ozens of indie-record labels are born—and die—every day. In an industry beset by fewer sales, more bands, and with paths to success murkier than ever before, every anniversary is as much a relief as it is a cause for celebration. Alien8 Recording’s co-founders Sean O’Hara and Gary Worsley celebrated their label’s tenth yesterday.
Home to Montreal bands such as Set Fire to Flames, the defunct indie-darlings The Unicorns, and ambient craftsman Tim Hecker, as well as international concerns such as Merzbow and Keiji Haino, Alien8 has established itself in its short history as one of the most consistently interesting and wide-ranging independents in Canada.
Stylus correspondent Graham Lanktree sat down with O’Hara and Worsley to talk about the rise of the Internet and the mixed effect the duo think it’s having on a whole generation of music listeners. They also discussed the struggle to keep afloat as an indie, as well as the influence Canadians are having right now on North American music.
How have things changed in Montreal’s music scene since you started?
Sean O’Hara: It’s way more active, there’s more infrastructure of different kinds for people to do stuff. There’s more people and more exchange, it’s just a much more happening thing all around.
Gary Worsley: I think it’s a lot easier for—well, I’ll say kids—for kids to start bands these days as well, like with recording at home onto their computer and things like that. But I think the music scene has always been fairly healthy, I keep hearing people say there was no music scene here ten years ago, people were only into drum and bass, but that’s not true. It just didn’t have the spotlight it has today. I thought the scene was incredibly vibrant in the eighties, the Montreal hardcore scene, and we’ve always had a solid metal scene, I haven’t really followed it so much.
Do you think there’s been more of an influence from Canada on North American music recently?
Worsley: I think so. And maybe I’m, maybe it’s just my opinion and I’m biased but I think Montreal more so than Toronto, despite the fact there’s successful bands coming out of Toronto, I don’t think Broken Social Scene have influenced half as many bands as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and if anything I’d say Godspeed probably had an influence on BSS, and not the other way around—
Worsley: I’m sure BSS had no influence on A Silver Mount Zion or whatever—so I think so, I think Montreal the most within Canada, by far. We just don’t really have the kind of corporate structure they have in Toronto to really propel bands to that next level. Bands are a little bit more independent in terms of their goals and the way they want to promote themselves here.
O’Hara: Yeah, I definitely think there seems to be a different spirit to a lot of what’s going on in Montreal. But you know, I mean, it depends on the band. There’s bands here that have very high aspirations and—
Worsley: And ultimately success in music is a lottery, you’re really lucky if it happens and I think we’ve just been really lucky here for the past few years with four or five really serious success stories.
In 2003 you had a lot of success with The Unicorns. Did that change the label in any way?
O’Hara: Yeah, it had some impact because when that release kind of took off we had to try to roll with it and it definitely had an influence on some business decisions we made. Looking back I’m not sure if it was a good influence, but you know that’s what happened. The problem is that neither of us is much of a businessman and I think it influenced us maybe to try to, with certain bands—if we felt they had the potential for a wider audience—to try to more aggressively promote them. I think you could say that was an influence it had. But again, I’m a bit ambivalent about how good an influence that might have been.
A lot of good press for that album came from the internet. Do you feel the internet has helped or hindered you record label?
O’Hara: Well, I think it’s mostly helped but I’ve—
Worsley: We’re starting to see the hindrance now— (laughs)
O’Hara: The thing is it helps in so many ways, there’s so much people can access so quickly with the internet, and music is certainly no exception to that. You know, you can just see everywhere on blogs and MySpace so much activity and exchange regarding music, so especially as a really small label you get much more exposure with the internet then you could ever hope to with traditional media. But now it is evident people don’t need to buy records and can still have a pretty awesome record collection.
My whole thinking is that there’s this whole generation growing up that hasn’t been immersed in a culture of going to record stores and checking out releases as physical products. It’s kind of foreign to them. So you know the question is obviously for small labels and bands, how will people still be able to make money off music, to sell it, to market it? It’s difficult to say. I mean there’s definitely iTunes and so forth and there is quite a bit of activity there but from our perspective it’s nowhere near making up for the lost CD sales.
Have you really noticed a downturn?
O’Hara: Yeah, I think we have, especially in North America. Europe was never a strong market for us, but in North America people gravitated to the iPod and digital music much more rapidly than in Europe and you just see it happening very quickly and having a very big impact.
Have you noticed an upturn in digital music sales?
O’Hara: Well, most of our releases are available through iTunes and we do get a check every month for our sales, but we don’t feel it’s equivalent to the amount of sales we’re losing from the CD market.
