Music

The Indie Rock Swindle

The Polaris Prize rewards Canada’s not-so-independent indie musicians

From the October 2010 magazine
Illustration by Jennifer Spinner

In 1995, Steve Jordan, darling of the Kingston independent music scene, got his big break: an A&R (artists and repertoire) position at Warner Music Canada, one of a few major labels that dominated the Canadian airwaves. His job was partly to serve as a pipeline to subculture. Hoping to capitalize on the grunge wave, the majors were recruiting young musicians with dive bar pedigrees, and while the prevailing wisdom among the chosen was that art and commerce made lousy bedfellows, not many could turn down a chance at an audience. Neither could Jordan (real name Freedman), who, with his wire-rimmed glasses, receding hairline, and pierced ear, looked like the kind of nerd who during the darkest days of high school found solace in his interests, and self-esteem in their pursuit. He wasn’t like other A&R guys, who sweet-talked bands into signing bum deals with their bosses. His tastes were riskier, and he was as keen as his clients about the music. With Warner behind him, he could give a leg up to the bands he loved.

Eager to impress his new employers, he went on weekly pilgrimages to the record store strip on Toronto’s Yonge Street, scanning the consignment walls at HMV and Sam the Record Man for the kind of unplucked gems he’d have seen at the Toucan in Kingston. It was there that he discovered the self-released Thriller by Son, led by Jason Beck, a recent McGill grad who was, in Jordan’s words, “basically trying to Frankenstein Prince and Elvis Costello together, and totally succeeding.” Jordan bought the record out of curiosity, and by the end of the day his colleagues were convinced that both talent and scout were ingenious.

“Of course, nobody bought it,” he recalls, “so my stock just plummeted.” He’s now forty-four, hair depleted but youthful wardrobe intact, and his nervous tics are mostly tamed by a scrappy confidence (he bears a resemblance to Law and Order’s Christopher Meloni, but without stage makeup). His manner, a glissando between industry suit and gushing fan boy, belies a career marked by disappointments. After Son followed Thriller with another bomb, 1997’s Wolfstein, they were dropped from the label. Jordan’s next signing was Big Wreck, an act whose primed-for-radio bravado presented an ugly contrast to his first discovery. “I kind of liked the idea of my job more than I liked my job,” he says, “more than I liked beating my head against the wall trying to get interesting things signed and having to settle on Ricky J,” referring to the poor man’s Vanilla Ice from Montreal.

The big Canadian labels had always produced a lot of pap. As Stuart Berman writes in This Book Is Broken, his oral history of Broken Social Scene, they were all branches of international companies, mandated to produce blockbusters for export to their (mostly) Yankee masters. This left little room for the bands Jordan had grown up on, whose music wasn’t made to appeal to middle-of-the-road audiences. By the mid- to late ’90s, most of them—King Cobb Steelie, Change of Heart, the Inbreds, names familiar to anyone who listened to college radio then—had retreated back into obscurity, their hopes of ever making it big crushed, their stories retold as cautionary tales to the next generation of independent artists. Otherwise, they fled the country: Beck, for his part, decamped to Europe with his friends Merrill Nisker (later Peaches) and, eventually, Leslie Feist (later Feist), reinventing himself as Gonzales. As it turned out, obscurity was a better fit than the limelight. As Jordan toiled in the mainstream, Canadian alternative musicians went it alone, in total freedom. “You weren’t going to sell a million records in the States, so you didn’t even worry about it,” says James Keast, editor-in-chief of the independent music monthly Exclaim! “It was like worrying about being gored by a unicorn on the way home. And since suddenly your reasons for doing it were your own, it meant the music was good.”

Good music was disseminated independently, or through small labels that ran on shoestring budgets, generating just enough profit to finance a few more releases. Labels like Noise Factory, which issued albums by soon-to-be members of Broken Social Scene, operated out of their owners’ apartments. To be a musician who tended bar or peddled records to make ends meet was no longer a sign of failure; since sales were a pipe dream anyway, being part of a creative clique was infinitely more gratifying than being signed to a major. So it seemed like poetic justice when peer-to-peer file sharing, starting with Napster in 1999, began to flood the mainstream music market with free goods. The indie labels, with their lean budgets, online cunning, manageable rosters, and devoted fan bases made up of friends and friends of friends, flourished, while the majors staggered under the weight of their overheads.

