Label from the North Country: Arts & Crafts
Broken Social Scene photo by Danielle St. Laurent
Toronto seems like as much of a thriving metropolis as Canada could possibly hope to produce. It’s home to a relevant international film festival, a bevy of skyscrapers and—if you count its outlying suburbs—nearly a quarter of its country’s residents.
Had you found yourself in the city’s music scene in the early 2000s, though, it would seem so much smaller that it was nearly incestuous—a tight-knit community tied together by backyard barbeques, drunken house parties and a downtown core of venues supportive of anything-goes eclecticism. Shows are free-form messes that veer from post-rock instrumentals to zany pop songs, and multi-membership between bands is so hard to keep track of, you’d need a flow chart.
Fun, sure. But it doesn’t exactly sound like the start of what’s become perhaps one of the most pervasive, influential scenes in indie rock, with the lush landscapes of Stars, the intimate vocals of crooner Leslie Feist, and, most important, the accordion-like broadness of Broken Social Scene—all ending up as major-headliner performers on one label. Arts & Crafts is now generally heralded—along with Merge and Saddle Creek—as one of the best small labels in rock music. (There are other “indies” like Matador and Sub Pop that are either part of a label group or owned by a major.)
Well, maybe it’s not so small anymore. With more than 20 employees doing everything from managing bands to working on licensing to booking their artists at festivals ranging from Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza, Arts & Crafts has become a mini-empire. But still, just about everything can be traced back to those early days in Toronto, and to the three guys who started it all: Broken Social Scene founders Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning and label guy Jeffery Remedios, who may have had an inkling, even early on, that their entrepreneurship would take them places. After all, Remedios and Canning first came from the majors—before starting the label with Drew, Remedios was an exec at Virgin Records where “they were grooming me to run the company,” he says. “I felt like there are some amazing people there, but I might get laid off, or I might run this place and lay off my friends.” Canning, meanwhile, had experience in destined-for failure major-label bands—remember Len’s ‘90s-era hit “Steal My Sunshine?” That’s him speaking throughout it. And though Drew certainly found his way into the label game with the most street-cred, he admits to taking music business university crash courses before making music his career—and long before that career threatened to tear apart his closest friendships.
While Arts & Crafts and Broken Social Scene are definitely a family, it’s now a fractured one, with all of its prodigal sons and daughters out on the road in their various solo projects more than ever before. But for two very proud parents (and one… uncle?) its also a community that they built—and one they can’t leave behind, no matter how much they may sometimes want to.
“I don’t care about our public lives anymore,” says 34-year-old label co-owner/band leader Kevin Drew, so matter-of-factly that it almost seems insensitive.
It is definitely shocking that he’s that abrupt, since Drew is both a people person and a talker—which should come as a bit of a surprise to longtime Broken Social Scene fans. Though he’s ostensibly the mouthpiece for a successful, decade-old touring rock band, he’s always been willing to give that position up onstage to whoever wanted it, on whatever song they happened to bring in.
But in Boston, the day before the band plays one of their biggest U.S. headlining shows to date for over 6,000 people in New York’s Central Park, Drew’s open to chatting about all parts of his musical family. “What matters to me most is that we’re still seeing each other,” he says of his labelmates and friends, which is a testament to the fact that, though their relationships may have seemed to have gone through some heat in public, in private, that community he helped foster at least is still relevant to him. As for what he’s lost by being both a label head and frontman, he admits, “It is difficult to wear both hats at times. The only way you can really do it is if you’re constantly on your game.” He pauses. “There were a couple years where I was off my game.”
Still, Drew’s spent over a decade helping raise that musical family, long before Broken Social Scene’s erratic, irritating and near-genius first album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People became a Pitchfork sensation. (The indie bible gave it a rarified 9.2 rating, calling it “endlessly replayable, perfect pop” in a review that catapulted the band, its label, and that website to mainstream prominence.) The album’s almost like a Various Artists package rather than the debut of a new band with Canning, Drew, and a few of their friends as a house band, members alternate song to song—Metric’s Emily Haines sings one, scenester Jessica Moss plays violin on one, Stars’ Evan Cranely lends a bit of trombone, resulting in a record both exceedingly eclectic and unrelentingly re-listenable. But for Drew, that was the moment that his musical musings went from being totally loosey-goosey to a professional career being totally loosey-goosey.
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