15 years: Music business, con't. | Music | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

15 years: Music business, con't.

In honour of The Coast's 15th anniversary, our panel of seasoned experts and promising up-and-comers dish on 15 years of Halifax arts, music, comedy, film and style.

Like most things in Halifax, the local music business has seen a lot of changes in the past 15 years. Mike Campbell, former MuchMusic VJ (Mike & Mike's Excellent X-Canada Adventures) and Joel Plaskett’s current manager, and David Ewenson, musician and co-founder of Just Friends Records, went down to city mainstay Taz Records to give us the skinny. It turns out that amidst all the industry turmoil, Halifax has, and will continue to march to its own drummer. And that New Brunswick sucks.

So what was the music business in Halifax like in 1993?

Mike Campbell: I moved here in the summer of 1992. I was coming down from MuchMusic, I was still doing the Mike and Mike show and MuchEast and all that. I remember coming from Toronto, which was still basically major label land, major everything, and coming into a scene that was as developed as the Halifax indie music scene was at the time and thinking ‘I really have to smarten up. I have to start going out, start paying attention to stuff.’ I can’t count on the record companies to hip me to it, cause frankly there was not much, except that I think at the time the Sloan deal was going down and Black Pool and a bunch of the other early bands. But it struck me as being a tremendously supportive scene as opposed to Toronto where it was cutthroat.

David Ewenson: And who’s your lawyer…

Campbell: Not only that, but bands undercutting each other. I’d go to shows here in Halifax, at the Double Deuce and the Pink Flamingo and stuff, and as that scene progressed, seeing every band in town at somebody else’s show. That struck me as being really unique to Halifax. It was the eye-opening part of “How could all this be going on here and nobody knows about it.” And the ultimate irony of that is reading in Harper’s Bazaar magazine about the scene here and the whole “New Seattle” tag and asking people about it and having everybody pissing themselves laughing going, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” So there was also the self-deprecation and nobody within the scene taking it or themselves too seriously, which was refreshing.

Is that the situation today as well?

Ewenson: I think so. That sounds a lot like Halifax right now. The majority of people that go out to shows are musicians themselves. You can usually go out to a show and point out this band, this band and this band at everybody’s shows. And everybody’s just humble in Halifax. The Maritimes are marginalized in general from the rest of the scene so I think everybody that has to drive through New Brunswick to get a tour done just gets it.

Campbell: That hasn’t changed---you still have to drive through New Brunswick.

Ewenson: They haven’t figured out a way to cut that out. 

Campbell: No. If they had we’d be a lot better off.

Ewenson: We’ll just take Sackville.

After the whole “New Seattle” thing, was there a lull in the scene?

Campbell: I think that there’s probably been a few ebbs and flows over the course of that time. But I don’t think anything has changed that radically again because nobody---generally speaking---when they’re starting out here has any grand illusions that they’re going to be giant rock stars. Most of the motives for people getting involved here remain exactly the same. I have seen periods where it’s like, ‘Who’s going to replace the graduating class?’

When I was doing the ECMA rock showcase stuff, I can still remember the year the ECMAs were in Halifax and we did the five-and-dime show at the Marquee. That year we had Matt Mays and El Torpedo play, we had Plaskett play, we had The Trews play, I think Buck 65---all these acts. And out of that The Trews got a record deal, Matt Mays got a management deal cause Louie Thomas had never even seen him before that night. Plaskett got a record deal with Maple, Buck 65 was already in that process. So you graduate that class and then look to the next ones coming. And there were a couple of years where it wasn’t apparent that we were going to have acts of that stature, but certainly in the last couple of years, there’s tons of great stuff here now. The thing that I like about is that there’s lots of people that manage to float under my radar and then suddenly you’re going to see them and they’re a full-fledged, really well rehearsed, not-practicing-in-public-anymore kind of band. Or places are jumping up to take over where a lot of the other places, like Gus’ Pub, for instance, to become a breeding ground for that kind of stuff. But we haven’t had a situation where ‘Oh shit. There’s nothing going on here.’

