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Music from the pavement

The Daily’s Whitney Mallett unpacks a fresh batch of local indie labels

Dig up and dust off your record player, Discman, or Walkman, because there’s a crop of small record labels in the city that just might make your iPod obsolete. Psychic Handshake specializes in vinyl, Arbutus in recordable CDs (CD-Rs), and Campaign for Infinity in tape–—and in addition to using three different mediums, each label takes its own approach to selling independent music.

Psychic Handshake was born out of little more than three friends and their rough idea of founding a record label. The buds, Shaun Anderson, Lisa Czech, and Graeme Langdon thought it was “mind boggling” that no one wanted to produce a record for the ex-Montreal, NYC-based band the Nymphets. And they were onto something–—all 500 copies of the garage punk band’s debut seven-inch sold out. Since then, Psychic Handshake has put out two more records: a 12-inch for the Montreal band Red Mass and an LP for the Edmonton-based Wicked Awesomes (currently number two on CKUT’s Top 30 chart). Anderson puts an emphasis on communally making wise choices about which bands Psychic Handshake works with. He explains, “We set out to put out quality releases. We just want to do records we all feel strongly about.”

In addition to selecting quality bands, Psychic Handshake’s business model is sure to keep artists on board. The label gives a quarter of the pressings to the band–—most labels often offer between 10 and 15 per cent. Anderson emphasizes fairness when explaining the motivation for such a generous cut. He adds, “It’s pretty much the most you can give away and still make money.”

While the World Wide Web is directly responsible for the crippling downturn in record sales over the past decade due to music downloading, online traffic has helped rather than hurt smaller labels. “If it wasn’t for the Internet, people wouldn’t find out about the sort of bands that we put out,” says Anderson.  
In addition to exposing the bands they release to a wider audience, the Internet has proven to be the most economical way to sell records for Psychic Handshake. Anderson explains that “when you consign, you end up getting owed thousands of dollars.” In other words, record stores only pay labels after the albums have sold out. But online distributors, Anderson notes, “pay cash up front. ” In these online stores based out of various cities across Canada and the U.S., Psychic Handshake’s records are featured alongside other punk albums released on indie labels. Anderson adds that it’s been frustrating getting on board with larger distributers who often have access to a wider market: “A lot of distributers don’t take you seriously unless you’ve put out so many records.” He’s optimistic, though, that these distributors will give them the time of day as the label gains notoriety.

While Anderson points out that “the market for vinyl is stronger than it has been in 20 years, and there’s so much interest in punk and underground music,” he also acknowledges that “it’s a huge financial risk.” Anderson, Czech, and Langdon each invested about $600 when they started the label, and they’re only now starting to earn it slowly back. Although the first release was successful, it cost them money. Due to a miscalculation, they were underselling the album by 20 cents before they realized their error. Their second release, however, is proving to be more profitable.  
Although Psychic Handshake has two more releases of Montreal bands lined up, Dead Wife and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, Anderson urges, “We never set out to be localized label.” The group is set on continuing to work with bands from all over–—possible fall releases include a split between two Miami bands, Electric Bunnies and Jacuzzi Boys. Anderson explains that he and his partners didn’t have a big picture in mind when they put out their first release, but now their ambitions to release quality albums to an international market have become clear.

Arbutus, on the other hand, is a community-based project. Sebastien Cowan, who heads the label, records and lives in the Mile-End art collective Lab synthèse, also involved in small-scale literature, visual art, and theatre projects. Cowan, who is close friends with the handful of artists he represents, explains that “the part that really interests [him] is working creatively with the artists”–—something which isn’t typically a responsibility of the label. While Psychic Handshake prefers that bands come to them with recordings already done, Cowan focuses on physically producing the records.

Cowan’s hands-on approach means that he runs a sort of one-man show, singly responsible for recording, mixing, mastering, designing, marketing, and distributing the releases. He appreciates distributing the music himself over the Internet at “I get to interact with the consumer directly, get to know who they are, how they found out about it.” (The recordings are also available by consignment at a few stores in Montreal and Edmonton.)
Producing albums on CD-Rs is cheaper than vinyl. Cowan explains, “I risk a couple hundred dollars when we do a run, and I always make it back.” His venture is in the early stages: Arbutus’ first album came out last August. Since then, the label has put out four more, all also on CD-R, a practical choice because of the cost and the accessibility–—you can buy them at the drugstore. Cowan also notes, “With CD-Rs you can press as many or as little as you want and the price difference isn’t significant.”