They were more risk averse than ever by the time Three Gut Records, a label run by two friends out of Guelph, released the debut album by the Constantines, a band hailed as punk rock’s answer to Bruce Springsteen. The Canadian press loved it. The music website Pitchfork Media, oracle of all things independent, loved it. The Constantines’ success, purely critical at the time, tipped off the public that something important was happening in Canadian music. “I felt like I was in a position to potentially become involved and help exploit—well, ‘exploit’ is kind of a nasty word, but to help spread the love,” says Jordan. He tried but failed to secure a Warner deal for his new favourites, but that was a clash of worlds, and it was increasingly unclear which one Jordan belonged to. Later that year, he was fired.

Warner, he realized, was not in the business of spreading the love, so he dreamt up another way to do it. He’d create a “community of music listeners” and give them a forum from which to make taste; they would be entrusted with selecting the best Canadian albums of the year, based on merit alone. Unlike the Junos, whose winners are largely determined by industry professionals with a stake in their sales figures, the recipients of this new award would be nominated by broadcasters, programmers, bloggers, and critics. And the winning album, whose makers would receive $20,000 in prize money, would be hand picked by an elite grand jury of music experts. It would be the one Canadian award to strike indie musicians, once skeptical of conventional accolades, as legit.

Five cycles into the Polaris Music Prize (named after the North Star), “indie” has become shorthand for “interesting” in musical parlance, and many bands who have made the Polaris short list have received the acclaim they deserved. The Constantines’ tenth anniversary was commemorated in the Toronto Star. Broken Social Scene’s fourth record debuted at number one on the Canadian charts. Feist’s albums now challenge Carole King’s for most gifted on Mother’s Day. The winners, meanwhile, are beloved acts that haven’t quite broken big yet: Owen Pallett, then known as Final Fantasy; Patrick Watson; Caribou; and Fucked Up, a band who, as the name suggests, came up in the Toronto hardcore punk scene but had warmed to melody by the time their second full-length album, The Chemistry of Common Life, won the prize in 2009.

As a tent for Canadian music scenes nationwide, Polaris served notice that Canada, on the strength of its independent rock bands, is finally, inconceivably cool—disproving the cliché that, as Peaches once told an interviewer for Canoe.ca, “You can’t become anything in Canada unless you leave Canada.” Its cachet is the triumph of taste over consumption, independence over conglomeration. This, at least, is what you’ll read in the press kits.

Creative communities can make art, but they don’t often know what to do with it. “We were so phenomenally unprepared,” says Owen Pallett, spruce in his Paul Smith scarf despite the mild weather. He’s talking about Blocks, the label that released his first two records, Has a Good Home and the Polaris-winning He Poos Clouds. Blocks was co-founded in 2003 by musicians Mark McLean and Steve Kado, Pallett’s former bandmate in Toronto’s “gay church music” legend, the Hidden Cameras. Their slogan is “Don’t try, do!” and, true to this ethos, most of their releases are manufactured on someone’s carpet out of cardboard and glue. When Has a Good Home started to sell forty copies a night during Pallett’s inaugural tour, Kado nearly worked himself into an early grave trying to keep up with demand. At the time, Blocks barely had the wherewithal to supply local record shops, never mind get the album to fans outside their environs. Has a Good Home and He Poos Clouds earned the label enough money to buy bushels of craft supplies, but Pallett enlisted European labels Tomlab and the much larger Domino to release his records beyond Canada.

