Sargeant X Comrade Lo Fi Future Mo Gravy Records Calgary, AB RIYL: Witch Prophet, Erykah Badu, zen futurism
“Catch me if you can / Cuz I’m a hologram,” Yolanda Sargeant teases over a relaxed bass groove, squiggly synths, and the patter of a hand drum in the opening title track of Sargeant X Comrade’s latest dispatch, Lo Fi Future. A playful challenge as much as it is an open invitation, the lyrics embody the spirit of the album at the same time as they capture its tension, Sargeant flattening time and space in a breath: “The perfect combination of past, present, and future.”
A play on the lo-fi soul epithet Sargeant and Evgeniy “Comrade” Bykovets have used to describe their music at least as far back as their 2020 full-length debut Magic Radio, Lo Fi Future suggests real-world applications for the laid-back intimacy the duo captures on its recordings while grappling with the technological dilemma of futurism itself.
The title track yearns to trade a digital footprint for physical connection, but “Travelin In Space” enthuses about leaving the world for another dimension; on “Whachu On” they praise “sweet songs that cannot be replicated by the cyborgs,” but “Incredible Science” advises “You better have that crypto if you wanna do business.” It can be jarring to hear the pair take jabs at technocracy two years after launching their record label with an NFT collection, but it gets at the truth of artists trying to navigate an economic landscape that devalues their work, and that isn’t always as chill and uncomplicated as the music might sound.
If it’s full of the kind of downtempo ease and cushy vibes that might inspire curators to drop similar sounding records into utilitarian mood playlists, Lo Fi Future resists such passive listening applications, declaring “This is the opposite of a lullaby” while clutching close the therapeutic pillows and weighted blankets that make modern life moderately manageable on album closer “Wake Up,” slowing down to share perspective instead of feeding the fire like it’s all well and fine.
If the pair imparts a kind of zen in the face of all this, it’s because they’ve emerged from those material conditions equipped with a standpoint that can dissemble them. So when Sargeant coos “Everything in this world is made up” on the chorus of the album’s two-part Prevail-featuring “Escape the Matrix” suite, it feels less like nihilistic hand-wringing than it does a revelation that these constructs are only as valuable as the meaning they’re imbued with. In an economy designed to atomize, Sargeant X Comrade rise above by investing further in the relationships around them (the album also includes features from Flytrap, K-Riz, and Odario) — slowing the world down to bring about the future they want to see.
Chamber Music: Toronto Musicians Bring Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening to City Hall
By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham
Early one Sunday evening in February 2019, strange sounds leaked out from the council chambers at Toronto City Hall. Inside, a score artists stationed between empty councillor desks drew sustained tones out of everything from traditional concert instruments like trombones and electric guitars, to ad hoc implements like street pylons. An audience watched on from the public seating gallery as meditative tones rooted in avant-garde consciousness-raising exercises took the place of reactionary civic decision making.
“I think [City Hall administration] thought we were just some punks,” says Christopher Willes, an associate artist and producer with artist-led collective Public Recordings who devised the project and performed flute in the production. According to him, ahead of the performance, city staff delivered him presumptuous, unprompted warnings that under no circumstances should the group stand on the desks, rigid but contradictory instructions about what lights they could and couldn’t switch off, even demanded they pay a prohibitive $5000 fee for staff that would supposedly need to be on hand to move council chairs despite no plans to do so (it was eventually returned). Then Willes asked what arrival instructions he should give the crew the CBC was sending.
Produced by Public Recordings and hosted by the Music Gallery, the public co-presentation was an ambitious staging of To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, a 1970 orchestral score for light and sound by the late pioneering avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). Lovingly documented under the title Resonance Gathering on a deluxe double LP and book full of background notes, photography and archival materials now available from Art Metropole, the City Hall performance was the climactic finale of rehearsals and residencies spanning 2017-2019. But even on the off chance city staff passing by the chambers were familiar with the work, they would be hard pressed to identify it.
Designed so musicians and non-musicians alike could participate, the composition is an inherently malleable and inclusive “open score” divided into three parts, each signaled by a different colour of light washing the event space continuously throughout the performance. It calls for any group (or groups) of instrumentalists from six performers to large ensembles playing any instruments, each performer tasked with selecting five pitches to deploy depending on their perceptions and cognitions of the actively changing group conditions (volume, loudness, timbre), thereby centring acutely active listening, subjectivity, and environment over pre-scripted progressions. As a result, performances of the music are often radically different from one another.
“There are so many decisions to be made,” Willes offers about the composition’s potentiality. He says he was attracted to the piece for its implications of organizational interdependence. “What you witness is groups of people grappling with their agency in relationship with this score and how far they can go. I feel like it’s a kind of experiment in navigating relationships.”
Willes always conceptualized the multi-faceted production as a roving series of rehearsals and residencies that would build toward a performance in a politically loaded centre of collective public decision making, but when he initially approached City Hall about booking the chamber, he could never anticipate how charged the space would be when it came time for the show. Then, in June 2018, former Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford was granted keys to the province, elected Ontario’s premier as the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
Weeks after taking office in Queen’s Park, Ford shocked the Toronto political landscape when he announced and then implemented plans to redraw the city’s ward boundaries, slashing council representation from 47 to 25 seats with the so-called Better Local Government Act. With a mayoral race underway locally for the October 2018 municipal election, critics and politicians alike called the move overreaching and anti-democratic, while the City of Toronto launched a failed Supreme Court challenge in response.
A work designed to propose a self-governing system for group music making where all actors’ voices have a direct and tangible impact on the collective sound, To Valerie… resonated even more in a council chamber redefined by Ford’s “Better” Toronto. If Ford’s revisionist bill effectively narrowed the civic listening potential of Toronto with less city councillors representing vaster swaths of political territory, Oliveros’s decentralized score was a defiant demonstration that built a case for the continual transformative potential of the widened amplification of voices and the deepening of cooperative listening.
“The work gets at the human pieces of politics that are very elemental and basic and elementary, but crucial,” comments Anni Spadafora, who played bass guitar in the ensemble. Perhaps best known to New Feeling readers as the voice and guitar player at the front of the no wave-indebted Toronto post punk outfit New Fries, Spadafora, now located in Montreal, says the work Oliveros began pursuing with To Valerie…, departing from traditional composition methods and emphasizing openness and experimentalism, has informed her own music making since she first encountered it through London, UK’s Her Noise Archive around the time of the band’s formation in 2013.
“There are no solos. It’s all about playing your instrument in a way that comes in and out of the group. And at any point if you’re too loud, you have to bring yourself down,” Spadafora explains. “It’s kind of this play with being very aware that it is not about an individual, but a group — and a sonic group. What’s required in making that composition true is listening. Really truly listening.”
This sonic production dynamic branches from the dialectical thinking that spurred the first feminist consciousness-raising groups in 1967. Emerging from second-wave feminism, these groups observed that patriarchy and capitalism is a social relationship organized to isolate and exploit women (in the home, in the waged working world; as producers of biological and social reproduction) so as to prevent them from familiarizing themselves with that power structure and thereby overcome their exploitation. Echoing (and challenging) the dialectics of Marx and Hegel, who broadly argued subjectivity and consciousness could only be achieved through reckoning with the intrinsic interconnected nature of being and struggling with objectifying power relations, they indicated that women’s liberation could only be achieved through elevating group consciousness, which begins with sharing and listening to experiences. Indeed, Oliveros herself said that in creating the work, she wanted to “express [her] resonance with the energy of the rising feminist movement.”
Arriving in San Diego for a job with the University of California in 1967, Oliveros sat front row as the counterculture of the 1960s was beset with tragedy and loss, Nixon and a new, fortified era of conservatism looming around the corner. “[T]he Vietnam War protests and atrocities were at their height. A student at UCSD sat in the plaza, poured kerosene on himself and burned himself to death. Then, I was watching my television set when Robert Kennedy was assassinated,” Oliveros told feminist art historian Moira Roth in a 1977 interview. “I felt the temper of the times. I felt the tremendous fear … I began to retreat. I didn’t want to play concerts. I began to turn inward.”
As a response, Oliveros took a hiatus from performing in public, but she was also active in nurturing some new connections, organizing the all female “♀ Ensemble,” a consciousness-raising group in its own right that centred what she would later label Deep Listening. It was with this group that she would eventually perform her Sonic Meditations (1974). “I had already been very interested in listening to long tones and listening to the environment,” Oliveros told Roth in the same interview. “I began to see these interests in a more extended way.”
Around the same time, the Music Department of Hope College, Holland Michigan, commissioned a score from Oliveros. Identifying Marilyn Monroe and Valerie Solanas as avatars for women’s desperation in the creative economy of the time — the latter of whom Oliveros encountered through her SCUM Manifestovia Judson Church Collective member Elaine Summers — Oliveros named the work after the two as a gesture to women struggling to be heard. “Marilyn Monroe had taken her own life,” she wrote about the work. “Valerie Solanas had attempted to take the life of Andy Warhol. Both women seemed to be desperate and caught in the traps of inequality: Monroe needed to be recognized for her talent as an actress. Solanas wished to be supported for her own creative work.”
