There is an argument that the internet has diluted the importance of the record label, that the ability to self finance, self release has rendered the label structure redundant.
But in some ways, the record label is more important than ever. Whether as a mark of quality amidst the tumbling morass of new music, or simply as a communal led well spring of new ideas, the label – handled in the right way – can still be an inspirational force.
Which leads us nicely to Arts & Crafts. Founded a decade ago, the Canadian imprint has risen in tandem with its mainstay act (and co-owners) Broken Social Scene. Based in Toronto, the imprint was forged by friendship – it just helps that their circle of friends includes Stars, Metric and Feist.
Toasting their tenth anniversary with a double CD compilation, ClashMusic spoke to Arts & Crafts founder Jeffrey Remedios for a web exclusive interview.
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Can you talk us through the beginnings of Arts & Crafts?
I mean, I was working for other big record companies at the time – I was at a major in Toronto. I was getting to become better and better friends with what was to become Broken Social Scene, the guys in the group. There was just this amazing, burgeoning music community starting to really blossom in Toronto. It was kind of one of the first times you felt that the Toronto music community was really supporting itself, looking inwards as opposed to outwards for validation. The guys in Broken, they brought me into the studio to hear what was to become their debut album and when I heard that I was totally in. I felt there was no other way for this music to come out into the world, and that if you could really partner with an artist, to construct a business but in a meaningful modern way, you could really effect change in a way that I felt wasn’t happening at this big record company. So I pitched Kevin on this idea for a structured company that wasn’t particularly normal and he was like: yeah, that could work. If it doesn’t work – or to ensure it does work – why don’t you let me own half of it with you? So we set up that way, Kevin and I, working on his project. We brought in other people and the rest kind of fell in line after that.
The label launched during an interesting crossroads for the music industry.
We started it at kind of the right time. We kind of caught the last few rungs of how things used to be, but we were able to layer in a new way of doing things. Broken were really on, they were really resonating in a new way. People really agreed with the decisions we were making, which was pretty unusual!
What ambitions did you have when starting Arts & Crafts?
I don’t know if it was like wanting to be the biggest label I could ever be, but I never felt like there was anything that we couldn’t achieve. That there was any barriers to what we could do. I was incredibly ambitious. I always felt like the digital transformation of our world would affect everyone. I approached it honestly, and believed that we could accomplish pretty much anything we wanted. I guess, yeah, it wasn’t so much like I wanted to own a big company but I always felt like there was no limit to what we could do.
You’ve been lucky enough to operate during what some would call a golden age for Canadian music.
Yeah I couldn’t agree more. Someone asked me the other day, do you think you had any influence on that? Mostly, I think we came up in a really incredible, golden, fertile, rich time in Canadian music. It’s a bit early to look back on that period with the perspective of history, but I do think a lot of it has to do with this self validation.
It seems that there’s a real sense of community at the label.
We were the house that Broken Social Scene built, so when we started out, our A&R philosophy was to help the projects related to that band come out. We were just lucky that included stuff like Stars, Feist and so forth. At the core of what we were doing it was like a real group of friends. Then as we expanded beyond that we signed bands were liked who made records were liked but weren’t people we’d necessarily know. They kind of came into this community. I remember when Feist first arrived, and had her album ‘Metals’. She was nominated for the Polaris Prize as well, and I remember Lelise saying “oh it’s great when Arts & Crafts sign stuff, because 1. I get to hear new music and 2. I get to meet exciting new friends”. I really think that there’s a nice communal attitude on the label.
Has that communal attitude been difficult to retain during the growth of the label?
Yes, it has. Broken used to always get “they’re this big Toronto band!” but they spent all these years just touring, so people would ask them about Toronto and they’d be like: “oh I don’t really know because I spend all my time on the bus!” I guess the same sort of thing happened with the label because we had to grow up a little bit, we’re signing more and more disparate artists who don’t necessarily know each other. But at the same time, at the core we’re still really strong on this idea that everyone is friends with each other. I do feel like there’s still a strong sense of community.
How does the signing / scouting process work at the label?
Good question. We don’t have any one way. We’re going through a tonne of demos which are now mainly download links, but it’s rare that we’ll sign someone that way. A lot of the time it’s attrition – our artists are coming via other artists. Or from our staff. We don’t have a pure A&R team, so much as our whole team are helping us reach forward. We’ve got some sort of trusted relationship that we’ve built over time that we will regularly hook up with. Y’know – some agents have worked with us a long time, or some managers. Or other labels from other territories. But there’s really no system to it. For us, we want to work with interesting, authentic music – we want to put out records which will age well. We work mostly with Canadians but we work with a lot of internationals too. There’s no real rhyme nor reason to it, it’s sort of organically taken its own shape.
A new generation of bands have come through citing Arts & Crafts as an influence. How does that feel?
It was humbling at first. When we started, Los Campesinos! were one of the first bands who were younger than us, too. When we started we were this group of friends, we were all the same age – like peers. Then we heard this amazing, exciting stuff which we hadn’t even conceived of, but it was so couched in our history that it was really amazing. As we got to know them we realised they were real kindred spirits, with a lot of the same ideas, a similar approach to what we were doing. It was really fun to work with them.
How did you go about piecing together the new compilation?
It was hard. At the same time, there were some natural ways we went about it. I think we sat in a room, three of four people from the label – including Kevin. I think we started with our latest release and worked backwards. We wanted it to have the feeling of a retrospective package from one of our favourite labels. We didn’t want a ‘Greatest Hits’ so we thought, let’s take some of our most iconic songs, the most momentous songs on one level, and then let’s pool songs which we all love but – for whatever reason – weren’t released on albums, or maybe weren’t released at all. But they might have been used as material and have that comprise the other half of it. Then we just went through it. How many Broken Social Scene songs could we have fit on there? I mean, fuck – that’s just impossible to decide. How many Feist songs? Another impossible question. We went through that process and it wasn’t a straight line but it also wasn’t as hard as it could have been.
What else do you have planned for the anniversary?
Well, we have plans for a little mini festival in downtown Toronto. It was the site of the original war between Canada and the United States – which Canada won, thanks to the help of the British. It was really the British who won, but they did it in the name of Canada. The liquor laws in Ontario changed like a year ago so now you can stand in a field and watch a band with a beer in one hand and your kid in another. You couldn’t have done that before. We felt that we wanted to bring our roster – as much as possible – together.
It’s nice that you can bring that community together in one place.
It really is. I do believe we came up in a golden age for Canadian music, and it’s just the support of our community which has allowed us to do the things we do. We’re proud, upstanding members of that community so we want to do our part.
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'Arts & Crafts 2003 - 2013' is out now.