And he wasn’t alone. When the Constantines’ success began to exhaust Three Gut’s resources, the band signed an international deal with Seattle’s Sub Pop. Three Gut remained their home base until the label folded a year later when sole surviving staff member Lisa Moran collapsed under the workload. In 2007, Caribou, by then residing in London, England, signed with the American indie label Merge, home of the multimillion-selling Arcade Fire, themselves graduates of Montreal’s indie rock scene. Fucked Up worked their way up to Matador, one of North America’s most storied indie rock labels, based in New York. In short, they did what Canadian musicians have been doing since Hank Snow fled for the bright lights of Nashville. Many maintained close ties to their scenes of origin (Pallett donated much of his Polaris winnings to Blocks affiliates, and the rest went toward his boyfriend’s student loans). The smart ones ensured their copyrights were Canadian owned, entitling themselves to domestic arts grants. But they didn’t count on their friends to get their wares to market, something Jordan—who conceived of Polaris in part as a way of repatriating some of these lost acts—knows as well as anyone.

It took international labels to bring domestic independent acts to foreign audiences, and foreign approval to get average Canadians jazzed about their projects—not exactly a new trajectory for Canadian art. But former major label execs like Jordan recognized a demand for infrastructure early on, and by 2003 they began looking to the independent music scene for opportunities. “You see independent radio promotion companies more than ever before in this country, marketing companies, lots of independent labels, and they’re all staffed with ex–major label people,” says Jeffrey Remedios, a former publicist for Virgin/EMI and the co-founder of Arts & Crafts Productions, home to Broken Social Scene and company (Feist, Stars) and, nowadays, the Constantines. Arts & Crafts operates out of a downtown Toronto loft furnished with sleek vintage upholstery and mounted gig posters. In the open concept workspace, employees in street clothes do business to an impractically loud soundtrack; Remedios and his well-manicured assistant work out of sight, presumably in peace and quiet.

EMI was great when I left in 2002,” says Remedios. “They said, ‘It sucks that you’re leaving. How can we be involved? ’ So they gave us free office space for two years, and they gave me distribution deals without hearing the music.” Major labels are squeezing what profits they can from their proteges’ success; the indie label, curatorial and trim, supplies the talent the majors can no longer afford to recruit. Remedios, who wears his hair shaggy but speaks with the placating calm of a psychiatrist, is preternaturally savvy. By his account, EMI had been grooming him to run the place before he left to put out Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People, which took off thanks partly to his move to capitalize on communal principles. Over the next seven years, Arts & Crafts became the most successful company to emerge from the independent renaissance—one of the biggest indie labels in North America, in fact. Although, with its major label support and millions of dollars in accumulated assistance from granting bodies, to call it an independent is quite a stretch.

Many of the indie labels that have cropped up since the early aughts—Paper Bag, Six Shooter, and Black Box Music, to name a few—also distribute their music through majors and benefit from a grant system. Without this support, “a lot of them would fail,” according to Heather Ostertag, former CEO of the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings, one of a handful of granting bodies (Radio Starmaker, Canadian Heritage’s Music Entrepreneur Component) that subsidize the Canadian music industry. Established with money from public and private sources, and best known for its part in helping Vancouver’s Nettwerk Records break Sarah McLachlan, FACTOR awards up to $50,000 per sound recording and $100,000 per promotional project, according to applicants’ sales records. “The majority of the independent industry is not functioning outside of some [kind of] financial support,” she says, the problem being that the Canadian market is too small to sustain an industry that deals in the weird and compelling. As the history of CanCon shows, it’s barely big enough to support a homegrown Top 40.

FACTOR’s headquarters, located on a quiet industrial strip in northeastern Toronto, is bedecked with reminders of what Canadian music was not so long ago: gold records by Gowan, Serial Joe, and the Matthew Good Band. Just down the hall, Jordan chats with well-wishers on his award’s Twitter account and corresponds with funders. Polaris, of course, is a hybrid of big and small: to get it off the ground, Jordan got in touch with old contacts, soliciting powerful names for his board of directors, including Steve Kane, CEO of Warner Music Canada, which released compilation CDs featuring the first two years’ shortlisted acts. It’s sustained by ample funds from FACTOR and Sirius Satellite Radio, and it receives support, moral and otherwise, from agents and retailers, who saw to it that the winner was announced just before the Christmas shopping season. It’s been a boon to both the bands and their impresarios, who just fifteen years ago might have been considered the enemy.