Like any dialectic, To Valerie… insists on the concrete unity of the whole. In the second, yellow light section of the score, individual players are tasked with internalizing the dialectic’s manifold nature without atomizing its processes, continuously adjusting aspects of their sounds in relation to others, blending with and borrowing from the pitches and modulation techniques of the other players while continuing to play their original sounds — a continuous dialectical feedback system: contributing original sounds, interpreting the sound of the whole, and synthesizing the exchange.
Rather than composing works dubiously obsessed with reproducing objective precision, Oliveros made music that cherished the conjunctive nature of existence, itself an act of political economy invested in amplifying the molecular makeup of the lived environment. “The kind of music (organizing of sound) that I have been composing is aiding my concentration and my awareness of others,” Oliveros wrote in a heretofore unpublished 1979 archival note included now in the Resonance Gathering book via the Pauline Oliveros Papers collection at UC San Diego Special Collections and Archives. “It is a healing and socializing agent.”
Fifty years later and after nearly a decade of its own local conservative leadership, Toronto brought the score to City Hall to challenge its own ivory tower of decision making. “It felt like a bit of the streets and perhaps what the streets represent was really meeting the upper echelons of the city, where all of the power decisions get made and birthed and played around with,” performance artist Brian Solomon reflects, gesturing to street level activism and grassroots political organizing. Untrained as a musician, his instrument of choice was also loaded with symbolism, liberating a City of Toronto pylon, rigging it up with contact microphones, and playing it like a horn.
Born with mixed Anishinaabe ancestry, he suggests the work’s openness resists colonial ways of thinking about expression and who can take part: “In our cultures, the time when you sing the story, speak the story, and drum it, are all very fluid. [The different art forms are] all just a different little tick on the spectrum of how to express anything — a story, a feeling, a ribbon of abstract manifestation.” As a result, he says it felt “natural” performing alongside more studied musicians in the rest of the Toronto ensemble, which also featured performances by Anne Bourne (cello), Allison Cameron (electronics), Victoria Cheong (bass synth), Ishan Davé (viola), Ellen Furey (electric guitar), Thom Gill (synthesizer), Claire Harvie (lighting), Ame Henderson (double bass), Ione (text/sound poetry and voice), Brendan Jensen (cello), Aisha Sasha John (harmonica, amplifier, and voice), Germaine Liu (percussion), Bee Pallomina (cymbals), Liz Peterson (viola), Heather Saumer (trombone), and Evan Webber (timpani and amplifier).
“As a dancer and a performance artist, I learn everything from people who aren’t dancers and aren’t performance artists who don’t spend their time in that realm,” Solomon continues. “I think the same thing was going on with people in the room who maybe weren’t professional musicians.”
That transformative quality was at the fore of Oliveros’s mind in carrying out her practice, once declaring “I’m not particularly interested in preserving my work. I’m interested in the event we’re involved in now, and how it can change me” (author’s emphasis; as a practicing Buddhist who so often demonstrated an understanding of the “self” as intersubjective and decentralized, we can reasonably assume that when Oliveros invoked the self here, she also also felt the change imposed on it would be extended to the world around her). Rather than suggesting her work could be complete or attempting to produce stable sonic art objects, Oliveros was concerned with producing new relationships.
While these conditions somewhat complicate the occasion of the physical release of documenting the City Hall performance, the spirit of Oliveros’s work is beautifully honoured within, Willes even acknowledging in a final note in the book that “in some ways, it’s strange to release a recording of her music.”
Designed by print designer Jeremy McCormick, Resonance Gathering is contained in a transparent plastic shell, while an undersized paper “spine” sits loose inside, wrapped around the vinyl’s white paper sleeves, the record’s label clearly visible. As a result, every time the listener picks up the record, they will experience its visual composition in a new way, each of its elements bearing smears and gradients representing the colours that guide the action in To Valerie… shifting or rotating within. But the artifact’s final gesture invites listeners even further inside with a locked groove flexi-disc and a series of stickers bearing text prompts for listening. Using these stickers, listeners are encouraged to construct new listening scenarios by applying the stickers to the flexi, forcing the turntable to skip and thereby constructing new infinite loops.
Now that it’s out, Willes is keen for listeners to do their own experiments.
“This isn’t about making monuments and making pieces to archive her thoughts,” Willes states plainly. “You have to go through the process.”
How Trickle Down Music is helping artists punch upstream
By Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham
“We’re surrounded by programs and grant systems — just systems in general in the music industry — that seem to always have the artist as the afterthought and never the main crux of new initiatives. It never seems to trickle down to the artists themselves.”
Gesturing to trickle-down economics, Calgary guitarist and arts administrator Shawn Petsche paints a troubling picture of the place musicians find themselves in.
Intimately familiar with the grant and royalty management landscape, in May, Petsche launched Trickle Down Music as an online resource to demystify and expedite their processes so musicians have one less obstacle to overcome.
A play on the term typically reserved for criticizing economic systems that preach an environment where wealth from the ruling class will eventually reach the working class, he says the point of the website “is actually to punch up, not trickle down.”
As the former festival manager of Sled Island Music & Arts Festival and a member of Napolmpom and Self-Cut Bangs, Petsche has spent more than a decade maneuvering the barriers and misgivings of the Canadian music industry, but Trickle Down Music is ostensibly low on critique and a firmly generative project aimed instead at reducing barriers to entry and increasing infiltration.
“If you’re good at Google you can figure out how to register your songs on SOCAN, you can figure out what grants are available to you, but if you don’t know what to Google, you end up missing steps,” Petsche says. Simply formatted and primarily text-based with no frills or ads, the site offers an artist-centred resource abundant in checklists, timelines, and links to additional resources users can reference to ensure they’re collecting royalties that they’re due, as well as templates and samples of successful grant applications– equipping artists to fend for themselves and skip the added cost of a manager or grant writer in the process.
“At the very least it walks you through everything you should be thinking about without having to visit 25 different websites,”he says.
Grant applications are never a sure thing and performance royalties are not overly substantial, Petsche disclaims, but he insists the time invested in the process is worth it in the long run, connecting artists to cash flows they would otherwise never touch. In the case of registering with performance royalty organization (PRO) SOCAN and submitting a setlist for a concert, the resulting payout can be a not insignificant top up to a venue guarantee.
“The amount you get depends on the size of the venue, how many people attended, the cover charge, if it was a festival, et cetera, but on average, I found it used to be about 40 bucks a show for our band. So if you’re doing a tour, that can be gas or go towards a hotel for the night or it can pay for lunch for the band,” Petsche insists. “If you’re not doing it, you’re leaving money on the table.”
On a grander scale, the accelerationist imposition of a project like Trickle Down Music can pose important challenges to the structural frameworks of systems governing those funds, drawing heavily on their resources and flooding them with applicants. Managing the increased traffic alone would ideally force these publicly funded granting bodies and PROs to reckon with their models and restructure social relations in terms more favourable to working class artists. Or, at the very least, this intensification could overwhelm granting bodies with data to take to their respective municipal, provincial, or federal governments and build a case for increased funding or perhaps the creation of new or more comprehensive funding streams.
The Canadian music business granting system exists to keep administrators/managerial class/lawyers employed and “artists” are their grant tickets, easily trapped and disposable. People don’t talk about this stuff because they sign NDA’s.
“One of the things I find really frustrating with the arts funding in Canada is that so many [grant] programs forbid the artists from paying themselves or forbid the artists from claiming subsistence,” Petsche gripes. Typically, grant funding is available for costs like recording in a professional studio, working with a publicist, or filming a music video, but the same funds are off the table when artists choose to provide the same services in-house, and they rarely compensate the time and energy that goes into making the music itself and stimulating the economy around it, let alone basic subsistence. This material imbalance tacitly suggests Canada’s music granting system does not value artists for their direct economic contributions, but rather as conduits commuting those funds to labourers in more outwardly professionalized and technologically immersed areas of the industry.
As a result, artists are paradoxically incentivized to shoulder those burdens themselves at the same time as they are disqualified from receiving payment for them from the same granting bodies that would fund work others would receive if employed to do it for them.
“It’s a really outdated system,” Petsche laments. “Particularly as more and more musicians are recording from home and being asked to be musician-agent-manager-social media-website administrator-graphic designer-et ceteras — doing everything themselves.”
working two jobs while running my music business, writing my album, making a short film, trying to finish my thesis, applying for grants, writing for my blog, and trying to keep up my social life……..it all has me like 🥴
It doesn’t help that these organizations rely on prudent spending from government bodies, and that their viability can shift drastically with leadership changes.
In March, the Ford government announced plans to maintain its base funding to the Ontario Arts Council while nixing the $5 million it contributed towards one-time initiatives, funds the OAC said in February were distributed for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to Indigenous arts organizations and other marginalized or minority groups and for innovative artistic approaches.
Alberta musicians were similarly neglected. While Alberta’s United Conservative Party government topped up the $2 million initially allotted for its Stabilize Live Music Grant in February 2022 with another million, offering $1,500 to musicians and up to $25,000 to for-profit music venues, the program was nowhere to be found in the government’s 2023 budget.
Reporting the OAC story for the Globe and Mail, Josh O’Kane joined a chorus in the public funding sector by pointing out that “simply maintaining the OAC’s baseline funding year-to-year would also mean less money in real terms in an era of high inflation,” citing a Statistics Canada figure from January pinning the annual rate of inflation at 5.9 per cent.