Ewenson: I find it funny when people start to freak out about venues closing down, because there’s always another one that comes up. It happens every few years. If you stick around long enough it levels out. There’s always a new place that will pop up. Musicians aren’t going to go away, there’s going to be a ton of bands in Halifax all the time. There are new bands starting up like every five minutes. I work in a studio and it’s always like, ‘Oh yeah, that was fun recording. I’ve got two other bands that will come in.’ I don’t think we’ll ever be short of musicians here.

Campbell: No. And the studio facilities are all here and they’re getting better and better too. Now you have the real serious legitimate place to go and record and you can turn out a record that is as good as anything you’re going to hear elsewhere.

Look at the overflowing local section here at Taz.

Ewenson: And people are making vinyl like crazy too, which is kind of a new thing. Bands are touring like mad---Halifax bands are crisscrossing the country constantly and a lot of people are doing a lot of cool things with their merchandise.

Campbell: There’s a certain irony in the fact that the way that things are being done in the industry now, out of necessity---Halifax always operated on that indie level---and now that is the way to operate. It was one of the hallmarks of Halifax bands, the good ones, or the ones that got the hell out on the road, that when they came back to town you could see marked improvement. I remember the first time I went to see Sloan, because I’d been hearing about them. The people at Much were ‘Can you go down and get the skinny on these guys because we’re hearing so much about them but they’re not charting, nothing. What’s the deal?’ The first time I saw them I actually couldn’t believe they were as far along as they were. Everybody was looking at their shoes…

Ewenson: That was the style.

Campbell: But I couldn’t tell the difference between one song and the next song and their performance was just shitty. They weren’t very good yet. They didn’t play that often. How many gigs had they played when they got signed? It was retarded. And then watching them---they did have a record out, it was on a label, they had to tour---and just watching how good they got in very quick fashion. The Plasketts, the Matt Mays of the world they always played a lot of gigs. Seeing everybody else get out and get the hell out of town, or going to Toronto just seeing people embraced by more major centres is nice to see.

Because a lot of bands just stick to the Atlantic Canadian tour circuit is there ever a fear of burning out the audiences. How often can you play Sackville?

Ewenson: Sometimes it seems like bands come out here and they don’t do that well because it is tough. If you don’t do it during the school year you’re screwed. The summer’s really tough, there are a lot of student cities. I think that for bands that come back repeatedly it pays off. The Bicycles from Toronto have done really well. They came back, reoccurring every year a couple times and now people know them as well as a local band here. I know the Marquee scene lately, I can’t believe who they’ve been booking.

A lot of classic hip-hop acts at the Marquee…

Ewenson: I think that they all run through one promoter. It’s like, “Oh, people come out to these shows in Halifax.

Campbell: There’s a bunch of reasons. With Z103 suddenly bang in the market, there’s way more exposure. Stuff’s being heard that wasn’t being heard before and that really helps in a lot of ways. The rock ’n’ roll thing here is still CKDU, if you’re going to hear anything at all, which still needs some work. But there are more avenues for people to get to music as they move away from radio, certainly on the rock side of things. But we still haven’t gotten any farther along. We still have to drive through New Brunswick to get here and if there are no paydays in New Brunswick or PEI, it makes it tough for bands to get here. But for those who put in the time over the years, even the classic Canadian bands, the bands that seriously made an effort to get out here on a regular basis, like Blue Rodeo, did really good business in this town because they put in there time and thought it was worth it.

Ewenson: People appreciate, I think they get it---at least I hope they do.

The music business as a whole has changed, but as you’ve both mentioned Halifax has always operated a bit out on its own. Have these changes affected the ways that you both do business?

Ewenson: Oh yeah. Over the last five years it seems completely different for everybody. I think that everybody’s consciously getting more business savvy quick. NSCC has a music business course. Or some people just dialed into gradually like me. You’re playing in a band and then suddenly you’re booking shows, and then you’re putting out a record and you’re helping somebody else with it and it kind of slowly happens that way. But yeah, rock stars are in front of their computers than ever before.