Ten bands played during the Polaris awards gala at Toronto’s Masonic Temple last September, a long haul for those of us bored stiff in the rafters. The majority were nice enough but hardly exciting—Canadian, in the pejorative sense. They seemed out of place under the glow of extravagant stage lights, while, in between acts CBC’s Grant Lawrence and MuchMusic’s Sarah Taylor ran through their stilted repartee. The fanfare felt a bit like community theatre: the audience appreciated the effort, but no one could suspend their disbelief. Until the winner was announced.

As the anomalously energetic Fucked Up took to the stage and accepted their oversized cheque, the crowd rose in a standing ovation. Singer Damian Abraham (a.k.a. Pink Eyes), a big guy whose bald head bears a scar where he has repeatedly cut it open onstage with a razor, had stripped to his underwear during the band’s set. Now fully clothed, he shouted out the Toronto friends who’d help them get there, while the rest of us fingered our cellphones, rushing to tell our friends that, if they could believe it, Fucked Up had just won the Polaris Prize.

If the jury pool had chosen the winner, it wouldn’t have been Fucked Up. The snarling rock band, whose singer’s stage name is a reference to a certain type of adult film, wasn’t the link common to the 182 music professionals, from small-town beat reporters to hip hop bloggers, who vote on the short list. It was the aesthetes on the grand jury who made the call. And without the vigilance of this qualified few—who ideally consume every Canadian record, not just the ones that appear on their desks—“the lowest common denominator [could] dominate,” says Keast, a grand jury alum from the Polaris’s inaugural year, “that is, whoever has the money to send out promos to every radio station and local weekly in the country.” The money he’s referring to generally comes from the multinationals that handle distribution, or the granting bodies mandated to produce Canadian superstars. It goes to the projects most likely to find an audience—which, if you’ve been paying attention, aren’t always the best. Polaris, noble as its mission is, can’t help but be infected by market forces.

Fucked Up’s record is hardly a Canadian bestseller: it’s sold about 7,000 copies nationwide. Like Pallett’s and Caribou’s, its audience is international: fans in London, New York, LA, and elsewhere have purchased roughly five times that number, so the band doesn’t have to worry about making the CBC 2 playlists. In a cab en route to the after party, one juror offered this précis: “I think Polaris needs Fucked Up more than Fucked Up needs Polaris.”

Nine months later, in warmer weather, the jury reconvenes for the announcement of 2010’s long list. While they cash in their drink tickets at the Drake Hotel’s Sky Yard, a rooftop patio in downtown Toronto frequented by suburbanites with caked nostrils, Jordan and the announcers—Abraham, rapper D-Sisive, Grant Lawrence, Jill Barber, and the band Elliott Brood—read their scripts and gossip in a back room, trading road stories. Elliott Brood’s Stephen Pitkin remembers the time he and Edwin, a singer emblematic of Canadian music’s mid-’90s nadir, used neighbouring urinals. Pitkin had said hello; Edwin had, perhaps rightly, ignored him. “Doesn’t he work at a bar these days? ” says Abraham, cheekily. “He’ll definitely say hi to you now.” A potshot at Edwin’s new band invites another; Grant Lawrence, re-entering the room, hears the name. “Isn’t Edwin a bartender now? ” he muses as he leans over to sample the catering. The room erupts in laughter.

There’s been some turnover in the bar scene—virtue rewarded, to the former starving artists who are now, against all odds, decently fed. Of course, Canadian music isn’t quite as exciting as it was when no one thought anyone would hear it. But just as the chic Queen Street condos visible from the Drake terrace were once low-rent, cockroach-infested studio spaces, art and money are ever in dialogue. Polaris wouldn’t exist without corporate partnership, but it remains one of the few institutions that substantially rewards Canadian music based on the sound—in theory and, as long as its grand jury is choosing acts like Fucked Up, often in practice. And the winning bands, for all their cosmopolitanism, benefit from the Canadian attention. Watching Abraham discuss his record collection with Lawrence—a former punk rocker himself, now clad in dress pants and tie—I remember that, hours before he won the prize, Abraham had told me he’d never felt accepted as a Canadian musician. Later, when I asked what the award had done for his band, he laughed. “That’s the thousand-dollar question,” he said, “because one of the things is we received a FACTOR grant.”