British Columbia’s spending meanwhile has continued to buttress the sector locally, announcing in April that through the BC Arts Council, it would distribute $34.5 million through its own one-time funds to 337 arts and culture organizations as part of sustained COVID-19 recovery support. Following the province’s February investment of $30 million in the Fairs, Festivals and Events program, the funds made available by the province’s NDP government far exceed those supplied by Ontario and Alberta’s conservative governments; still, BC’s spendings neglect to provide direct assistance to working artists, favouring infrastructural support instead.
Additional flaws exist within the economy of royalty distribution and the legitimacy granted to movement throughout the live performance sphere. For instance, SOCAN only distributes live performance royalties to artists if the venues they play are in their system. As a result, performances in informal settings like house shows and raves do not typically generate live performance royalties as the venues rarely pay licensing fees to SOCAN due to their underground nature. Meanwhile, these venues play an important role in generating value in the industry as talent incubators and exposure stages that put acts in front of invested audiences and communities.
“There’s a very important part of the music industry that’s below the surface and that tends to be ignored through funding, but also through any kind of institutional support at all,” Petsche explains.
Some argue those underinvestments are most in focus examining the imbalanced funding practices of non-profit public/private funding partnership FACTOR — a perennial source of hand wringing.
Offering successful applicants up to $10,000 in funds via its Juried Sound Recording stream, FACTOR grants are some of the most sought after in the country, but many argue not all of the country is treated equally by the music fund.
In 2013, this led New Feeling co-founder and prior organizing member Paul Lawton to spout off about the funding body on the infamous Tumblr blog Slagging Off. In a post titled The Trouble with FACTOR (the Slagging Off Tumblr no longer exists but posts are archived on Lawton’s personal website), Lawton skewered the funding body for supporting “a small percentage of well connected insiders” in the name of industry growth and artist development. Identifying FACTOR’s top funding recipients from 2003-2013, the blog also honed in on the labels working with the acts to secure that funding approval as well as the funds the label received from FACTOR under various programs, the genre the act worked within and the region they hailed from, as well as the label’s physical proximity to FACTOR headquarters.
Revealing an overwhelming bias toward indie rock, Lawton concluded that FACTOR was a broken funding system that neglected to conduct meaningful outreach beyond Toronto-based “business class individuals who have set themselves up to live off the profits of middle of the road indie rock.”
Seven years later, the granting body received more criticism when Grimes was listed as the recipient of a $90,000 FACTOR subsidy (contrary to their own 2020 recipients list, FACTOR later issued a statement explaining the label Crystal Math Music Inc., home to Grimes as well as Metric, Half Moon Run, and Emily Haines was the the applicant for the grant, and not Grimes herself).
Despite failures to deliver, funding bodies like FACTOR and the Canada Council for the Arts have it in their respective mandates to provide support across all of Canada, and voices within the sector have even acknowledged an existential dilemma in organization dispatches.
In a final entry on the Canada Council for the Arts blog, in May, outgoing Director and CEO Simon Brault identified four major transformations arts funders need to accelerate to “meet the realities of the 21st century and better our divided, impoverished, and endangered planet”: (1) putting equity, diversity, inclusion and access at the fore; (2) decolonizing arts funding; (3) breaking down silos and fostering connections; and (4) playing a role beyond funding.
Although presented in the problematic consequentialist framing of sidestepping “greater and greater irrelevance, if not their demise,” it is promising to see funding authorities grappling with their power; even better would be conduct in the name of basic decency and care.
While national funding bodies like Canada Council for the Arts and FACTOR have the largest proifles, Petsche urges artists not to ignore granting opportunities that are available to them more locally, boasting less competition and barriers to entry.
“They’re way more accessible in terms of what they ask of you when you’re submitting,” Petsche says, citing success applying for funds through Alberta Music and Calgary Arts Development. They’re way more intuitive, they’re way simpler, you don’t have to prove yourself as much, and you also know that you’re being juried by people in your city or at least province,” he says.
As the sector modernizes,Petsche intends to update the website in turn. The launch prompted a flurry of updates following suggestions a wave of eager visitors reached out with, and Petsche intends to curate the press lists he sends out so they’re targeted to specific genres. The website acknowledges it is informed by “an independent rock focus,” but maintains “much of it is broadly applicable to musicians of various genres around the world.” Regardless, he hopes to adapt.
“My hope is that it’s not just this static resource that got launched once, but stays relevant and ideally becomes more relevant to people that don’t sound like I do or live where I live.”
And it will have to. Until governments, funding bodies, and PROs break from a totalizing perspective and acknowledge the varied socio-economic conditions artists grapple with, adapting their policies and interventions to address inequities across the board, resources like Petsche’s have the perpetual errand of pushing them to their limits at every turn. Artist-oriented COVID-19 relief efforts showed promise and demonstrated it is possible to connect artists to material security, but without a sustained commitment to reorganizing the built environment from the bottom-up, artists will need every resource they can get to stay afloat and punch upstream.
*Full disclosure: in 2021, the author of this story participated in a panel discussion moderated by Petsche as part of Sled Island’s Rebooting the Music Mainframe symposium. In the same year, New Feeling presented a showcase benefiting Afros In Tha City at Sled Island.*
Hipgnosis, Song Acquisition, And The Elephant In The Room:
How The Ip Gold Rush Is Feeding Industry Consolidation
By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham
On January 24, Justin Bieber joined a sea of music legends surrendering their copyrights, unloading his entire music catalogue to U.K. investment manager Hipgnosis Song Management for a cool $200 million USD.
Bieber’s catalogue, Hipgnosis’s biggest acquisition to date, is the latest blockbuster deal in an IP gold rush that’s seen legacy artists and songwriters from all over the world sell their songs to private investors like Concord , Primary Wave, and Eldbridge Industry.
The appeal of such deals is supposedly that, after one exchange of rights and controlling interest for a handsome lump buyout, artists can continue making music without worrying whether technological shifts will betray them. Meanwhile, the firm relieves them of administering publishing opportunities (typically licensing and placements for commercials, television, and film), which will theoretically expand their reach in kind. While the investment firm banks on long-term revenue, the artist takes a leap of faith built on an understanding that the firm’s finance savvy and desire to juice the returns will (a) manage a flow of exposure in their favour, and (b) residually translate to ticket sales and lucrative opportunities via other platforms — typically concerts, tours, other marketing opportunities for performing artists, and talent contracts for professional songwriters. But as catalogue ownership consolidates, those opportunities narrow increasingly.
The business trend took off early in the global pandemic, when artists’ livelihoods were rendered particularly vulnerable with touring and live performance wiped off the table.
Founded in 2018 by Quebec-born entrepreneur and former Iron Maiden manager Merck Mercuriadis, Hipgnosis, whose logo features an upside down, legs stiff-in-the-air elephant, has become a prominent poacher in that sphere. Prior to the Bieber deal, a December interim report announced their portfolio comprised 146 catalogues and 65,413 songs, including complete or majority publishing rights for the catalogues of Neil Young, Skrillex, and Jack Antonoff, and labels like Nettwerk and Big Deal Music.
Like similar investment groups, Hipgnosis is fueled by a combination of debt and equity capital, raising equity and/or incurring debt to fund its acquisitions. In October 2021 they received a billion-dollar backing from private equity company Blackstone Inc. to launch Hipgnosis Songs Capital as a partnership investment vehicle. Joining Hipgnosis Songs Fund, it is the second capital fund under the Hipgnosis umbrella. The Blackstone partnership is responsible for the Bieber acquisition.
While Hipgnosis and similar song acquisition firms have built up considerable portfolios in recent years, the three remaining major labels — Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Group (SMG), and Warner Music Group (WMG) — have also taken notice and increased their catalogue purchasing, which some critics say is the real elephant in the room.
“For all the ink spilled over Hipgnosis and their ilk, the biggest deals (Dylan, Bruce) have still gone to traditional labels,” Andrew deWaard, an assistant professor of media and popular culture at the University of California, points out in an emailed comment to New Feeling, gesturing to Universal and Sony’s respective purchases of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen’s catalogues. The purses exchanged for each were undisclosed, but estimated at $300 million and $550 million(all figures in this story in USD), each reported at the end of 2020 and 2021. While the Universal deal only pertained to the publishing rights of Dylan’s songwriting catalogue, the Sony agreement involved two separate deals applying to the entirety of Springsteen’s recorded work and music publishing.
Having occupied the spotlight for much of 2023 so far, much of the dialogue surrounding the Hipgnosis/Bieber deal has been provided by critics and fans speculating about the price tag, but deWaard says they’re missing the point.
“Would he have gotten more if he sold earlier? Who knows (and who cares),” deWaard opines. “The bigger story amidst all of this is just the same story as ever, whether ‘financialized’ or not: musicians are retaining less and less of their copyright, revenue streams, and capacity to earn a livelihood if they’re not one of the few mass marketed through the major label and tech company ecosystem.” Pointing to the three remaining major labels, LiveNation, as well as streaming providers Amazon, Apple, and Spotify, he characterizes that environment as one dominated by seven apex predators.
