Creating an Organic Community
Working from the ground up with artists, and taking risks, is something that Arbutus Records prides themselves on. Label founder Sebastian Cowan remembers how he pounded the pavement in the very beginning.
“Our first few releases were mostly CD-Rs, and I’d bike them around town, getting the college radio station to play them, consigning them in the local record store, and trying to convince publications to care,” he recalls. “I learned that by doing all the work no one else seemed to want to do, I could fill in the gaps and push the whole scene forward. It’s been a lot of work, and as we see more success, the trials and tribulations grow as well, but I’ve learned so much about myself, the world, and what really matters in life.”
Evolving in 2009 from a loft space in Montreal full of friends, “the label was a way to help communicate the music beyond those walls.” The concept of friends making music together — a large group of interconnected talented friends — has helped Arbutus have organic success. The process hasn’t been easy, though, and much of it is rooted in the label’s selectivity in signing artists.
“The most important thing to me is the song; the artist needs to have good songs… If the song translates to all contexts, and is still good, then that’s something that really excites me,” explains Cowan. “We also only work with people that we have a close personal relationship with. This ensures that we understand our artists intimately, allowing a mutual trust and support. Decisions we make are in line with each others’ ideologies, so everyone is comfortable with what’s happening. Moreover, the love we feel for our bands motivates us to work really, really hard.”
This policy helped the label flourish; notably, the label launched Grimes, who has taken the United States by storm. What’s particularly interesting about Grimes is that her ascension was a slow climb. She made several interesting albums before 2012’s Visions launched her into the stratosphere – but now her music is everywhere, and her feelings on vegan politics are known across the internet. Cowan is quick to point out, though, that while the bands have achieved critical success, the sales are not always reflective of such success.
“One makes very little money selling records. Very little. And it’s a lot of work. However, the role of a record label is still as involved in an artist’s career as it was in the ’90s, when the industry was many times the size it is now,” says Cowan. “What this means for the industry is that people who are still working, or new people who decide to start working, are both very devoted. They love what they do, and work very hard. It’s an exciting place.”
Arbutus Records Label Roster
BRAIDS will be touring through Spring 2014 with Wye Oak.
TOPS will be touring through Spring 2014, including dates at SXSW.
Canadian Generational Pride
As a Canadian label, Arbutus gets to reap the benefits of Canada’s enviable system for funding the arts.
“As Canadians we’re very fortunate in this sense,” explains Cowan. “Our artists have seen lots of funding, predominantly in support to go play showcase festivals internationally like SXSW – which has in turn opened up big doors. Grimes really took off after playing SXSW 2011, and support from FACTOR helped make that happen. As a label we’ve only just begun to qualify to access these sorts of things, as standards are much higher for companies.”
Using the trickle-down funding from the Canadian government to focus locally on Montreal’s local scene, Arbutus has been able to capitalize on momentum that has been building in the city for the past 10 years.
“Montreal’s music scene is small, and thus divisible by ‘generations’, as it has a large university population, and these generations are loosely timed by the length of time it takes to do a degree: four to five years,” explains Cowan. “Before us, the groundwork was laid by Godspeed [You! Black Emperor] and Constellation [Records], Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, etc. All these people were important in our genesis; they were supportive and present. Now it is simply our time, which is exciting, and I’m always very conscious to pay it back into the local scene in the way that those before me did. It’s really rewarding, and it’s what makes this all possible.”
Bands like the experimental post-rock group BRAIDS first got involved with Arbutus because they were friends with Cowan, and it all came together over a breakfast one day.
“My initial impressions were after that breakfast conversation — that Arbutus was going to be something important and I felt excited to be there,” recalls Raphaelle Standell-Preston, the vocalist of BRAIDS and Blue Hawaii. “[Montreal’s] local scene, to me, seems really international now. Our friends are all over the place, and I’m not really here most of the time, so it definitely feels spread out to me because I’m spread out. I haven’t seen many shows in Montreal as of late. But it’s so nice to go to the office and to hear TOPS practicing in the other room or to run into Doldrums or Sean [Nicholas Savage] when they’re in town. It’s especially nice when Seb is in town (he lives in London), then it feels like we’re all together again.”
