Canadian Micro Labels Will Never Die – Here’s Why
By Mike Carr, Rock My World Canada!
I recently had the good fortune of making some new friends in the music business and to discuss the future of micro labels in Canada. Before we get into that, lets explain what a micro label is. From the Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality comes this “Micro labels are small record producers who subscribe to uncompromising aesthetic and countercultural ideologies. These labels have a complex relationship with virtual music culture, which undermines their economic infrastructure and challenges their subversive position as cultural producers.” Sounds rather scientific, doesn’t it? Let’s put it in simpler terms – Micro labels are small, independent music lovers and producers who love what they do. Sometimes motivated by politics, religion or ideology, rarely will you find a micro label in it for the money. In fact, all of the labels we talked to have jobs outside of their businesses.
I wanted to get a feel of the business, so I approached four micro labels and asked them to participate in a story that we could share with the rest of the world. So, let me introduce you to our entrepreneurs! Jakob Rehlinger from Arachnidiscs Records whose label folded in October 2019 after 20 years and 200 releases, Rob Michalchuk from Poor Little Music, Craig Caron from Schizophrenic Records and Hammer City Records (yes, that Hammer City Records) and last but not least Nicolas Prince from Punk & Disorderly Records.
First of all, gentlemen, give us a brief history of your label.
Jakob: Arachnidiscs Recordings started in 1999 in Nanaimo, BC as a CDr label. It was the continuation of No Love Records which was a cassette label I started in high school in 1989. In 2007 I moved to Toronto and the label moved with me, at which point I began releasing music on cassette again and vinyl as well. I also started releasing music by people outside of my immediate social circle around that time. I closed the label on Halloween 2019.
Rob: Poor Little Music (PLM) was the culmination of a natural evolution of what I have been releasing since the mid-1990s. The first releases I put out were cassettes of my band, Dirge, we would later change our name to Cartoon Khaki because we found out about all these other bands called Dirge. I did the artwork, layout and duplication of those early cassettes. A friend of ours had started a small label called Humpin' In The Back Room and we put out the releases under that label. That label stopped around 1997 and during that time I stopped doing music for a few years, until late 2003. In 2003 I started creating sounds and oddness that turned into a noise-performance art project named Food. I wanted to put out releases for my Food project and I had a friend who was running another small local label called Wolfbeat Records. I started releasing Cdrs on Wolfbeat and after a year or too my friend took a step away from the label and allowed me to run Wolfbeat for a bit. I ran Wolfbeat for about a year and half. Wolfbeat allowed me to get my feet back into the whole running a label thing. I wanted to release more things on my own and have complete creative control so eventually the thought of starting Poor Little Music came to be in 2007.
Craig: I started in high school in the midst of the 80s punk explosion. I caught the do it yourself bug and started making tapes and compilation tapes. I learned from some older punks. Work within your means. Steal photocopies at school and work. Use the world wide postal system as much as you can. I made and traded and sold tapes all around the world. After I finished university, I used the same ideas and started pressing records. That would have been early 2000s. By then CDs had invaded our reality and I made a few of them as well. Since then I have remained focused on vinyl documenting punk bands both historical documents and current bands from pretty much across the globe. I’m in the midst of releasing my 106th vinyl/ CD release this week.
Nicolas: The Punk & Disorderly label was born mostly because I love collecting records and discovering new bands from around the world and just thought to myself one day that I couldn't be the only one. Getting a record from Europe, USA, Japan or Australia is really expensive with shipping + exchange rates so I kinda wanted to start getting people to discover and buy records for less but also get bands from around the world more exposure and easier access to new fans this way. It started really fast with help of some buddies that owned punk labels in Europe but mostly got lots of trust from bands and band members who believed in my ideas and stuck their necks out sending me records and merch in consignment hoping for the best, it was really exciting and humbling to have all these bands I loved get in the boat with me and still today I feel so grateful they still do. After a few months sales were doing ok and the label was making a little profit which I invested in signing and releasing our first band from Israel called "Hulit Bullet" and then got in bed with several bands and other labels to co release many albums. I had the chance and honor to exclusively sign and release Scott Sellers (ex. Rufio) album "Being Strange" on Cd and also The Hostiles latest album "Love And Lacerations". As of today, I hope being able to continue this endeavor and keep getting people to realize how much great and amazing bands are out there waiting to be heard!!
