Impotent Alternative Britain: What can we learn from Canada?
For whatever reason, the once-gargantuan sound of Britain's underbelly has been bludgeoned. The screams and cries from the streets of Manchester have been silenced and London's extensive reach has been disarmed, left to pat the international music scene with open palms. As a humble country whose global identity and appeal is attributed to forethought and innovation in music, we should be the first to admit that we've fallen behind.
Lets compare ourselves to those enjoying an inverse ascendancy; the Canadians. You needn't look further than the listings for the leading counter-culture music venues, the universal popularity of Arcade Fire, or the attention of music press worldwide to see their prominence. In 2006, The Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Prize for their record Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, whilst the same year the now world-renowned Owen Palett (the man responsible for so many modern string arrangements) beat Wolf Parade and The New Pornographers to the first ever Polaris Prize. Even if we pit 2012's Polaris candidates against the Mercury Prize associates, we've got Plan B and The Maccabees on one hand, and Grimes, Japandroids, and Feist on the other. Not one of the British acts would've been considered for the Polaris accolade, except maybe the winners Alt-J, and considering the variety, artistic intensity, and international acclaim of the Canadian camp, their industry speaks for itself.
I wanted to try and uncover the nuances of the industry in Canada that encourage bands to be so expansive, yet help them achieve acclaim and success. A good place to study would be the home of the majority of the acts, Montreal. We spoke to an archetypal figure of the scene, Jace Lasek, who is the principal songwriter of Jagjaguwar's The Besnard Lakes (Polaris Prize nominees 2007, 2010) and has worked with The Unicorns, Wolf Parade, Islands, Suuns and Patrick Watson whilst running Breakglass Studios since 2005; one of the city's prominent recording facilities.
"I remember going to watch a show with a fax machine going off for forty minutes!" Jace says, enthusiastically, expressing that the formation of this generation's music scene began in 2000, with "the constellation bands, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and a lot of experimental stuff" and because "there were no venues or money, people were just trying to scramble to put on anything, and with the high vacancy rate, you could live in a loft and put on a show there, which happened a lot, as you didn't have any neighbours." It was "a no-brainer" for a plethora of musicians like Winn Butler and Jace himself to relocate there in their droves. He went on to refute that Montreal has a 'sound', as "Wolf Parade sound nothing like Arcade Fire" but that it shares more of a coherent philosophy. "Even if you are trying to make the most accessible pop music you can, you try to experiment with that and come up with something unique. All the stuff that comes out of Montreal now is always a little askew and this comes from those days of watching crazy shows in pools and stuff." There's something both attractive and admirable about this embedded current of experimentation in make-up and outlook which, in turn, gives their music its identity.
The Canadian industry has an infrastructure of trust that swells throughout. Not only are there groups like FACTOR and the CCA who are set-up to provide funding for anyone involved in music, but the Government itself provides cash for musicians too. On the back of his terrific record The Slow Wonder in 2006, ex-New Pornographers man AC Newman was asked about the financial support provided by the Canadian Government, saying that "Canada is weird that way... they just gave me $20,000 to record an album, and then after I finished it they gave me another $13,000 to promote it." AC Newman doesn't make 'commercial sense', but his records speak for themselves. You might call it myopic to pour into a niche market but it has paid dividends. Canadian album sales climbed 16% a year from 2001 onward until an all time high in 2008, and then as global revenues dropped, the profitability of their particular industry continued to grow. Though most importantly, this degree of encouragement persuades further alternative musicians to commit and create.
Production is the biggest distinction of the Canadian alternative scene. There seems to be an individual quality or unique values to a lot of these records' sonic aesthetic which is striving, and boorish. It's difficult to completely place where the root of that strength lies but you'd have to point in the direction of the aforementioned bravery of the industry as a whole, or its interlaced nature. On his own production endeavours, Jace Lasek said he has "always tried to incorporate something strange or new, which doesn't always succeed" but "aims to live by the mantra 'as musicians it's our mandate to make modern music', for the sake of my own mind." Maybe this is the defining problem with British-indie; there's a real lack of ambition in the sound of the records, there has been for a long time. It seems like there's an obsession with things being radio friendly or radio-rock and as a result, the production process has lost its art, becoming both impotent and formulaic.
So where do we go from here? The BBC6 and Introducing movements are the threads which our industry needs to grasp. This localised way of discovering new alternative music helps to form tapestries of identity and provincial artistic communities. This importantly encourages bands to develop with their own objectives, in their own time. Though the BBC continues to validate itself by its tireless perseverance in unearthing breakthrough acts, the opportunities this provides and the subsequent coverage sadly does not pay a wage or guarantee any kind of long-term security. Brett Anderson of Suede admitted in a recent interview with Music Week that "the price of getting heard has risen and the music industry has been hurt." This in-turn leaves only those who can afford to fund this commitment through other endeavours. Do we really want an industry which isolates people from lesser privileged backgrounds? And since when was music no longer respected as a career, or an important component of our society? It's a case of our cultural identity; we've had a vibrant scene which punches way above its weight since the formation of pop music in the 50s, so why doesn't it warrant financial support in its infrastructure from top to bottom? It does in Canada, and an overwhelming group of Western European countries.
Music requires a lasting trust from our Government, the media and record companies in both bands and the intelligence of their audiences to progress. You don't need to slap a cigarette in the vocalists' mouth or tell them to slip on a tight jacket; a disingenuous swagger isn't what makes a band interesting. Alt-J's An Awesome Wave offers a good example. After five years developing a group of songs, only appearing for sessions with the BBC or Amazing Radio on occasion, the four-piece went into the studio and attempted to be bolder and capture their ambitions on record.
This patient, uncompromising process has brought them success both nationally and more-so internationally, which is a feat that continues to become rarer for British alternative bands. It could be argued that the signing and publicising of acts on the basis of a trend or fashion is fundamentally flawed and another reason for the lack of international appeal in British music. Franz Ferdinand, The Kaiser Chiefs, Editors; these are all recent examples of artists who were never able to follow a debut record which was successful in the UK. And our industry just continues to define itself by an incessant, belligerent backing of trending Brit-rock bands that'll never be heard outside of our country or survive their second record. The obvious solution is to nurture bands on the basis of their substance, art, and focus, whether that takes two months or two years.
Great new music won't fall from the sky, it never will. However, if we build an infrastructure of support, consider our attitude toward art domestically, and try to re-establish a respect for ambition in music like the Canadians have, we may yet construct a solid foundation in which more expansive music can grow, like it always has.
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