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Collective souls

Co-operative values are catching on among Canadian bands, spawning large ensemble acts of 10 or more members who share the spotlight as well as sharing royalties and responsibility. For some, it’s a political statement, a musical manifesto setting out equal roles and equal rights, but for others, like the break-out success Broken Social Scene, bigger is just better


BY Liisa Ladouceur
Photography by Jeffrey Remedios, arts&crafts

Photo by Jeffrey Remedios, arts&crafts�

“I told you we’d make it!” emily haines shouts into the mic in front of 8,000 beaming indie rock fans. It’s a warm but overcast summer afternoon on Toronto’s Olympic Island, site of an all-day Canadian music festival, and the lyrics to Broken Social Scene’s “Almost Crimes” are ringing true. They’ve definitely made it.

Haines is striking, visually and vocally, and though she commands attention, she is not the band’s lead singer. Of nearly a dozen musicians on stage, you’d be hard pressed to pinpoint one distinct frontperson. Configurations shift throughout the set as easily as the energy rises. For 60 minutes, the mic constantly changes hands, from Kevin Drew (the band’s co-founder) to Andrew Whiteman (one of four guitarists), then back to Haines (known also for her band Metric), who duets with Amy Millan (also of Stars). Drew grabs it back, proclaiming, “This is better than Lollapalooza.”

Broken Social Scene (BSS) shares more than microphones. Its musical “family” embodies many collective ideals. And the band is not alone in the Canadian music scene. All musical groups are, at heart, individuals creating together, producing group work. But lately, a growing number of bands, especially in Canada, are breaking those rules, spreading into large ensemble acts, sharing royalties and decision-making in their business transactions. Despite the implication of Broken Social Scene’s moniker, it seems that for Canadian musicians, working together works.

“Sometimes I think Broken Social Scene is just a bunch of friends making music, but ultimately it is quite a bit different from most bands,” explains Brendan Canning, BSS bassist and veteran member of By Divine Right. Canning started the Scene in 1999 with Kevin Drew (of KC Accidental), inviting friends from other bands to join in on recording and performance sessions. Today, BSS encompasses up to 20 members in several cities who come and go, schedule permitting. On stage, it’s a mighty impressive sight, all those bodies, but that alone is not what sets the band apart. Vancouver’s The New Pornographers and Toronto’s Hidden Cameras are also large groups, but they’re not democracies. In Broken Social Scene, Drew and Canning sign the contracts, but that doesn’t mean they call all the shots.

“It’s a real open policy for members,” explains Canning. “Everyone can take a leadership role at different times, everyone has the ability to make decisions on the music. It really depends on who feels strongest at the moment. And judging by the way we divvy up song [royalties], a lot of people have a lot of pieces. On ‘Anthems,’ about 10 different people have a publishing cut of that song.”

BSS is just one of Canada’s buzzed about, critically acclaimed musical ensembles. Its 2002 album You Forgot It In People has sold about 90,000 copies worldwide mostly on word of mouth, according to the band’s label, Arts & Crafts. (That’s about as many as Canadian Idol winner Ryan Malcolm has logged with Nielsen SoundScan Canada, with a much larger budget.) The band has toured North America and Europe, was invited to play the 2004 Lollapalooza tour and, most recently, scored the soundtrack to Bruce MacDonald’s film, Love Crimes of Gillian Guess. It counts so many members that there’s a family tree on the band’s website, detailing who’s who.

Broken Social Scene’s ever-expanding family challenges the idea that large groups will not be able to sustain themselves without major label support, especially when it comes to touring. “It’s really been the opposite,” says Canning, “even when we did a gig in Spain, at a castle with Morrissey. The woman who was putting on the show had no problem flying everyone over. There’s no problem with our numbers. That’s our whole angle.”

After a decade in which Canadian music has been defined worldwide by mega-selling divas, it is exciting for those who subscribe to a DIY ethic to see new indie bands, many of them large ensembles, getting the international press all agog. Dividing songwriting royalties is one important way that collectives differentiate themselves from traditional groups comprised of a recognized lead singer/songwriter (who gets most of the attention, money and groupies) and revolving players (who too often get the shaft).

A few major-label acts (most notably REM and U2) have always split songwriting credits equally, but the idea is traditionally more ingrained in the hardcore punk and indie communities, where fame and fortune place well behind personal satisfaction and message dissemination in terms of goals (and socially minded leaders such as Ian MacKaye of Fugazi are musical icons). That’s not to say there are no egos in those scenes, just fewer divas.

The bands that embrace the collective ideal do so from the start. The five members of Toronto rock band The Constantines have always been clear on how their band would operate. Since forming in Guelph in 1999 as part of the Three Gut Records family (an indie label born out of shared housing), the band has embraced the collective spirit both in the way they write songs and the way they split royalties.

“The goal is always to reach a consensus,” says guitarist/vocalist Steve Lambke. “That goes for the creative end as well as the business side. There are times where it’s pretty much a five-way split creatively, and times when someone brings in something a little more structured. We work both ways, but when it’s time to get paid, it’s equal. We all sign the contracts together. We don’t have a real set formula for getting things done but we’re always trying to make each other happy.”

And yet, when the five-star reviews and the headlines have all been written and archived for future grant applications, these groups must continue to get along. The more attention they get, the more their collective decision-making ethics are tested. Recently, Broken Social Scene was approached by Hummer to use the track “Looks Just Like the Sun” for an ad.

“We got the word when we were in Germany,” recalls Canning. “There was about five or 10 minutes of quiet, walking down a hill, thinking about the money—$70,000 US. Then you think about a Hummer driving around town, what it means.” The band refused the offer, and has no regrets about doing so.