The remarks echo the sentiments of an article deWaard co-authored with University of Alberta assistant professor Brian Fauteux and University of Winnipeg copyright librarian Bria Selman in 2022. Outlining the political economy of music, deWaard et al. draw from numerous reports to present that the “Big Three” labels controlled at least 70% of the global recording and publishing market in 2019 and as much as 86% of the North American market in 2016. In turn, those same labels are favoured by the payment models of streaming platforms like Spotify, and the duopoly of LiveNation and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), who are left “controlling the rights to performing at the largest venues and festivals, while dictating onerous terms to musicians.” These narrowing circumstances translate into a homogenized listening landscape across the board, with fewer opportunities for regular working musicians and music labourers, and even less meaningful representation for diversity of musicians across vectors of gender, class, and ethnicity.
“It is more winner-take-all in the music industries than ever before and the vast majority of creators are struggling to earn a living,” deWaard and his co-authors write.
With recession putting a chill on song spending in 2022, higher-profile instances of artists like deals like Bieber’s signing away their rights are fewer and farther between than what we saw in the spending spree of 2021. At the beginning of 2023, John Fogerty even struck a deal to finally reassumesecure his majority stake in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s publishing catalogue after struggling to do so for the past 50 years. Then known as the Blue Velvets, the members of Creedence signed away their distribution and publishing rights in an exploitative contract to Fantasy Records in 1964. When their success arrived in the late ’60s, Fantasy reaped the benefits and used the residuals to fund a series of other label and catalogue acquisitions, before merging with Concord Records to form Concord Music Group (now just Concord) in 2004. Fogerty purchasing back his own song rights marks a recent weakening in the acquisition trend.
Writing about the trend shift in a November dispatch from his bi-monthly music business criticism newsletter Penny Fractions titled “Recession Looms Over the Music Industry (Part 1),” David Turner characterized the moment as “the deflation of the song catalog space.”
“The amount of money raised over the last few years means that there will certainly be a market for a certain catalog but appears from reading press over the last year there’s def[initely] a higher threshold for what buyers may want,” Turner told New Feeling in an emailed comment. “Major labels already showed this in only publicly announcing deals with artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie, not some 90s producer with a couple platinum albums to his name. They obviously weren’t super keen on jumping into the market and now are probably feeling fine. They might’ve overpaid for some rights but at least it’s for premium works.”
Despite recessionary headwinds, new firms have continued to emerge.
At the start of December, Jamar Chess (grandson of Chess Records founder Leonard Chess) and other industry veterans began the Wahoo Music Fund with the explicit goal of purchasing Latin music catalogues, seizing on that market’s surging growth in the US.
In the same month, The Vergereported former Tidal COO Lior Tibon and vice president of business development Christopher Nolte had raised $7 million in seed funding for their venture Duetti. Self-described as a financial technology startup “aiming to provide independent artists with new and empowering financial solutions,” the firm says it is interested in “democratizing access to catalog monetization opportunities.”
“I think any firm like this that exists at a smaller scale is likely just a few former execs who don’t wanna take a pay cut or a title stepdown and thus are doing a startup then so they can be reabsorbed into a bigger firm but with a bit more clout,” Turner comments. “When you look at the failed sale attempts by Concord Music [the publishing division of Concord] and Round Hill’s recent statement of spending $200 million, 2022 may imply these firms are still ready for someone to take them off the market.”
Drawing a comparison to Alamo Records’s emergence from 300 Entertainment, Turner argues the absorption of smaller players would be consistent with a trend in the music business (in 2021, Alamo sold a major stake to Sony Music Entertainment). Unlike artists or producers with impressive sales to their names, smaller labels represent investment niches that can attract future equity partners.
“There’s still a lot of ‘dry powder’ (financial capital) sitting around, especially with private equity (two trillion give or take), who will look for deals during the coming recession,” deWaard explains. “The biggest ‘song management firms’ (Hipgnosis, Concord, Primary Wave) will probably keep at it, especially Hipgnosis with its huge Blackstone fund. I imagine many of the smaller firms (Round Hill, Reservoir, HarbourView) will bleed whatever they can and sell, either to a bigger fish like Hipgnosis, or to a traditional label. The Big Three (UMG-WMG-SMG) are in the copyright cartel business and they will continue to strengthen their catalogues with huge acquisitions.
“It seems a very likely outcome will be even Hipgnosis eventually sells to one of the big labels, who have the long term global institutional capacity to exploit copyright to its fullest extent,” he continues. Despite an aggressive growth strategy, 2022 brought a sudden drop in interest in music catalogues, and having built its song portfolio on ~$1.6 billion of capital from eight placings since 2018, the company’s access to capital significantly narrowed in 2022 with tightened spending. (For a deep dive into Hipgnosis’s trajectory, read this entry in Alderbrook Companies founder and managing partner Jimmy Stone’s Leveling Up Newsletter.)
“Influx of capital in this space distorted things, but doesn’t really shake off the longer term trends,” Turner points out. “The trajectory of consolidating song rights and music publishing dates back to the 80s.”
That trajectory has historically set labels down a cyclical path of efficiency finding and further debt raising for future acquisitions, sowing material losses for artists and other music labourers in its wake, with further consolidation and more of the same down the line. Meanwhile, the big three labels’ strengthening media conglomerate oligopoly further augments and cements their platforms, homogenizing the listening landscape and devastating the range of opportunities across the board. With investment firms and asset managers variably building up publishing portfolios or supplying funding towards others doing the same (Eldridge supplied some of the funds resulting in Springsteen’s sale to Sony), their increased ubiquity (and their debt-happy growth strategies) in the space suggests the effects of future consolidation will be even further exaggerated.
The deals keep coming, with few signs of letting up.
Far from signaling a redistribution of industry wealth into the broader music ecosystem, the sudden surge of cash into the pockets of legacy hitmakers actively devalues the basic act of creating music by transforming it into a means to further production.
According to a report Turner co-authored with researcher Kaitlyn Davies and entertainment lawyer Henderson Cole, in 2021, both Spotify and Apple made the case to the United States Copyright Board that recent publishing catalogue purchases should in fact prove that the copyright fees that interactive streaming companies pay to rights holders should be set to the lowest rate in history.
“As for smaller musicians, it’s yet another obstacle to a living wage,” deWaard vouches. Placing the issue in the broader context of the trend toward cultural financialization, he urges artists to reject modernity and embrace tradition, so to speak. “In my opinion, old tactics like unionization, antitrust agitation, and public media are going to be far more effective than any new finance, crypto, or Web3 nonsense.”
Long enduring turn-of-the-20th-century associations assigned from the dislocation of the Klondike Gold Rush and Jack London’s brand of American literary naturalism, to many outsiders, the Yukon is a hard place that bends only to climate and the whims of biological and socioeconomic determinism. Even with majestic views of mountain vistas and the quietly enchanting northern lights, it remains thought of as a high, untouchable place governed by its remote location and the financial speculation that brought in prospecting to supply the settlement of its boomtowns. The threat of danger lurking in boreal shadows (the territory is also home to cougars, wolves, and three types of bears) seems to dictate any question of free will out of the equation—forget the defiant collective project of an active underground arts scene. The Yukon is a place where things happen to people.
So when non-profit arts collective Something Shows reaches out to New Feeling and offers to fly someone from the co-op out to review Wonderhorse, it sounds like an invitation to break spells and witness progress as much as an opportunity to get a read of the local scene.
Operating on the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, otherwise known as Whitehorse, last fall, Something Shows inaugurated Wonderhorse as an answer to a long-felt local lack. Arriving in town in time for the beginning of Labour Day weekend, Whitehorse is in varying states of transition and abandonment. The territory’s capital and its most populous city, Whitehorse is far from a ghost town, but downtown’s windswept façades invite comparison. Some restaurant and business owners remain to rake in the last of the tourist money before closing up shop for the season, and many residents have left town for the long weekend (it’s also hunting season), but they’ll be back.
I don’t expect the first act I’ll watch will be a nine-year-old DJ/violinist, but Philly Groove steals the show at an Elk’s Lodge Battle of the Bands packed with tweens and complete family units. When he wins the competition, he earns a gig opening for Portland, Oregon’s Black Belt Eagle Scout the next day. While most festivals brandish terms like “all-ages”‘ in their marketing, they often fail to engage the younger segments of their communities; here in small town northern Canada, programming is shaped for youth in ways that legitimize their presence and give a stage to their burgeoning talent—give them a reason to stay.
Speaking over the phone with program coordinator Zach McCann-Armitage post-fest, he emphasizes the importance of programming the festival for all-ages.
“Knowing it can be shitty growing up in a small town and there’s so many issues facing our society, a lot of that is just falling onto young people,” he says. “Giving them the tools and opportunities and exposure to things that are happening and feel vibrant and can create connections—I think if festivals have a utility and are not just about people feeling joy, I think that would be it—building a more healthy and robust and connected community.”
The Battle of the Bands at the Elk’s Lodge is a strong start, but it’s technically not Wonderhorse’s opening show. The fest actually began the night prior with a satellite show six hours north in Dawson City. The Battle of the Bands was just one component of a larger holistic project to strengthen the arts network in the Yukon and in the Pacific Northwest; in addition to Black Belt Eagle Scout, Wonderhorse has also booked a modest but relatively significant contingent of Vancouver artists.