Worsley: It’s hard to say really, maybe one day the digital sales, hopefully they’ll continue to increase and we’ll be able to cut back on the amount of money being put into production. But I guess at some point if everything is available in this format you’re going to still have to find a way to promote it and let people know about it because there’s going to be a flood of material—
O’Hara: Yeah, a sea of files—that’s a challenge for small labels to promote their releases and their artists when there’s so much information.
Worsley: The thing too, with the internet, is it’s so easy to access information and music that I think people’s attention spans are a little shorter. People are so quick to gloss over some bands like “yeah yeah, I’ve heard them. I went to their MySpace and heard one track” and boom! You’re done with them. I’ve noticed from working at a record store that people are definitely more knowledgeable about underground music and much quicker to jump to the next thing.
O’Hara: For sure. There’s much less investment. We were talking about that yesterday. There’s much less investment in time and energy to seek out new music. It’s that whole instantaneous gratification of the internet. It does result in a shorter attention span. There’s a tendency for people to glean so much information on artists but it’s very cursory a lot of the time.
Worsley: It’s comparable to a situation where you’re getting into shows free instead of paying for them. I find you try to enjoy the show a lot more when you’ve paid for it. When you get into shows free it’s like “Ehhhhh, I’ve seen it.”
I’ve noticed you have a store on your website. Does that work through iTunes?
Worsley: In terms of online sales we don’t only use iTunes now. Sean has designed our webpage to sell albums and songs. That’s something exciting we’ve been doing for a couple months now. We’re incredibly fortunate we didn’t have to hire somebody to do that. It would be an insanely costly venture for us.
O’Hara: It would cost quite a bit of money to get someone to develop it. If you were to hire an experienced person I think it would be at least $5,000, which is a lot of money to us.
Did you draw influences from other places to put that together?
O’Hara: We developed it over the summer and launched it on August 15th. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for over a year now. When we first started getting some sales from iTunes we started thinking digital downloads were actually workable to some extent. I thought since we’ve been doing our own mail order for so long that it’s our own venue to have a direct relationship with our customers. I didn’t want to be steering people toward Apple to get the music. It’s better for us because we have more control over how the music is presented and more control over the pricing and, obviously, a greater share of the income comes to us and the artists. It seemed like a natural thing to do. Once you set it up it sort of maintains itself.
Worsley: Eventually I think all labels will have no choice but to…
O’Hara: There are a lot of other venues for selling music digitally now. Obviously there’s iTunes, there’s eMusic now, which is very big in the indie-music scene. Insound have also now launched their digital service. More and more people are saying ‘let’s get this show on the road.’ The writing is on the wall. I feel the independent music scene is at some sort of turning point. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the next couple of years and how many record stores close.
What point do you think indie-music has reached?
O’Hara: It’s definitely at a saturation point in terms of releases and bands. From what I’ve heard in the States, the record sales just aren’t there to support the stores.
Worsley: Given the climate of the industry right now, it’s unbelievable how many labels there are and how many new labels pop-up all the time and even how many CD-R labels there are. I can’t believe there are people out there trying to sell CD-Rs this day in age when the decline in real CD sales…I definitely think there’s a huge problem with saturation. And I think it’s super tough to get your records into big, prominent stores these days because there’s no way a store could stock every record. I can definitely back that up with the store I work at. It’s impossible to have everything. There’s always going to be someone searching for a band you don’t have. That’s just the way it is, there’s just too many records. If you compare now to the 80s or 90s, I’m sure there are 50 times more independent labels. In the time of Touch and Go and SST there must have been 15 or 20 independent labels and, now, try and find a name for your label without it already having been taken.
Do you think the indie movement is a reaction against big labels?
O’Hara: It depends. For some labels like Constellation that might be the case, but some have copped the major label ethos, they just want to do it themselves.
Worsley: I find I’m seeing that more and more these days. Bands want to jump from here to here [making a low to high movement with his hands]. It’s kinda weird right now, I’d say it’s actually the opposite.
O’Hara: You also have to keep in perspective that most people who’re putting out records at the scale we’re doing and often even smaller just want to expose their art or art they find would be inspiring to other people. I think that still is the major motivation for a lot of smaller record labels. Gary’s talking about CD-R labels: it’s obvious that isn’t for the money. They’re not doing it for some kind of glory, they’re truly inspired by the music they’re working with—they just want to be involved with it and that was our motivation for starting Alien8 in the beginning.
Would you say that’s something that still drives you?
O’Hara: Yeah, although it has changed a lot. There are other implications now, including the fact we’re now living off the pursuit. Economics becomes a serious factor in our decision making which is sometimes problematic but also a reality.
Worsley: But at the same time it’s always exciting to bring to light a new artist you really like and help them get a release out there and to see people take to it. That’s something I’ve always found exciting and won’t ever change.
Photo courtesy of: Guylaine Bédard.
By: Graham Lanktree
Published on: 2006-11-01