Campbell: It’s a lot easier because there is a level playing field. At one point the record deal was supremely important because it cost a lot of money to make a record. The record labels and promotion departments were the ones that had the relationships with media of all stripes. For instance, the idea of getting on MuchMusic without somebody in the record company promo department calling in some favours and getting you on, or getting your record on radio, it was very much dependant on having those connections. Now, those connections don’t mean that much. There are five people that get on radio, so let’s assume we’re not getting on radio. MuchMusic? Let’s bust our asses getting a VIDEOFACT grant or whatever, that’s sweet, you can still get them, but it’s not like MuchMusic’s ever going to play them. So now, if you’re reasonably well organized, anybody who’s young and in a band today is completely familiar with computer-based solutions to their problems and it’s very simple and it’s free. Depending on the approach you’re going to take, what do you need a major label, or a major independent label for? To get your physical product into stores? It’s not like people are buying a lot of that these days. You can do most of these things at home if you’ve got a decent fan base and you can get them to come out and buy these things. There are a lot of creative people in bands. You can do all this stuff within the band, and I think it builds the strength and the character of the band. Your fans are the ones that are going to sell it, certainly in the early days. They want to go out and they want to preach. They get a kick out of it, I know I did and I’m sure you did do, Dave. When you were a kid you wanted to be the guy that discovered the band that nobody else knew about. You wanted to be the guy that brings everybody to the shows. You want to be the guy that gets to know the band because that’s cool and that whole ethic works perfectly in the industry today.

Ewenson: And then once all those college kids start coming to the shows, boy are you mad. God dammit!

Campbell: God dammit! But they will buy the product, they’ll do everything for you. As long as you’re good. That’s the big difference between the bands now and the bands in 1992, 1993, going back to the Sloan example. Bands are good, like surprisingly good. I’m really encouraged by how many people are out there and how the bands’ performances are.

Ewenson: I think bands are spending more time on the business side. You decide everything.

Campbell: Yeah, you’re in control of your budget. The fact that all this stuff can be done really inexpensively is an obvious edge but if there are costs related to any of it, you’re in control. It’s not like the record company is spending money on your behalf and you’re trusting them not to blow money. You don’t need to buy a full-page ad in a newspaper necessarily if you’ve got a dedicated fan base; people are used to going to your website. I don’t think people need to get into that cycle anymore where they release a record, tour the thing for three years and go around the world. By the time you get back to where you started nobody knows who the hell you are anymore. They’ve forgotten about it. Everything’s really, really disposable. You got to get back to a market you just played. Before you could do it once a year, now you’ve got to do it twice if not three or four times. Over-saturation’s less of a problem.

Ewenson: It does seem like the buzz bands come around a lot quicker than I can figure out.

Campbell: They come and they’re gone. What the hell happened to them? In a lot of cases it’s manufactured buzz that comes from record companies planting stuff on whatever entertainment outlet they can do. But I don’t think that by playing any of the late-night talk shows or anything helps anymore. It probably did back when everyone was watching one channel. The longevity thing and the work ethic thing, continuing to produce material and keep moving forward is it. I think that if you come out and make a lot of noise and sell a lot of records in a big hurry that’s probably more of a danger than it used to be. ‘Oh shit! My song is on the radio.’

Not to hype your artist, Mike, but I think that Joel Plaskett is the kind of artist who has had that kind of longevity in his career, and he’s still young.

Campbell: I did the first interview with him for Much and they had to take time off school. They were in Grade 10. Even then you could tell Joel was a guy who was going to do this for the rest of his life. And management is more important than any record label stuff at this point. But it’s still about making music, and playing live. A lot of bands do all their business on the road. That’s where they’re selling they’re physical product, that’s where they’re selling their merch, that’s where they’re selling themselves.

Ewenson: The artists that remained true to themselves and really stuck to their visions they’re the ones that always had the careers that flow.

Longevity seemed to be a big part of that first wave of Halifax bands, if not the band still being together, then at least the individual artists. Is that a conscious thing these days with the artists at Just Friends?

Ewenson: I hope so. I don’t think it’s a pressure you put on people because it’s not an easy thing to do. It can be hard. But if you love making music and just keep a good head on your shoulders you’ll stick with it if it’s honest.

Campbell: People are always surprising me. I used to take it personally when bands broke up.

Ewenson: It takes a while. I think now with a lot of musicians around you’ll play in maybe five bands before you find the project where you’re all getting along and its working well and you can really stay sane with it enough to go on tour and make albums together. Some bands will play together for a few years, get some hype and then it breaks apart because some people are going back to school. But you’re young. You’re 20: your talent’s not going anywhere. In the end it’s the music, it’s your talent. Bands are getting popular at 40.