“But even if we all really thought it was a great idea because we could use $70,000, ultimately it would be Andrew’s decision because it’s his voice on the tune,” Canning says. “Although Kevin and I kind of have the final word, you wouldn’t want to put one over on your bandmates. We can’t say, ‘Andrew, we’re gonna take this money.’ You’d create rifts you don’t really need.”

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For Montreal instrumental ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor, there is even less hierarchy and more hard choices to make. While Broken Social Scene is “passively political” according to bassist Canning, Godspeed takes its collaborative workings and independent ideals quite seriously. The group’s nine members don’t align themselves with any particular cause, but they have definite activist tendencies. Their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O., for example, features artwork detailing the corporate links between major record companies and arms manufacturers. Getting them to explain it all can be impossible: the band is as well known for turning down interviews as for its epic, orchestral rock music.

Bandmember Efrim Menuck agrees to chat not necessarily about Godspeed, but as a member of the greater Montreal music collective, which includes his other band, Silver Mount Zion, and the indie label they both record for, Constellation Records. The label is owned and operated by Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky (who also plays with Menuck in Silver Mount Zion). Since 1997, the pair has run it as a collective.

“Our mode of operation on political, economic and ethical grounds was born out of and continues to be sustained by a fairly collective discourse,” explains Ilavsky. “It’s not that we hold general meetings with everybody on the label every month. We make decisions based on what we think are in the best interests of our artists, but also the best interests of certain principles of sustainable economics.”

Like its acts, most of which are also from Montreal, Constellation eschews typical music business practices. They don’t use written contracts, for example. And they invest their money in beautiful packaging crafted by local artisans instead of music videos or advertising. Together with their artists, they’ve created an alternative infrastructure for making and selling music that avoids written contracts and major distribution.

This makes Constellation different not only from traditional major labels, but most independent labels as well. Ever since the early ’90s, when indie releases started making the charts and making money (The Barenaked Ladies 1991 cassette debut was the first indie release to crack the Top 20 and sell 100,000 copies), indie has dreamed of hitting it big, scoring major distribution contracts and farming bands off to sign recording, management and publishing deals. In discussing how the indie scene has shifted, Ilavsky is quick to point out that many labels hire publicists to promote their companies before putting out any music, unabashedly adopting the traditional business model indies once rebelled against.

Alongside Constellation, Arts & Crafts and Three Gut, Toronto’s weewerk records lives a more modest, artful dream. Since 2002, Phil Klygo and Germaine Koh have operated the tiny collective from their own studio space, hosting performances and releasing albums by Great Lake Swimmers, Elliott Brood and The Barmitzvah Brothers. Like Constellation, weewerk focuses on quality recordings and packaging instead of marketing, and it, too, operates without formal contracts, treating artists as part of a larger family. “The way we run things is a collaboration from start to finish and all points in between,” explains Klygo. “It’s like an art gallery: the gallery doesn’t make art for the artist. It helps put it out, but the artists know what they want to do.”

But when the work is shared equally, getting to do what you want to do means also having to do some things you really don’t want to do. On the flipside of the musical collective is the problem of just getting shit done. “I always think it’s better if everybody engaged in a particular process of artistic or cultural production is staying abreast of all the operations, even the mundane ones,” says Ilavsky. “The cons are that there are a lot of things that ought to get done that don’t. Sometimes really basic politeness ends up being missed. Like when there are emails [that need to be answered]. Whose responsibility is that?”

More importantly, who decides the really big stuff? Menuck says that when Godspeed started, nobody had money, so there was really no point in bickering over who got the largest share. “I figured, if our ship ever comes in, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Like BSS, Godspeed’s ship did come in, along with plenty of unwanted offers.

“The hardest group talks we’ve had in Godspeed or Mount Zion were centered around record industry issues,” says Menuck. “It’s such a sleazy business. At every step of the way, there are decisions [to be made] that are very rarely purely good. Any decision you make is a failure in a way. There are times when discussions are three or four hours.”

He tells the story of a festival the band once played, where a crisis developed about the amount of money Godspeed would be paid. “It took six hours before we came to a decision. It felt like being in a jury. There was no satisfying decision,” Menuck says, “but the process is important.”

Constellation’s Ilavsky agrees that the concept of collectivity comes naturally to musicians in the independent community, especially those who’ve grown up in the punk or indie rock circle. “It’s actually much more the rule than the exception that bands split everything equally. This notion that simply by not putting a higher royalty share on the composer of the song over all the other people who make that song possible in an indie rock band is already a signifier for collectivism. It’s something a lot of us in indie rock take for granted. It’s simply gauche, if nothing else, to single out the singer or lyricist as someone who deserves more.”

Recently, Menuck has been writing lyrics and singing more in Silver Mount Zion. He says this doesn’t make him the leader, or even a “singer” per se. No matter what role he plays, he plans to play fair. “I don’t subscribe to the Nature Channel idea that we’re animals and there’s always going to be an alpha male,” he says. “This is basic human stuff—people should take care of each other and treat each other with respect.”

With more and more music groups taking the collective approach to their creative processes and business dealings, the concept of equally paid ensembles in rock may in fact be less noteworthy soon. Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene says he hopes his band can be a positive influence. The night of the Olympic Island show, even the major-label rock stars on the bill got into the collective spirit: Montreal Juno-winner Sam Roberts brought rapper k-os to the stage to help perform his biggest hit, “Brother Down.” Headliners Sloan rallied a dozen stray players for back-up handclaps. The entire day seemed to celebrate not just the success of BSS or any one group, but the concept of collaboration. In this new landscape, bigger is definitely better.

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Liisa Ladoucer is a music and pop-culture writer for eye Weekly, CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera, Rue Morgue magazine and others. She is a member of the Royal Sarcophagus Society, a shadowy collective of artists and rogues in love with lofty Pre-Raphaelite ideals.


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