, nominated for a prestigious Polaris Prize for the release of their first album in 2012. Stars, the Montreal-based band, have also been nominated (for two Polaris Prizes), and recently played the Coachella Music Festival. Feist, of course, gained a worldwide following after the release of her albums Let It Die in 2004 and The Reminder in 2007 (which contained the earworm-like “1234” and "My Moon, My Man") and Metric, who formed their own company, Metric Music International, and cemented their international reputation when they contributed a key song to the Twilight movie franchise in 2010.
Feist and Metric were (or are) members of Broken Social Scene, and Stars toured with them. There’s a web of people and relationships that go back far longer than a decade among the stable of A&C acts. In many senses, it’s friendship that has fueled the A&C bus the last decade. As Canning notes, “it’s all these relationships... it’s beyond any record label business. It’s purely just friendship.”
The band chose to play convenient spots that happen to be south of the border, a practise many Toronto and Central Canadian bands engage in. “ I think we it just makes more sense if you’re living in Toronto, to be traveling down to New York and Boston and Philadelphia and DC and Boston where there’s going to be large populations,” Canning explains. “I mean, God bless the people in Saskatchewan, but it makes good rock and roll sense to focus your efforts where it’s closer to home.” That'll be borne out this Thursday night when Broken Social Scene reunite on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon just ahead of their FieldTtrip reunion on Saturday.
Cross says the ease with which bands can now keep in touch is a marked departure from the touring days of old.
“When talking about (former Canadian indie labels) Ready or Duke Street or Attic back in the day, it was impossible to keep in touch in real time all the time,” Cross explains. “You’d have to wait until you got to a pay phone, and you’d travel with rolls of quarters, then make a rendezvous call with your people; being a road manager today is much easier than being one back then. You also have social media, that came along later in Arts and Crafts’ life -they jumped all the things that make distribution and engagement easier.”
Another modern aspect of the 21st century music industry is 360 deals. As Cross explains, “it’s not just selling records; it’s touring, it’s management, it’s publishing, it’s licensing, it’s all these things. It gives labels greater incentive than ever to make band as popular as possible -they get a cut of everything right down to a percentage of t-shirt sales at gigs, so the band is offered greater security, and the label is enticed to do more.”
In a recent exchange with Billboard Magazine, Remedios commented on A&C's use of 360s: Everything’s separate deals. I kind of like to believe you can’t make a caged bird sing. We don’t ever do any one deal that reaches into separate silos, but we’ll do a publishing deal, a record deal amd a management deal with the same artist if it makes sense.[...] Almost all of our contracts are partnership deals in every shape. We’ve really worked to not overreach. They’re structured like partnerships.
It was a sentiment echoed in his responses to me. “We play different roles in different artist’s lives. Sometimes we are a main character. Sometimes we play just a minor role. Every time we do our very best.”
Some have accused that “best” of having an unfair advantage in the Canadian music world, particularly when it comes to funding. FACTOR (or "Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings) provides assistance to Canadian musicians for a wide array of activities: recording, marketing, promoting, domestic and international touring. The criticism of the agency in years past used to be, as Cross puts it, “why are they funding stuff that’s never going to sell? Why fund things no one cares about?” There was, as he points out, a shift in that line of thinking, with criticism coming from some quarters now that only the labels with money and connections that receive the precious funding money.
But Cross thinks the system, based more around a return on investment model now, is fair. “If the money is there and you’ve a proven track record to identify and nurture new talent, well then you should qualify...if you follow the rules, that’s all there is to it.”
Remedios, who is the Vice-Chair on FACTOR's Board of Directors, has to recuse himself whenever there’s a band he's involved with whose application goes up for discussion; no one who has an interest in any of the bands or artists up for discussion is allowed to be in the room when the decisions around funding are being made as they apply to that particular set.
Arts and Crafts co-founder and President Jeffrey Remedios.
Arts and Crafts co-founder and President Jeffrey Remedios.
Lucia Graca / rockit promo
For his part, Remedios doesn’t think the FACTOR criticism is rooted in fact, particularly when it comes to the accusation the funding body favors labels who are in close proximity to its offices. “Do the same people make the argument that it's unfair that the largest population in Canada is concentrated in Toronto?” he asks. “If anything, FACTOR goes out of its way to ensure proportional representation far greater than population distribution would indicate.”
“Something like FACTOR has been very helpful to my career, I will not lie,” Canning says. “Does (its presence) influence other bands? Like, maybe, are people going to have opinions about other artists trying to make a living and career (who have benefited from funding)? Sure, everyone has an opinion about that.”
“It’s tough to be an artist in this country,” Cross notes. “When you apply for funding to do what you love, what you need to do in your heart... I mean, it’s disappointing (when it doesn’t come through). Some people are going to take out their frustration.”
Canning fully acknowledges it helped the band tour overseas, noting the wider economic impact of Canadian bands. “A government-run agency helped me get over to Europe and perform shows, then come back here, have stories about that, and do live shows: the bar sales do great, the government of Ontario makes money, there are lots of people gainfully employed, you’re bringing on people because you’re busy, there are more people paying taxes. It’s all... we’re all just cogs in the wheel, just trying to by.”
Brendan Canning  co-founder of Canadian band Broken Social Scene.
Brendan Canning, co-founder of Canadian band Broken Social Scene.
Norman Wong / rockitpromos
That doesn’t mean Arts and Crafts doesn’t have its own unique brand, however. Similar to the Chess, Electra, and Atlantic labels of the 1960s, as well as Rough Trade, 4AD and Subpop in the 70s, 80s and 90s, A&C has established what Cross terms “that independent ethos... there’s an image there and an expectation of what the label will do and deliver to fans of the band. What’s interesting about Arts & Crafts is that it’s old-school in the sense of its aesthetic... (the label) has a sound, or at least an aesthetic and a philosophy, that is somewhat apparent to people who are sensitive to those things.”
It’s an aesthetic that combines a rural homeyness with a sleek worldliness, a comforting bespoke approach with a sophisticated sense of urbanity; it offers a vision of Canada that is at once high-tech and homespun, as well as inclusive, curious, and cultural. Perhaps most of all, it is fiercely proud of its Toronto roots.
“We were one of the first to benefit from the confidence that Toronto had gained in the early 2000s,” Remedios notes. ”It was around the time we started that Toronto stopped looking outwards for all validation. It's still nice to be big in Japan but being big in Toronto comes first for most nowadays.”
That loyal hometown spirit will be reflected with Field Trip, where Broken Social Scene are to reunite. “We’re getting together to play a gig,” says Canning, with characteristic humility.
“Toronto is lacking in the kind of festivals that our bands go around the world and perform at,” Remedios explains. “Given it was our tenth anniversary, we wanted to bring all of our bands together for a big celebration.”