Campbell: And people that are going to do it or they’re not going to do it. It’s like an athlete in high school or college; maybe they’ll go on to the pros, but most of them don’t. It’s a shame when the ones that you think have a lot of talent don’t. But you talk to the guys in the band and it just doesn’t matter that much to them. And they’re young. It’s really nice when people have talents on all types of levels. Like Andrew Scott from Sloan, who could just as easily make his life as an artist. That’s the beauty for him that there isn’t that pressure and that allows that band to stay together because it isn’t 100-percent necessary to do it. But there are people who you just know are going to do it, like Mike O’Neill who has done some of my favourite music in this town. And you’re like ‘Well what the hell ever happened to Mike?’ Well he’s doing sound for *Trailer Park Boys* and he’s got a band with Charles (Clattenburg). Or Superfriendz---that album is two years in the making and they still can’t finish it off because people keep writing songs. Some people are cut out to do it and some people just get tired of it. Some people don’t like to travel. I was an Air Force cadet and moved every two years. I thought everybody loved it. But some people hate it. And god help you if you decide to have a family. 

Ewenson: It’s not surprising that someone who’s a songwriter, that loves working on their music, maybe doesn’t like being in a bar every month for three nights, unless you’re an alcoholic. But it’s always that thing with the talented person, you always want them to do certain things like, ‘If I had you’re talent I’d do this, and this and this.’ But you don’t have my talent. Leave me alone.

You’ve both said that the live show has become the focal point for artists. To play devil’s advocate, why even bother recording anymore?

Ewenson: Your album sleeve, your video---if you’re going to love a band it has to be the whole thing. If somebody’s going to really get into a band it has to be the whole thing.

Campbell: I think the presentation of it differs these days. Back in the day you’d go in, you’d record the album, you’d mix the album, you’d master the album, then there’d be a release date and you’d send the single to radio a month before the album came out, then have three singles lined up that would have to be released on a certain schedule. That little dog and pony show, I do think people are just going to say, Screw it.’ I don’t need to do that. But people want music from the band that they’re a fan of. I think the new model is do whatever you need to do to get the product in their hands. Most people can hear stuff on the website, get excited, go to the show, buy the CD from the artist themselves. Even if they can steal it, most people would rather do that. Anybody who’s into music could tell you the first rock show they went to see and what that did. How loud it was, how much energy there was. That’s how people get addicted to the stuff in the first place.

Ewenson: And musicians, most of them are creative people and they want to put work into a lot of other things. I’m really liking now that people are putting the digital download code and putting out vinyl and scratching the CD because then you can have this really great artwork and you can get it online also so that everybody can have it. I think with new mediums that are coming up people are just adjusting to them and doing cool shit with them.

Campbell: Well the back-to-vinyl thing is great and hilarious. I think it’s brilliant watching people get into vinyl because the listening experience is different. Back in the day, when vinyl was the only option, you’d put the record on tune one, you’d sit down, read the liner notes, you’d read everything, you’d read the label, you’d read all of that stuff. You were absorbing the record at the time. You’d listen to the thing three times in one sitting because it was your new record, god dammit. The CD format, whereas it’s really convenient, all the rest of it is not the same experience. So I think it’s wonderful that the younger generation is discovering vinyl, discovering the difference between the sound of a CD because there is a huge difference.

Ewenson: What was the first rock show you went to see?

Campbell: I was in grade nine in Catholic school in Belleville, Ontario, and our religion teacher, who was a deacon, packed a bunch of us in the car and drove us to Kingston to go see Chuck Berry and The Guess Who.

Ewenson: Whoa. I saw Bryan Adams in ’91, in Revelstoke, B.C. It’s a town of 9,000 so it was our first traffic jam.

Campbell: But you see a big-time rock show with the P.A. and lights and you can’t get over how loud it is. I was completely hooked the first time I heard it. I just hope the culture continues that way because the concert thing is a big thing. Most of our live music problems in Halifax are just an accident of geography. It cost people money to come here and it cost promoters money to get them here. And again, I blame it on New Brunswick. If New Brunswick had a place where people came out to shows, or had healthy scenes like they do in Halifax, then we wouldn’t have a problem. But until that happens we’re going to be stuck with this.

--Ian Gormely

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