Let’s talk about the genres that your labels promote!
Jakob: “Music for and by weirdos”. Which isn’t a genre. Arachnidiscs released music in a wide range of styles, from acoustic singer-songwriters to ambient electronics and free-jazz and full-on noise. Not keeping to a specific genre definitely hurt us in terms of gaining a loyal following. People who were turned on to us by a few weird electronic releases in row would leave in droves with our next three releases that might be jazz or noise or whatever. There’s a core of people who followed us who liked “weird” music of any stripe, but they were few and far between.
Rob: I like to keep PLM as diverse as I am with the music I listen to. The main thing with PLM is that it is an outlet for me to release my free-jazzy improvisational saxophone sounds. That being said I also like to release whatever else I feel sounds awesome too. So PLM is not limited to one genre though the majority of what is released I feel people would classify as experimental and improvisational.
Craig: I release punk rock! Only punk rock but it’s across the musical spectrum that punk has evolved into. I like to work with current active brands burning it up on stage as well as document bands from the past. I may venture into some new musical genres in the near future. But we will see. The main thing for me about venturing into new music is I have no idea how to connect with distributors and other means of getting the releases talked about. I got some homework to do. And I’m looking forward to reading what some of the other micro labels have to share.
Nicolas: I promote and release Skate Punk - Hardcore - Ska Punk - Pop Punk music and bands only.
Is your label a full-time gig, or do you have to support it with a regular job?
Jakob: For years I supported it with full-time day jobs. I’m currently a full-time stay-at-home parent, which obviously doesn’t pay as well and made the expensive money pit of a hobby that’s running a micro-label less justifiable.
Rob, “I'd love for PLM to be a fulltime gig but current circumstances say no to that idea and I shlup it out at a day job.”
Nicolas: I definitely have to support the label with a regular job because Punk Rock ain't the most lucrative kinda music out there!
Craig seems to be the most fortunate of the group but still, “I have a label and a record store that are both supported with my fulltime job. I also D.J. regularly to help fuel the label and the shop.”
You guys cater to a niche market – how and where did you find the greatest success with marketing?
Jakob: I never found any success with marketing. What’s the secret? I actually have no idea how I got people up buy anything. I just grinded away trying to get reviews and press coverage, posted on social media, etc. Not sure if any of it made any difference.
Rob: Word of mouth, playing and going to shows. Starting my Bandcamp has also allowed for greater exposure of what is released on PLM. I'm writing these questions to you because of the Bandcamp, proof that it works!”
Craig: Yes punk rock is pretty niche. The internet has changed everything. New releases are new for a couple of weeks. In some cases we had vinyl transferred to mp3s before we had a finished product in the shops. Active playing bands selling records at gigs ya the most effective way to market. A lot of the punk zines have stopped paper print and that has hurt. I’m not technical so the internet isn’t my friend.
Nicolas: I found that punk rock Facebook groups were great places to promote and communicate but also local punk rock festivals like "Rock La Cauze" and "77 Montreal" in the summer time where i can talk one on one with people and really explain the labels mission and maybe get them to discover a new favorite band in the process.”
Traditional labels seem to have an endless budget for artwork, packaging, promotion and distribution -. how do you compete?
Jakob: Simple. Lose hundreds or even thousands of dollars every year. Hobbies are expensive. Ask any golfer.”
Rob: I don't compete. I release what I like without having to think about competition. I like to think that what I release on PLM cannot be duplicated via a much larger music label. That feeling of something created close to the home and heart is not easily come by in something larger.”