“Whitehorse is three quarters of the population of the territory as a whole, so in terms of how funding and decisions are administered, it’s very top-down and Whitehorse-centric [in the Yukon],” McCann-Armitage explains. He says the collective’s decision to spread programming out to the Yukon’s other gold rush boomtowns reaches back pre-pandemic when the festival was only an idea, crediting Wonderhorse founder and former program coordinator Jona Barr with the blueprint. “It was important to make sure Wonderhorse wasn’t just fixated on that sort of centricity and the economic and cultural interests of Whitehorse.”
With abundant references to the gold rush calling out to tourists from Whitehorse’s business signs and restaurant menus, there’s seldom escaping the Yukon’s association with the prospecting migration, but the grip of music industry gamification is loosened up here. Wonderhorse pays little mind to hipster appeal and breakout buzz, looking beyond pandering to industry vultures to curate around a community theory of value instead.
After the Battle of the Bands crowns Philly Groove this year’s winner, Wonderhorse’s youth emphasis continues through the night’s programming as the Wondercrawl draws audiences out for an art crawl along the Yukon River, giving wharf space to breakdancers, screening experimental films, and hosting an art gallery opening from youth involved in Wonderhorse’s Make Something Residency, before calling audiences back to the Elk’s Lodge for a set of pop trap from local North Gold Entertainment signee Princess Melia and a headlining performance from 2019 Polaris Music Prize winner Haviah Mighty.
With no dedicated music venues in town, what Whitehorse lacks in infrastructure it makes up for in savvy, bridging that gap by meeting audiences where they are. By the time I sit down at Arts Underground to watch Erica Dee Mahapply the guzheng to a contemporary Western folk music context and address the material struggles her ancestors faced as Chinese immigrants who relocated to the Yukon during the gold rush, I’ve already watched Franklin pour sludge all over the Go-Go’s classic “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Antarticus summon desert rock from the frigid desolation of the tundra in a music store parking lot. Before that, I saw Vancouver rap-rock chaos agent Jodie Jodie Roger and North Gold reps Mobb Diggity and Pumpskii make it rain free festival passes on kids at a skatepark generator party.
Far from industry scrutiny and trend economies of larger cities, Whitehorse becomes a canvas for this grassroots festival, and audiences eat it up wherever they can get it. So when Dawson City emo SoundCloud rapper KEEN performs a significant portion of his Saturday night United Church basement set cross-legged on the carpeted floor while local Jeremy Parkin tends a laptop dressed as his festival-minted Percy Owens persona (think Chaplin’s Tramp meets Depression era reporter), and a small crowd watches from the other side of the room, entertaining knock-knock jokes between songs, the cozy intimacy and relaxed atmosphere rivals that of watching an artist play from their living room.
But of course, Whitehorse is not living under a rock, and when the festival brings a drag revue to the Yukon Theatre, it packs the seats to capacity. A couple hundred eager audience members cheer along as ANDYBOY, Lau D’arta, Beau Ryder, and Daddy Supreme work the room. By the time I gain access to the theatre, the show is almost at its close, but I arrive to a scene that is distinctly working class. In a finale, the night’s lineup trots across the stage in coveralls to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” twirling and benching cardboard totems of oversized screwdrivers and combination wrenches just blocks away from the offices of several unions and labour authorities.
After playing multiple mini-sets throughout the previous night’s Wondercrawl, when Vancouver’s Jeff Cancade takes the stage with his DEVOURS project, the crowd at the front of the cinema fills the rows that have been removed for dance space as Cancade launches into his brand of xenogothic synth-pop, encouraging the room to dig into its inner aliens. Warping nostalgic samples into obscurity (“Curmudgeon”) and serving up other songs about being a majority within a minority (“Jacuzzi My Stonewall”), at one point he excitedly asks the room, “Are any queers in the audience?” When a substantial section replies in the affirmative, he clocks how remarkable it is, explaining how he checked Grindr when he got into town only to turn up disappointing results.
The set might garner the festival’s most enthusiastic crowd participation, but after his first encore begets calls for more, Bingo Switch guitarist Brody Halfe jumps onstage to tell Cancade something, and when he turns back to the audience, there’s a mile-wide grin across his face.
“Wow. Thank you so much Whitehorse! I’ve just been told that the northern lights are out, so I’m gonna go look at those and you should, too, but please buy my merch!”
Embarking on a discovery ride further into the gold rush’s past (we take the Klondike Highway south instead of north), after a day in Dawson City and two in Whitehorse, for the festival’s finale, it packs up again, touching down in Carcross/Tagish First Nation. Piling into a van full of performers from St. John’s, Toronto, and Vancouver, the atmosphere is buzzing as we feast our eyes on the drive’s mountainous stretches and share our delight in catching the northern lights when we stop partway to take in the natural wonder of Emerald Lake. The official line on the green glow it gets its name from is the light of the sun catching white deposits of clay and calcium carbonate from the lake’s shallow bottom, but our driver, Something Shows board member Liz McCarville, says one friend claims it’s where the northern lights go to sleep.
I wonder out loud if residents are still impressed by the local phenomenon, but I’m quickly informed some are even more bought in, referencing apps that track conditions and venturing out into remote parts of the territory to escape what meagre light pollution there is downtown when conditions are prime. Plus, last night’s display was especially novel, McCarville says, for how early the lights arrived in the season and the spectra on display.
“The purples even came out.”
On the same drive, we pass Carcross Desert, what some locals deem “the smallest desert in the world,” though it is technically a collection of sand dunes formed by the last glacial period. Truth seems to stretch with time and distance, realisms becoming more penetrable.
Pulling into Carcross Commons,Bria Rose is perched on the upper observation deck of the S.S. Tutshi memorial, the preserved remains of a steamboat that carried tourists and freight between communities and railyards following the gold rush. Her songs touch on themes of power, release, and connection, and at one point she sings a line about praying the northern lights would take her away, and many of us have already swallowed that pill. Her performance is the first of three acoustic sets from performers with deep ties to the landscape, followed by St. John’s singer and music therapist Valmy, whose songs are grounding exercises in themselves.
The S.S. Tutshi performances cap off with a set from Whitehorse folk singer Ellorie McKnight. Her songs are inspired by the wonders of vast landscapes. Her performance at the centre of the hourglass bottleneck between the Bennett and Nares lakes feels all the more appropriate with a 360-degree view crossed by bridges and dotted with mountain peaks. As she digs into “White Pass,” she reflects on how this will likely be the closest she’ll ever get to the song’s titular railroad, and it suddenly hits home how significant a commodity proximity must be in the Yukon.
At Yáan át L’óon Gooch skatepark, kids and teens show off their best on the ramps while Toronto DJ Yunjin spins a breezy house set. When the competition wraps,Bingo Switch soundtracks a freeskate with a sun-dappled set of Jonathan Richman-indebted jazz rock. Festival goers have some time to sit by the Carcross beach before heading over to the Learning Centre, where the festival closes out with a family-oriented country dance led by the Western swing sounds of the Swinging Pines .(The Lucky Ones were also scheduled to play, but Ryan West, the band’s mandolinist injured his arm at the skate competition). Parents steal one last dance with each other before summer ends, teaching kids to two-step and guilting tweens into participation.
“It’s certainly not as hip or cool as the other stuff, but that’s also because it’s kind of for the community itself,” McCann-Armitage concedes. “You kind of have to program with and for them. Because even if Bingo Switch is an Indigenous band, if nobody living around there from the community has heard of them or are even interested in that music, country music is a big part of the Indigenous population up here. So it’s just essentially being realistic and trying to think of it long term in terms of building an audience there.”
Looking forward, McCann-Armitage says the festival is looking to program workshops and other forms of community engagement to supplement the music programming of Wonderhorse’s satellite events, but this year’s Carcoss happenings were nearly cancelled altogether.
On August 13, the Tagish First Nation suffered the loss of Elder Kitty Grant-Smarch, and the community’s bereavement protocol traditionally calls for a moratorium on dancing for 30 days.
In a statement ahead of the event, the festival acknowledged the passing and explained it sought the advice of Carcross/Tagish First Nation (Wonderhorse presenting partners), whose leadership council encouraged them to proceed with the local programming as it was “something they thought Kitty would have enjoyed.” Still, McCann-Armitage explains, the Tagish Nation Dancers who were originally booked to perform during the events declined, and the turnout was smaller than last year’s family dance.
It’s the first time it occurs to me that locals might be conflicted about Wonderhorse’s galloping ambitions, but it’s apparent the territory’s pace and isolation gives the festival the space it needs to strengthen relations and heal. On land that spends half the year shrouded in near-24-hour darkness, connections are all that you have.
ST. JOHN’S, NEWFOUNDLAND’S LAWNYA VAWNYA FESTIVAL INVITES EVERYONE HOME
By: Tom Beedham | Art and photos by: Tom Beedham
“My mother taught me to love the sea, for water is the beginning and end of life on this earth.”
-Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
We’re three bands deep into the five-band punk matinee at Lawnya Vawnya, and Tunnel Vision is pummeling the all-ages audience in the Eastern Edge Gallery garage. The handful of teens that just arrived are already drenched in sweat, having brought the mosh pit in with them off the street. Wedged into a lineup of emo, pop punk, and alternative rock from Montréal’s Barnacle and Sunforger as well as fellow St. John’s acts like Needle Crafts and Mild Manors, the hardcore act was the only band on the bill without any online presence, but the punks hung on the guitar feedback that announced every song like a serve ready to be spiked.