On working with Arbutus, BRAIDS tell us that the label gives them complete freedom to do what they want with their albums, offering help primarily with promotional ideas.
“The label gives a lot of really good suggestions regarding how [Flourish//Perish] could be released… says Standelle-Preston. “We did a bunch of wheat pastes of the floating orb that is on our record cover, in major cities. Arbutus is very involved in every step of the records it helps release.”
All of the bands on the Arbutus label are interconnected, both through location and through musical ideals. One of the newest bands to join the roster are TOPS, although they have strong ties to the label since before they were in existence as a band. A strong pop presence on the roster, TOPS carve a unique figure in the current music landscape. Tender Opposites, their debut 2012 record, is full of off-kilter yet catchy tunes; momentum is building for them, especially since their tour with King Krule in the recent past.
“We write and record it by ourselves, as cheaply as possible, because we don’t have money but also because money doesn’t make music better,” vocalist Jane Penny of TOPS details. “Arbutus helps us with the business side of things, but they would never ask us to change what we’re doing in the interest of a more commercial product. We’re able to be ourselves, and we’re doing it with our friends, so it’s fun. “
Penny adds to the view that the Montreal scene is multi-faceted, saying, “There’s so much good music in Montreal, it’s pretty hard to sum it up. There are a lot of kids, it’s cheap, and there are a lot of local shows happening all the time.”
While Penny doesn’t necessarily believe that Arbutus changed the local scene too much, she does recognize their role in bringing the music to a larger audience. “I don’t think Arbutus changed much. I mean, if you’re a musician and you know what kind of music you want to make, that’s not going to change because of a record label,” she says. “Arbutus has helped us a lot by doing all the important stuff that we’re bad at doing ourselves. It also allows the artists on the label to present our work in the context of the community that we’re apart of. The music that we’re all making falls all over the spectrum, but people are able to experience the connectedness that we feel with each other through the label, which allows us to pursue the music that we really want to make and still be able to support each other.
In general, the artists that Arbutus signs to their label are all over the stylistic map; Doldrums has worked on various projects for the past several years before releasing his debut LP in February 2013, and a shock of his experimental electronica was a nice addition to the Arbutus roster. Blue Hawaii’s newest 2013 record, Untogether made it on many of the year’s top albums list; their brand of chillwave was appreciated in a year full of heavier sounds.
As a continuation of the success of Arbutus Records, Cowan has since founded another label, called Movie Star. Its purpose is to allow for expansion between the two labels, without sacrificing the stylistic cohesion of either.
“Movie Star was a way to allow us to help develop predominantly side and solo projects of the Arbutus roster,” says Cowan. “I think it’s important to keep a focused, dedicated roster and mission. In this way you ensure care is put into everything you do, and you will do a good job. Movie Star was a way to encourage this new music, without diluting what we already had.”
Having an outlet like Movie Star is a nice bonus for the accomplishments that Cowen has made in the Montreal music scene. After all, helping artists from the ground up was his initial mission. He recognizes that there is much more to be done at Arbutus and Movie Star in the future. 2014 will be a big year for both labels, with more albums coming out, more tours to book, and more promotion to encourage. Cowen doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. His own definition of success is one that encompasses all of his friends in the Montreal scene, and sets a realistic expectation for where that success will take them.
“There’s definitely a difference between cool buzz bands that get a lot of press, and make great music – and then radio hits that actually sell a ton of records. Radio has always been the #1 driver of sales. Success is something that’s defined on a personal basis,” he says. “One sets goals, and your ability to meet them determines if you’re successful or not. For us, success is the ability to sustain and grow the people and music we believe in.”