Craig: Actually most labels packaging leaves me feeling cold. The days of nice inserts booklets are gone. I work really hard on my packaging and with most releases have a diehard package which is limited to 100. It has colour vinyl and all kinds of extras. Alternate cover art, magazines, stickers, buttons it’s always changing. It’s tough to promote and I have really cut down on print ads as folks don’t read magazines like they used to. It’s tough to compete and I do what I can do to get the word out and the records into shops.
Nicolas: I don't, simply because the label is 100% D.I.Y and doesn't make lots money, it takes months to gather enough to release exclusive stuff so co releasing with other labels is a great way to continue getting new stuff out there and not breaking bank every time but still requires money nonetheless and is a gamble every time as well.
Which physical formats do you still use and why? Obviously, cost is the biggest factor in determining a format for physical release?
Jakob: I’m still a fan of the CD (and CDr), the best music format ever created. But it’s hard to sell in North America these days. Especially to anyone under 50. Cassette sells better to the under 40 crowd, but not the over 40s. And with the sudden demise of Type II stock, it’s not an appealing medium if you’re not making noise music. Vinyl is stupidly expensive and isn’t really suited to the volumes a micro-label deals in.
Rob: Compact Cassette and Floppy Disk! Currently those two formats are the easiest for me to work with right now. I did release Cdr but I'm not impressed with how long they last. I was a collections manager for a museum a few years ago, I have that archival instinct built into me. Some of my old Wolfbeat Cdrs do not work anymore and I've been really careful with them. I'm not totally opposed to releasing things on CDR and I may do a release or two on the format again in 2020. I'm looking at the format the release is on as part of the artwork also. Two past examples for PLM for that idea is a release on VHS that had army men glued to the tape cover. The format size of the VHS allowed for my art idea perfectly. Another was a release of a 3 inch CDR in a hard drive shell. The old hard drive shell fit the CDR perfectly once the platter was removed. Why releases on floppy disk? I'm fascinated by low bit rate. The sample size and audio file format is part of the sound of the release. The feeling of low bit rates is something I'm constantly experimenting with. In a digital era dominated by the highest fidelity possible it is interesting to go against what is currently possible and compress it down to fit into 1.44 or 1.2 megabytes of space.
Craig: I only do vinyl. It’s costly and I can’t release as many records as I would like to but this is a passion and not a business. Some of my releases I know will take years to sell out if it ever does but this time and place and sound needs to be documented. Everything old is new again and maybe 20 years from now some local band will hit the limelight.
Nicolas: For the time being because of restricted budget, CD is the main format the label can afford to release, I co-released with a few other labels a Californian band called Down Goes Goodman on vinyl but that was it.
What would be an average run for a release? And what has been your largest run to date?
Jakob: Arachnidiscs used to average runs of 50. In the last year the standard run was 18. The largest was 200 each of the two Moonwood vinyl LPs, the second was a co-release with Pleasence Records. I think the tape My band Common Buddha’s did in 1990 through my No Love label sold 350 copies. Been chasing that high ever since.
Rob: For the last two years average runs are 15 or less for cassettes. In the past I was doing an average of 30 for cassettes, with a maximum of 60 for one release. For my floppy disk releases, I do an average of 5 in the run. I have also released some more elaborate box sets that have been less than 10 copies. With my lowest run being an edition of three. That release was a 22 floppy disk set.
Craig: I use to do runs of 1000 but in the last year releases have had such a short shelf life I reduced it to 500 or 300. The most I have ever pressed is about 6 or 7000 copies.
Nicolas: Since the bands i try introducing to people are pretty much underground or simply new and unknown, i like to do small runs of 100 CD's to begin with and see where it goes.
I haven't sold out on any of my releases except for one (Scott Sellers) so i guess my bet was the right one unfortunately. I recently invested a lot (i mean all the labels profit) in UK ska punk band "The Hostiles" new record making a 300 run mostly because they were touring Canada and Europe...crossing fingers!!