Ducking out to the parking lot between sets, the location of the free public throwdown feels pointed. This being my first time on the Atlantic, I’ve padded out my stay in St. John’s by tracing Newfoundland’s eastern coast and soaking in natural wonders along well-kept trails of tourist destinations like Signal Hill and Cape Spear. For meals, I’ve found myself at home in fest-friendly cat-themed coffee bars and brewpubs on Duckworth Street. I’ll later recognize the faces that bring me breakfast sandwiches behind mics and guitars on the festival stages, hinting at the role Lawnya Vawnya plays in the community. If you’re not looking for it, it’s easy to miss, but across the street from St. John’s Harbour, I repeatedly catch myself studying a landscape I assume has played an important part in sparking the opposition that fueled the local scene: fishing boat masts and towering cargo ships in the foreground, the Irving family’s giant gas tanks dotting the hills—monuments to extractive ideology.
The indulgence of irony and hipster desire feels out of place in the city’s rugged, industrial surroundings, but it isn’t uncommon to see elder locals wandering in the doors and mixing with arty types at coffee bars or long communal tables, either. Elsewhere, this soft modernism would warn of looming gentrification, but in a city hemorrhaging youth while its workforce ages, it feels as much an adaptive reflex as a gentle effort to hold on to friends and family itching to get out of Dodge. It makes sense the city is host to a young and dedicated crop of bands on the punk and emo spectrum.
Up the hill at the Masonic Temple, Swimmingreports on the toll capitalist realism has had on the local imagination at another all-ages event, and the crowd is full of familiar faces from the afternoon. Their 2021 debut That’s OK is populated with characters challenging an infectious resignation to perceived socio-economic limitations and friends moving west to larger Canadian cities. The implied relationship to St. John’s is one that is at once deeply identified with it and without roots.
Within seconds of hitting the stage, it’s clear Swimming has struck a chord locally, audience members instantly singing along with set opener “Sometimes Things Change” and hollering whenever Liam Ryan finger-taps a mathy guitar breakdown. The show marks the beginning of a tour in support of That’s OK (eventually cancelled after one of the members sustains an injury in Halifax), and it feels like the festival is partially designed to send them off, Ryan swinging the mic stand to the crowd so members of Mild Manors and Tunnel Vision can put some gang vocals on “Blackhorse Brigade.”
He ends the set urging locals to start a band—to make the city a place they want to stay—and when Swimming shares Instagram story tags (there are a lot) after the show, they’re lovingly captioned with personal endorsements: “I love Swimming”; “I miss hearing you in my basement”; “this song makes me cry every time.”
Like the hipster cafes and brewpubs on Duckworth, it’s clear Swimming’s shows have created a third place for a city displaced by its own negative mythologies, a place where community is reconnecting and growing up through the cracks.
At a Friday panel discussion on the project of decolonizing the arts, panelist Megan Samms stressed that the experiences of geopolitical abandonmentare further compounded for the area’s Indigenous communities and youth living outside the capital.
“There’s a lot of food issues in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are not a lot of opportunities for youth in rural spaces, and there’s a lot of encouragement to just leave. That really kills the community,” Samms said.
A Mi’kmaq handweaver and natural dyer based in their traditional home and territory, Katalisk, Ktaqmkuk (to settlers, Codroy Valley, Newfoundland), Samms has been resolute in opting out of settler work contexts. They suggest that for Indigenous communities, decolonization can just mean honouring each other’s needs and building critical mass accordingly.
“We did it for thousands of years before colonialism. We can just keep doing it for each other and the rest falls into place.”
The showcase at the Masonic Temple further broaches that community emphasis with Status/Non-Status‘s Adam Sturgeon (Sturgeon was originally meant to speak on the decolonizing the arts panel but had to drop off after the band’s first flight was cancelled) exorcising the geopolitical abandonment and generational trauma he feels as an Anishinaabe man in London, Ontario with towering waves of distortion, while Wape’k Muin, a men’s pow-wow drum group with a focus on Mi’kmaq songs opened the night by rooting it in the area’s ancestral traditions.
Sharpened attention to continuity means themes in Lawnya Vawnya’s programming routinely engage each other on telescopic scales. Before the call home at the Masonic Lodge that galvanizes audiences around local issues, another showcase at the Rock House digs into global sounds to close the gap of diaspora and express global solidarity.
When local speed-folk band Kubasonics packs the crowd into the club early on Friday night, lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Cherwick makes a dramatic entry, rousing the audience in a shaggy white coat before finding his place behind a tsymbaly (the Ukrainian version of a hammered dulcimer).
Leading the band—which also consists of his children Maria and Jacob on violin and drums respectively (Jacob also plays in Swimming), as well as guitarist Darren Browne and bassist Matt Hender—into some frenzied, spellbinding collisions of traditional local sounds and Ukrainian folkways, Cherwick’s energy frequently spills into the crowd, sometimes treating the nearby bar like it’s an extension of the stage, elsewhere teaching the audience some Ukrainian so they can chant and cheer on the band’s compatriots fighting the war in Ukraine.
When Toronto kulintang ensemble Pantayo takes the stage to play songs from the self-titled debut they released at the start of the pandemic, they’re as polished as ever. Packing the stage with their assortment of gongs and electronics, they have the crowd jostling for a view as they trade off vocal duties and styles. Having originated as a workshop project, the band remains dedicated to teaching the audience the names of the different gongs and offering an explanation for their use of Indigenous instruments of the southern Philippines as a means of connecting with their culture (Pantayo would later host an instructional kulintang workshop at the S.P.A.C.E. for anyone seeking a more formal familiarity with the instruments). Channeling ancestry and origin through old and new sounds, their music makes present a reality that might otherwise be experienced through psychophysical dimensions of distance.
Far from the country’s metropolis strongholds, Lawnya Vawnya’s programming is refreshingly forward-thinking. Though I do catch myself running to the Rock House to cram in sets from Knitting and Nap Eyes after the dusky stillness of a Myriam Gendron performance at The Ship, for the most part the concert schedule is carefully spread out to avoid too much overlap and augmented with thematically complementary panels, readings and workshops that slow things down and encourage audiences, performers, and programmers to meet each other on the same wavelength and examine their relationships on a critical level.
At the S.P.A.C.E., local guzheng player Jing Xia imagines a post-rock context for the traditional Chinese zither, while Montréal’sMarkus Floatsoffers a new path for the jazz continuum, nimbly seizing chords from John Coltrane and rendering them into impossible arrangements, poetry from cultural theorist Fred Moten’s 2016 book The Service Porch floatingover it all. Free for audiences to screen and ease themselves into the festival wherever or whenever they chose on Wednesday, the Celeste Bell/Ruth Negga co-directed Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché documentary offers a soft transition into festival mode, and most of the shows are all-ages, so parents can participate in the daytime activities without worrying about childcare, toddlers weaving through legs along the stops of the Downtown Music Crawl that literally gets audiences in the doors of local record stores and skincare shops. At a discussion about the landscape of releasing music in the 2020s, I am delighted when an audience question on the possibilities of NFTs eludes a moderator and the panel can stick to qualitative discussions exploring community systems of value without getting tied up in debates about market speculation and carbon offsets.
Railing against the domestic chauvinism of the global right and its antifeminist attacks on legal abortion, back at the Rock House, Lido Pimienta exposes a fundamental paradox in capitalism’s logic: as much as it has a stake in defending traditional family domesticity (just as it benefits from separating the interdependent spheres of society, dividing its labour supply into households and smaller living units carries out this goal to a further extreme), it also attacks it from multiple angles, chewing it up and spitting it out.
Planned Parenthood has been tabling by the entrance all night, and drag host \garbage file takes the occasion as a cue to remind the crowd that’s “because love and community means what? Harm reduction!”
Later in the set, Pimienta will invite the host back onstage to mime along to a bit about the extremes of heteropatriarchal kinship that will eventually introduce the defiant cumbia of “Nada,” \garbagefile’s tentacled head whipping around in mock dismay as Pimienta underlines the absurd hypocrisy the patriarchy relies on when it polices the bodies of people with uteruses.
“We want to take a moment of silence, a solemn moment of silence—everybody, this is serious—for all the trillions and trillions of babies we have lost into a sock, into a pillow. The babies that we have lost at a random sink at a random McDonald’s,” Pimienta announces, mock solemnity becoming mock hysteria on a dime. “What about the babies?!”
By connecting the risks and struggles around bodily autonomy in Canada, Colombia, and the United States, Pimienta creates a space to interrogate our related geopolitical shortcomings and celebrate our shared accomplishments. It isn’t just a concert, but a place to feel the strength of a network of bodies united in a shared political project. Lawnya Vawnya reaches well beyond the momentary rebellion of the carnivalesque, connecting audiences with organizing streams they can follow well beyond the festival.
Asking audiences again and again to examine the branches of their relations and follow them to the connective canopies of larger networks, the kind of change Lawnya Vawnya asked for in this year’s programming would amount to a psychic, socioeconomic revolution of staggering heights. But the idea of refusing to fight for a collectivist future feels more impossible—like giving up on the future itself. And here on land forged by tectonic collisions, weathered by the Atlantic’s winters and winds, it feels within reach.
