Vol 3, Issue 18: Entrepreneurial Artists: Three Canadian Rockers Who’ve Successfully Married Commerce with Craft

When it comes to art and the assignment of qualities such as “authentic”, “genuine”, “original”, and the like, Romantic ideologies are still largely responsible for informing the public’s sensibilities. There remains a wide-held belief, extending to all creative endeavours, that mainstream success necessitates corporate exploitation, and formulaic expression, while true art is obscure, and can only be produced by the marginalized and tormented. Put more simply, 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. As I hope to demonstrate through the following discussion, moreover dissection of today’s music industry, with 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 of the following discourse 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, all too often, 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.

Chris Hannah and Jord Samolesk’s go at the business side of things, frankly, can be chalked up to artistic impulse. While the urge to create, among artists, goes without saying, so too does the appetite for experimentation, and in some cases, the desire for world domination. Identifying with the mid-80s underground zine, metal tape-trading, and punk rock scenes, Chris and Jord were, “encouraged [by and looked up to] the bands who got their hands dirty.” Not only seeing the act of creating their own label as a means through which they could stay productive and engaged in the industry while wearing different hats, but as well as an alternative platform where they could register and promote their complaints about the system, shortly after its launch, G7 became home to a smorgasbord of politically radical bands and speakers. American linguist and political activist, Noam Chomsky, is but one of the controversial figures who releases his material via Hannah and Samolesk’s collective.

While, as mentioned, Hannah does not subscribe to using the term “indie” to denote any organizational scheme within the music industry because, in actuality, “everyone releasing music – in the form of a physical/digital product to the public – is [in some way] dependent upon the infrastructure of the music-industrial-complex,”, he does feel that, “within that framework, organizations can act more or less ‘independently’ if they are not beholden to shareholders and/or if profit is not their prime directive.”

As illustrated by the above responses from all three of my interview subjects, whereas the form the business itself may take remains considerably up for grabs, there seems to be consensus, among indie label founders, that the creation of one’s own label should be conceived of as a labour of love, not a money-making machine. Credence to this fact comes in the form of Potocic’s own struggle for success.

Although Sonic Unyon, today, is cited regularly as one of Canada’s most influential music makers, it wasn’t until Tim was in his seventh fiscal year that he was able to take home his very first paycheck. Calder, similarly, isn’t shy about Boompa’s humble beginnings. Long before he knew they got it right, he recalls numerous failures, poor decisions, hiatuses, and regroupings. But, rather than reflecting on these experiences unfavourably, Calder, like Potocic is able to recognize the wisdom he gained, as a result.

Naturally then, both founders concur that one of the biggest blunders any band can make is to set unrealistic expectations. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, nothing, in this business, happens overnight, and you certainly cannot expect to attain any sense of glory, without first being willing to display your guts. Accordingly, all three of my guests highly recommended that bands maintain other ventures, while pursuing their musical careers. For one thing, cash flow will likely become an issue if you are solely relying on your gigs to front your bills, and secondly, having other goals in life makes you well-rounded. Speaking from his own experiences, Potocic resolves that, “if you have many skills [in life], then you will always land on your feet.”

When it comes to illegal downloading, Calder, Potocic, and Hannah’s views are somewhat more lax than what one might assume of label owners. In Calder’s eyes, “a fan is a fan no matter how they get their music,” and Hannah is quick to point out that for every one person who illegally obtains your tunes, undoubtedly there are five others who get to hear something they would not have otherwise. Moreover, while Potocic accepts the fact that illegal downloading has affected everyone’s business on some level, he strongly contests that, it alone, cannot be blamed for the awful state of the music biz. Rather, he suggests, “people still love music and people still support artists. The traditional model [just] doesn't apply anymore. We are in the middle of more than just a format change – but a change in thinking of the consumer and a shift in consumer spending.” Taking it a step further, Hannah, like myself, cites the industry’s downfall in its foisting of terrible records, upon the public, for far too long: “if labels would stop trying to make money by pawning off garbage, maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to think that [music] didn’t hold any value.”

Despite his attribution of blame however, Hannah remains hopeful. While he agrees illegal downloading, “is not good for [big] businesses that have invested all of their money [into] shiny plastic discs,” he does believe, in all sincerity, that, “it could be good for music.” To this Calder adds that, “true fans support artists in many ways,” and he truly hopes that, “the whole concept of signing bands and throwing crap loads of money at them, to see if they [can] sell a ton of assets in the first week of release, goes the way of the dodo bird.” As made evident through the above discussion, whether or not the corporate structure fails is irrelevant – most indie artists, let alone indie labels, do not align themselves with the traditional music biz’s point of view.

As our three week long examination of what it takes to start your own label comes to a close, I’d like to share with you one final offering of advice. As I’ve attempted to impress on you in this piece, as in others, carving out a career for oneself in the music biz, whether as an artist or label owner, is not for the faint of heart, and it is for this reason that a love of art must supersede all other potential motivating rationales. To leave you with a quote that I feel aptly summarizes the indie label owner’s point of view, in the words of Hannah: “if you believe in the transformative potential of music, [I encourage you to] go for it, [but] if you're looking for anything else, just take the job at your dad's business that he's been offering you. Please.”

About the Author:

Rose Cora Perry is the frontwoman for Canadian hard rock band ANTI-HERO known as “The 21st Century Answer to Nirvana”, as well as the sole owner and operator of HER Records, a management company in which she offers marketing, promotion, publicity, tour booking, and artist development services.

Her band ANTI-HERO has toured extensively across North America playing notable festivals such as Warped Tour, Canadian Music Week, NorthbyNorthEast, Wakefest, and MEANYFest.

Voted “Best Rock Act of the Year” by numerous industry publications, their critically acclaimed debut album, "Unpretty" is available worldwide for purchase. Rose Cora Perry is a dedicated promoter of D.I.Y. ethics, and an avid supporter of independent musicians.