Traditional record stores (indies and chains) normally don’t carry your artists – how do you overcome this challenge? Are there distributors in Canada that would carry your music and if not, why not?
Jakob: I’ve never had a problem finding any indie stores to stock our material. Except many don’t carry CDs at all anymore. But mostly it’s that consignments generally just sit there gathering dust unless the band is really generating buzz so I don’t bother. I’ve never found a distro that would carry a micro-label because they only want to deal in releases by touring artists that stores across the country will know and order. Most of my artists never leave their bedrooms.
Rob: In the past in Brantford there were record stores that would carry releases that I put out. Sadly, those stores have been closed for some time now. As far as distributors go, I'm not concerned about them.
Craig: I focus a lot on mail order. In the USA I have some solid distributors and some big mail order distributors. Canada has been a struggle. When you go find a good distro it can be tough getting paid. Having a record store also allows me to trade my releases. When your distro is holding back $1000 or $1500 it hurts.
Nicolas - I have a local records store situated in my towns shopping mall called "Marché Du Disques Saint-Hyacinthe" that carries a few CD and Vinyl records at good prices for those who drive between Montreal and Quebec City and would want to save on shipping fees and obviously locals that live in Saint-Hyacinthe and around.
In order to reach a wider audience, you would have to look beyond the comfort of BandCamp and your own website (provided you have a website) – how would you go about promoting your label and artists?
Jakob: I don’t think I agree with the premise of the question. But paying the payola to get tracks on influential Spotify playlists seems to be the way to do it these days. Hire a PR specialist to get as much press as possible. It’s all a bit ridiculous if your goal is to sell 50 weirdo tapes.
Rob: In the past I did much more promotion of the label and I had a website. Promotion is like any other talent or skill; you have to keep it up or you lose touch with it. Finding that balance has been tricky for me for that last couple years. Running PLM isn't a fulltime job so finding that life/work balance can be a challenge at times. Promotion is something that I would like to exercise again for PLM.
Craig: There are a lot of “collecting groups” and pages for new bands on Facebook and Instagram that I use to show pictures of releases or reviews. I don’t know Bandcamp and don’t stream music so that is all lost on me. I like to think of the label and fans meeting half way. I use to have a website but the company had their files corrupted and we lost everything. Then my longtime life partner left me. She did all the social media for the label and store. So, without sounding like an old country song everything fell apart. I’ll likely never have a website again and am starting to learn social media. Again, I’m lucky that a lot of my bands can tour and sell records on tour. Then again, some bands may break up before the record gets released. Yes, cue that country music again. Ha ha!
Nicolas: If i had thousands of dollars and no attachments or responsibilities i would definitely travel across the waters to attend punk rock festivals all round the world to promote and sale or pay for online promotion on all social medias plus cross promote on punk related websites and so on...but that's not the case...I'm poor ha ha, so I'll have to stick to my guns for now!
It’s always been my personal feeling that an artist not only makes music – they make history. If the only way to get the music is through a digital medium, doesn’t the artist run the risk of losing their music in a digital black hole? Discuss.
Jakob: There’s definitely a lot of noise to cut through to get noticed, if that’s what you mean by digital black hole. I’m not sure artists do truly make history when they make music. I think they make music and the idea any of it “matters” in any significant cultural way is a bit of smoke and mirrors perpetuated by record label marketing divisions and music journalists. I mean people talk about how important punk was. But did it prevent Thatcher and Reagan? No. Did it play a role in removing them from power? Nope. It's all marketing.
Rob: My background is archival. What a possibly lengthy question this could be... but I'm going to choose to keep it simple with this one thought: It depends on how that data is being maintained, regardless of format, for it to be viable as any type of historical record.