Watching Signal Hill disappear in the rear view the day after the festival, I know I’m carrying a piece of the island with me, lines Lido Pimienta sang in an encore a capella flowing through my mind: “Love is a beautiful mountain. And you can climb the mountain. And you can lick the mountain. And you can kiss the mountain. Don’t be afraid of the mountain. Because you are the mountain.”
Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper
The collaborators compare restaurant industry resumés, and the grind that connects music and service workers
By: Tom Beedham | Photo by: Colin Medley | Art by: Tom Beedham
Rattling off a handful of restaurant gigs he worked on College Street and Queen Street West, André Ethier is filling in a personal map of Toronto’s downtown when he lands on the time he quit a job to tour with the Deadly Snakes and ended up barbacking the original Silver Dollar Room through venue talent booker Dan Burke.
“I was complaining that I didn’t have a job, and Dan was like, ‘Come down to the Silver Dollar.’ That was horrific,” Ethier recalls. Before it was demolished and rebuilt to exact specifications as a sanitized cocktail lounge on the same site, the venue spent the best part of two decades enduring an era of sticky-floored underground guitar music and the occasional onstage brawl—not to mention the notorious after-hours party space downstairs. “My training shift was like, ‘The northwest corner is run by this gang, so don’t go in there; don’t clear any drinks.’ The previous busser had left because he had been given a concussion by some criminals that had picked him up and dropped him on his head on the cement floor.”
As Ethier offers his side of the Silver Dollar Room, Joseph Shabason is having trouble holding back his exasperation. Speaking over the phone from Shabason’s kitchen after lunch at Ossington falafel joint the Haifa Room, the pair is on the line to chat up Fresh Pepper, a band they assembled with peers between pandemic restrictions. The core members are rounded out with Kieran Adams on drums, Thom Gill on keys, and Bram Gielen on bass—familiar names for fans of Shabason’s solo recordsand work in DIANA; as well as vocalists Robin Dann and Felicity Williams, two more locally in-demand performers perhaps best recognized at the front of Bernice, which also features Gill.
Like Ethier, Shabason has also put in his time in the service industry, waiting tables and working in kitchens. “I’ve also worked in so many wedding bands,” Shabason says, “[which is also] somewhat service industry—we’d be eating in closets and working with all of the servers.” In fact, Ethier and Shabason report, everyone on Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled album has spent time supplementing their music careers in restaurants and kitchens.
“They’re very related,” Ethier reiterates. “Two perhaps enjoyed industries in Toronto, but underappreciated for how they grind people down and how difficult it is to grow up [around] and within those industries.”
Fresh Pepper provides a summit for service and music workers alike, toasting their interdependencies and challenging the conditions they bump against with metaphor-rich vignettes. “Dry your eyes Susie Q / An actor’s face at the window when it’s raining,” Ethier sings over a glassy set of keys before an upward saxophone swirl uproots the action and tosses it into glistering dream-like suspension on opening song “New Ways of Chopping Onions.” In the space of two lines, the song calls to mind film, music, and kitchen traditions and trade secrets; the antipsychotic drug Seroquel; even Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” monologue from the end of Blade Runner—a bouquet of gestures to some untold obstacles and indignities commonly endured in entertaining.
On a similar tip, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” features a guest appearance from Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar, stepping in to sing about the meticulous, extravagant lengths restaurateurs will go to provide a comfortable dining experience—”We harvest insane roses,” Bejar sings, Dann and Williams echoing him before Ethier joins in: “Every table gets a rose / Every table gets a candle.” It all gets lost in the busy dining-room chatter that pervades the track, playing off like a floor staff’s collective fantasy. That invisibilized verisimilitude is baked into the Fresh Pepper project.
“It does relate to the pandemic,” Ethier says, though he and Shabason are reluctant to ascribe too much of the album’s influence to its pandemic origins. “Playing live shows and being a band took a hit during the pandemic—[we] more or less couldn’t play shows, and restaurants couldn’t open.”
Writing a record was all they could do to nourish themselves.
“We’d call each other every day and just talk through things in a really nice way, and the rest of the band was very much integral to the record being done, but at the end of the day it was André and I just in the weeds day in and day out—and it felt nice to be there with somebody because it had just been me by myself or with my toddler for so long that to sort of feel like an adult again was doing something meaningful,” Shabason reflects. “Not that raising a child isn’t meaningful, but it’s also fuckin’ monotonous and crazy-making sometimes. And this was just pure joy for me.”
“The time flew,” Ethier adds.
Time figures prominently across the record: screaming into the foreground at the close of “New Ways of Chopping Onions” as an alarm clock telegraphs the opener was all a dream, some ungodly non-billable overtime; closing in with mounting intensity on the jazz noir Davis nod “Walkin'”; sloshing through a lazy river of woozy guitar bends and hungover flotsam and jetsam on “Waiting On”; swirling down the drain after blasting drum skins and assorted percussion implements like so many dishes with hot, vaporous sax fumes on “Dishpit.” On “Prep Cook in the Weeds,” the titular narrator watches flies slowly accumulate on the hands of a kitchen clock—time appearing to slow so much the future erases itself, life disappearing under the weight of agents of decay, the kitchen’s very biochemistry under threat.
“It’s a horrible thing to be at work,” Ethier says about his lyrics. “The flies have taken the wheel and they’re driving time.”
This could be pretty oppressive imagery, but the band diffuses the atmosphere with a sublime lightness, collectively conveying a kind of zen you could only arrive at through repetition, distance, and mutual support.
“For me, this record was the first time since the start of the pandemic where time kind of dissolved,” Shabason enthuses. “This was maybe the first time we had been allowed to be in a room together in a full year, so I think everyone was really excited, too. It felt joyful and fun and easy and like this kind of collective exhale of just being like, ‘Oh, this is so nice.'”
That’s felt in everything from the loose physicality to the folk wisdoms they elevate to oneiric guiding light. Shabason’s studio consists of one room, so to accommodate Adams’ drums, he and Gill recorded scratch parts on an MS-20 synthesizer and an early 2000s Yamaha MOTIF for the beds but ultimately kept them intact; Ethier’s guitar parts ring out without needing to be resolved. “Congee Around Me” builds itself up into an atmosphere of collective care and nourishment, its characters finding abundance in the elemental simplicity of pantry staples. It’s a dynamic that’s central to the song itself, Dann and Williams supporting Ethier’s vocals while the rest of the band patiently add their parts in brushes and swells.
“I hear it, and it makes me well up,” Shabason says about the song, though he might as well be talking about the album. “It’s everyone working in concert to make this thing that feels so emotional.”
Fresh Pepper‘s self-titled debut is out June 17, 2022 via Telephone Explosion Records.
FREE SPACE: THE FUTURE OF LIVE MUSIC IS WIDE OPEN, BUT WHAT WILL WE DO WITH IT?
By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham
We heap a lot of importance on concert venues, but places are just spaces, and they’re only as good as what you fill them with. Between March 2020 and the time of this article’s publication, they’ve also spent a lot of time empty, and for a while we didn’t know when—or if—they would come back. Then, 2021 brought gigs back indoors, at least for a moment. With Omicron shutting activity down again, venue operators are back to wondering how to start over, but in 2021, we got a hopeful glimpse of where things will pick up in the future.
The community surrounding venues has been galvanized, organizing quietly and through more formal pandemic-minted advocacy groups like the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition and the National Independent Venue Association in the United States. That means some of the smallest black box venues have broadened their solidarity networks across countries and continents, positioning them to access avenues of mutual aid and support, sharing resources like best practices around livestreaming and safety protocols, or even funding streams only large and mid-sized clubs might have previously had the time to discover, let alone pursue.
Approaching a return to live concerts in 2022, brick-and-mortar venues are similarly positioned to reclaim and re-politicize the future of their spaces as stages for exploring harm reduction and community care, improving the material conditions of the communities that move through and surround them in the process.
With countless concert venues lost as a consequence of so many months without revenue, space is more precious than ever, which means we should expect radical new approaches to how concert venues are utilized. Where protocol will allow, that should include dedicated streams of matinee programming; bluer skies may spring new venues as collectively owned and operated spaces.
In December 2021, multi-arts venue Sous Bas (based in Hamilton, Ont.) debuted a new program called Sous Bas Clubhouse, a collaborative co-programming model where, for the price of $500 a month, members are entitled to 12 hours of private use of the space and have the opportunity to earn a share of cover charges and bar sales. With a mind toward providing a kind of one-stop hub for work-life balance, the Clubhouse membership also affords members access to a stream of collective activity programming, including exercise and meditation sessions, movie screenings, and more.
As spaces that are in some cases already officially exempt from noise bylaws, it just makes sense concert venues explore more creative applications for the infrastructure they already have in place, especially in denser cities where concert venues and practice space is scarce—that said, some local zoning laws might regulate against the use of performance venues for rehearsal space.
Other venues have pursued membership on a patron level as a means of supplementing the risk of walk-up ticket sales and incentivizing guest attendance.
In Fredericton, the Cap launched Project #KEEPITLIVE, a membership initiative and donation drive offering venue members exclusive access to deals, online discounts and merch, as well as presales for records and concerts.
An effort the Cap calls an “opportunity to build something better than before,” it also echoes the venue’s past—in 1998, the Cap’s original owners opened with a $50 annual membership model that gave patrons a two-for-one deal on their first round of drinks and free cover.