Among the handful of artists that Arbutus represents, there’s a diversity of musical styles–—Sean Savage puts out melodic eccentric pop, Oxen Talk make gentlemanly acoustic folk, Claire Boucher sings dreamy ukulele-accentuated tunes, and in the past the label’s also worked with straight-up rock ‘n’ roll bands. This range keeps Cowan challenged as he confesses: “In order to be satisfied [he needs] to be doing a lot of different things.” And while he doesn’t cater to a certain niche, Cowan appreciates the ability to introduce fans of one artist to the others on the label: “One of the most interesting things about a label is how it can act as a curator.” Although Arbutus’ releases span a variety of sounds, the artists are all in the same insular Mile-End scene–—a drawback when it comes to expanding the audience of each artist.

Brett Wagg’s cassette venture Campaign for Infinity is also grounded in the local scene, putting out weird punk and psych music that sounds good coated in tape hiss.Wagg lives at the Griffintown loft and venue Friendship Cove, where many of the bands he works with play regularly. Campaign for Infinity has existed since last spring. Without any concrete plans, Wagg bought a tape duplicator and, when bands were in need of merchandise for touring, “it kind of went from there,” he explains. Wagg, who has always had a soft spot for tapes, cites the benefits of using a format that’s fast and cheap. He adds that the medium gives a warm feeling for low-cost releases.   
So far, the label has been prolific. In a little over a year, it’s put out around 27 releases, each in runs of about a hundred tapes. The lo-fi recordings on coloured tapes are matched up with sexy, psychedelic album art. Wagg evidently realizes that he’s not just selling the music, but an entire package. He distributes these releases online at, and they’re also available for sale at Cheap Thrills in Montreal ,as well as shops in Halifax and Ottawa.  
Looking ahead, Wagg maintains the same casual attitude with which he started the label. “A lot of this stuff is pretty spontaneous, so who knows what the future holds?” He’ll definitely be keeping busy with a handful of releases on the docket for fall, including a larger run of an international compilation comprising acts from Canada, U.S., and Britain. He also adds he’s excited about working with Psychic Handshake in the near future, a collaboration that exemplifies the camaraderie of the local scene.

Making real records is far more expensive than putting music out on CD or tape. For Anderson though, “It’s worth it for the quality.” He also wishes more labels in Montreal were putting music out on vinyl. Right now there are a handful using the classic format, including Florescent Friends, Alien8, and Dare to Care. Anderson just might get his wish though, as phonographs seem to be in the near future for both Arbutus and Campaign for Infinity. “I don’t want to have a record label without making real records,” says Cowan, who’s brewing ideas for a compilation of Sean Savage tunes on vinyl. Wagg also discloses plans to launch a vinyl side of his cassette label: “Tape sales have been going in the bank to get turned into records, which will turn into more records.” He makes clear, however, that he has no plans to stop releasing tapes. “Certain recordings feel destined for cassette releases.”

The record industry has certainly taken a hit in album sales over the past decade, but there’s still a strong demographic ready to drop cash on a record if they feel it’s worth it. “People are moving away from buying major releases and toward more specialized releases,” explains Anderson. He acknowledges the Internet’s complicity in killing major labels, but also points out that ultimately, “Those labels don’t have a quality product.” The music industry isn’t dead, but it is indeed changing, and independent labels are proving they are often better equipped to respond to industry shifts. Their business models are more flexible, they’re more in touch with their consumer, and at the end of the day, many of these smaller enterprises are putting out higher quality albums at much lower prices. Still when you look at the figures–—Soundscan reports a 37.7 per cent drop in album sales just from May 2007 to May 2009–—there’s reason to be pessimistic. “To actually procure a future off selling recordings, nowadays, it’s not really going to happen,” Cowan says.

Cowan brings up another major factor changing the music industry –— individuals who are recording and mixing on their own at home with programs like Pro Tools, reducing the demand for professional recording. “I used to work in recording studios,” he explains, “and I went from being paid $25 an hour to $12 an hour to volunteering and showing up and not even having anything to do. It’s because somebody in a small bedroom knows what they’re doing.” The Montreal band Silly Kissers, which makes its infectious synth-pop recordings with just a laptop, is a prime example of this democratization. About their albums, Cowan says, “If they had been recorded in an actual studio, it would have sounded worse.”

Despite the obstacles and risks facing these entrepreneurs when it comes to the current state of the music industry, the early success of these three young labels suggests that the record industry hasn’t died; the model is just changing. While some think selling albums in this digital age is futile, many are yet to concede defeat. Wagg explains, “In the underground music scene, there are a lot of really talented and creative individuals that are putting together some really great releases.” And if Anderson, Cowan, and Wagg are any indication, these individuals are driven by a love of music and the people who make it.