Craig: Yes, musicians make history and I think vinyl preserves that history. Cover art liner notes pictures it’s all history. We live in one of the most documented times but all of these cell phone photos and mp3s are going to be lost when your phone explodes or your computer gets a new operating system or the cloud develops a leak. At the end of the day I’m always gonna have a room full of vinyl to hold and that will bring back memories of the band I saw or what record store I purchased the record at. Which trip was it and who was along for that journey. All that comes back when I’m flipping through my records.
Nicolas: In my case, the label leaves all digital sales to the bands and only sales physical. Personally, I feel it's alright to put out music digitally, almost don't have a choice anymore these days. Making music has gotten really easy to make nowadays which is cool but too much mediocre is blended in with the great that seems to get lost a lot and that’s sad, digital platforms have taken off all filters letting everything and anything through and I hate that.
Has streaming killed the micro label? Would you agree that it is no longer necessary for a musician to release in a physical format?
Jakob: I think if steaming killed, or will kill, anything it’s top-40 music radio. And campus radio as well, which used to be where you’d find music not on top-40 radio. Now it’s all streamable, without commercials and annoying morning zoo DJs. As far as artists go, I think it’s definitely not necessary to release something on a physical format. But I mean that in the sense it used to be absolutely necessary 25 years ago when music could only exist on a physical format. Now it’s not necessary but if you want to provide that niche product, that’s a viable thing still. And I don’t think steaming has affected micro-labels at all, actually. But it’s Bandcamp that makes them somewhat superfluous.
Craig: I don’t stream and probably have missed out on a lot of great music and potential releases. I tell bands if you want me to listen to you and give you a shot at a record I gotta either see your band and have loved it or you need to send me a tape or CDr. I don’t stream and am not about to start. I’m not sure about bands that are dropping singles on line. Or better yet need a go fund me page to drop their internet single. In my perfect world we would all return to landlines for the phone and internet. In your downtime waiting for your slow internet you can read a music fanzine. The idea of downloading music is so foreign to me. What am I paying for and how do you get to look at that record art. Vinyl is so tangible. You hold it. You hate the record you throw it across the room. You love a song and need to cry you hug the cover and fold the corners. You saw a great band on a magical night and all that energy is there when you pick up that record. I would rather nail money to a tree than pay for digital downloads. At least I can see the money tree and others may add more money making it a working living peace of art.
Nicolas: It is continuously reducing physical sales but with the vinyl record revival it's never going to totally die plus mostly every 30 years old and beyond still love owning something they can touch and feel they are really supporting a band or artist that way...and they're right!!
Is there anything else would you like to add?
Nicolas: I'd like to add that without music our lives would be a real pain in the ass just like if coffee or beer didn't exist so when a band you like puts out a records or come play near or in your town, buy a copy and a ticket don't just freeload on Spotify and watch a video on Youtube, get out there, show some love to your scene while there's still one to speak of! If you can afford a cup of coffee or a beer every day you can afford to physically support!!
I would like to thank Jakob, Rob, Craig and Nicolas for taking part in this debate. I sincerely wish you all success in the future, and hopefully we can do this again!
Micro labels and myself share a lot of similarities – we have no publishers, marketers, publicists, artists, copy writers, editors or backers of any kind. We work regular jobs and dedicate ourselves to our first love. It fuels our passion, drives us to work crazy hours and lose time we should be spending with loved ones. Some of the labels featured here may be gone tomorrow, but does that mean the end of the micro label? Not very likely, as there are many more out there with the passion, the drive and the ambition to start a new label tomorrow. A word of advice though – if you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason.
About the author: Mike Carr has self-published a reference and collector’s guide on Canadian Alternative & Indie artists. The book is the first in his series on Canadian music history and features over 950 bands and solo artists, and over 3000 album covers (a pictorial discography of each act). To date he has collected over 14000 album covers covering all genres of Canadian music dating back from the fifties to the artists of today. A self-professed historian of Canadian music he is currently working on Canadian Blues, which he hopes to publish early in 2020. Help support Canadian music history – become a patron!