“Times were different, but we always recognized how the membership created a sense of buy-in from those patrons,” Cap owner Zachary Atkinson explains over email. “We’d always wanted to bring them back.”
Launched in 2020, #KEEPITLIVE attracted 90 active memberships and raised over $25,000—funds that allowed the Cap to purchase plexiglass barriers for table sections, room speakers that let sound be piped into those barriered sections from overhead, new room and stage lighting, as well as camera gear that helps the venue livestream performances (with or without audiences). The funds also helped the venue replace its old mixing console with an iPad-compatible board, eliminating the need for a front-of-house station and opening up more space for physical distancing or patron capacity, when appropriate.
While the Cap offers memberships as a way for patrons to opt into providing additional support, Vancouver grassroots venue and community organization Red Gate Arts Society has pivoted completely to a membership model, requiring any and all event patrons to purchase a $10 annual venue membership.
“The response has been almost entirely positive, despite the delays that it tends to cause at the door,” Red Gate co-director Jim Carrico says over email. Red Gate has experimented with membership and fundraising drives in the past, he explains, “but it was more of a voluntary donation thing, with perks like t-shirts etc.”
Red Gate’s membership program also improves its negotiating position, allowing the organization to present itself to granting bodies and public supporters “as a large community as opposed to a small collective,” accumulating an extensive list of the patrons the venue serves.
Atkinson and Carrico don’t anticipate their venues’ memberships will have direct input on how they are booked, but membership models also pose unique opportunities for venues and event series to decentralize stewardship and democratically address community input regarding policy and booking practices from the bottom up.
We can’t talk about live concerts without talking about livestreaming, and a return to physical concert-going remains pivotal for communities living with disabilities. They spent years articulating a need for livestreamed concerts prior to the pandemic, only to be glaringly ignored until able-bodied fans couldn’t show up anymore.
Now that we’ve had a hint of the other side, we’ve also seen more of the same.
While many concert venues maneuvered the pandemic’s shutdowns by offering their stages and sound systems to artists performing streamed concerts online, many still returned to operating practices that more closely resembled pre-pandemic routine as soon as local guidelines allowed, abandoning livestreaming elements entirely.
In this respect, venues like Red Gate and the Cap are leagues ahead of industry ableism, dedicating labour and resources to livestreaming many, if not all, of their post-lockdown shows online.
“We did very much lean into streaming without audiences, and then eventually with reduced audiences once restrictions loosened in New Brunswick,” Atkinson explains. New provincial funding that covered the labour to operate livestreams through the earlier part of 2021 also allowed the venue to pay all proceeds from online shows to the artists.
“Streaming everything is very possible,” Atkinson notes, but with the bustle of reopening, at times it meant livestreaming fell by the wayside. “In all fairness, our streaming efforts did begin to fall short in the spring—our team were also musicians and were looking to be back on stage more often, so that, along with the reduced amount of interest we were seeing online, made us move away from streaming during the summer. We also recognized that more outdoor events were possible and accessibility was more achievable.”
Atkinson also acknowledges some technical limitations. “Streaming with good video and audio takes some diligent work, and no matter how good you are, you’re still at the mercy of your internet connection. Sometimes it just doesn’t want to play nice—we had struggles with it at the best of times.”
Certainly, livestreaming doesn’t come without its challenges, but Red Gate has no plans to leave it behind as live events come back, pushing forward with a new 24/7 streaming platform, Red Gate TV, accessible to venue members and non-members alike.
“Obviously our main priority has been to provide a space for the local scene to gather together and develop in a supportive and collaborative environment, but we have long recognized that to fully support the local scene we should be doing our best to also provide exposure beyond our own little insular communities,” Carrico explains. “There’s a lot of skills and talents in our immediate circle, so we’ve been able to draw on some diverse expertise in lighting, cameras, network and server programming and admin tasks.”
Not everyone is itching to gather indoors.
In a November 2021 newsletter titled “The Shock Doctrine Applied to Dance Music,” French writer and culture critic Jean-Hugues Kabuiku calls the accelerated return to live music a reflection of “disaster capitalism.” Borrowing phrases from Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which articulates that capitalism exploits moments of crisis or “shock” to advance capitalist goals, Kabuiku argues there is a direct relationship between a premature return to live events and the reassertion of capitalist expressions that were muzzled by early pandemic shutdowns, all the more violent in the context of a pandemic.
With the acceleration of COVID-19 variants like Delta and Omicron, some disability activists have also argued the push to bring back physically attended events is inherently ableist, pointing to COVID-19’s ability to spread amongst the community, and the risk that poses to those with compromised immune systems—a reality that is amplified at indoor events, regardless of legal mandates requiring patrons to provide proof of their requisite vaccinations prior to entry, especially when patrons ignore house rules asking that patrons continue to wear face coverings when not actively drinking. (In a recent presentation titled “Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics,” biopolitical philosopher Shelley Tremain also builds on Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism to introduce what she calls “disaster ableism,” referring to “strategies and practices that produce, exploit, and aggravate perceived and actual economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in ways that advance eugenic goals.”)
But with governments abdicating public health responsibilities to businesses while wrapping programs that provided financial support for venues to stay closed and staff to stay off the job, the choice to operate isn’t much of a choice at all. Painting all venues with the same brush denies an opportunity for the intervention of harm-reduction philosophy—a direct retaliation to systemically reproduced capitalist harm. Without alternative venues rooted in legacies of harm reduction and consent culture, the only spaces around are those geared toward consumption and risk-taking behaviour.
The first venues financially situated to bring back staff and reopen under distancing guidelines were laissez-faire and corporately owned. Pivoting directly from livestreaming to in-person events, they circumvented mask restrictions by encouraging their patrons to act poorly by practically pushing alcoholic beverages into their hands at every second. For every such space, there exists an ad hoc counterpart that goes above and beyond the public safety standards established by regional governing bodies directly compromised by neoliberal lobbying interests.
When the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for indoor environments to actively confirm patron vaccinations were up to date, Red Gate’s pivot to a members-only model created protective infrastructure for guests and their communities, streamlining contact tracing in the event of breakthrough cases.
A statement on Red Gate’s website acknowledges some concerns about the membership policy “creating more financial hardships for our already strained community, by adding to the expense of a night out,” but as with their regular attendance fees (typically in the $5-10 range), the memberships are available on a pay-what-you-can basis, with no one turned away due to lack of funds—extending the same material benefits of membership to anyone in the community, regardless of their financial position.
In any viral context—no matter how benign—and in concert with membership systems and sliding-scale admission policies, livestreamed events can also be important implements of community harm reduction, offering a FOMO-fighting consolation for patrons that opt out of attending a gig when they’re not feeling 100 percent about a tickle in their throat.
If we’re going back into concert venues in 2022, the ideological conditions will be staggering. Change is slow coming, but industry players in smaller venues and alternative spots are focused on correcting material inequities at a time when they mean more than ever before. The revolution will be livestreamed, and we’re all invited.
Swimming That’s OK Chillwavve Records St. John’s, NL RIYL: Taking Back Sunday; Attack in Black; defending small towns
No change in the weather No change in me I don’t want to leave But you can’t live for free You can’t eat the air And you can’t drink the sea No change in the weather No change in me (Ron Hynes – “No Change in Me”)
On “No Change in Me,” a song co-written with Canadian Country Music Hall of Famer Murray McLauchlan, St. John’s folk legend Ron Hynes sung of Newfoundlanders moving west to Canada’s larger cities in search of better work and opportunities. Originally recorded for McLauchlan’s 1996 album Gulliver’s Taxi, the song was already an East Coast classic by the time it was included on Hynes’s own Get Back Change (2003), but when it’s invoked at the top of contemporary St. John’s emo trio Swimming’s That’s OK, it’s clear younger Newfoundlanders are still feeling that pull, even if there’s a sense of disconnection from the things that once compelled locals to stay: “I played ‘No Change in Me’ / You say it’s relatable / But not your cup of tea.”
All heart-on-sleeve verses, chiming chords, mathy finger tapped guitar breakdowns and lead swapping vocals, That’s OK signals precious nostalgia for the mid-2000s emo boom, but it avoids the pitfalls of the genre’s gendered myopia and toxicity by anchoring its personal loss and defeat to geopolitical abandonment.
Swimming’s St. John’s hometown is a mutating landscape defined by an exodus for Montréal and the empty void of a long stalled promise of a Costco and a megadevelopment that’s become a wasteland for small town hopes and dreams. On “Driving Past Dannyland,” the band looks beyond former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams’s creeping 2,400 acre subdivision on the outskirts of St. John’s for a better sense of what makes their home great, while “Blackhorse Brigade” and “Bigger/Better” build a case for continuity and roots, lyrics full of local colour and grand declarations.
The band also sets itself apart from its influences by incorporating baroque touches that frequently cast its angst in a sepia glow, trumpets and string sections lashing the songs’ raw diarism to something more patient and mature. That gives tracks like “Winter Is Hell Here” and “Topsail” a sense of isolated naturalism, requiring the band to slow its charge to a static tremble. It also lends the album’s track listing a welcome pacing and a version of the quiet/loud dynamism that for a time permeated the genre.
You can’t live in the past, but sometimes that doesn’t mean you have to let go of what feels real.