Schools Training

Starting an Indie Label: Arbutus Records

8 APR 2013
Career Path : Audio Engineering

Many take audio courses with the aim of breaking into the music industry and some even make their own little island of industry. Such was the case with Sebastian Cowan, head and founder of Montreal-based Arbutus Records. He topped his audio engineering and music industry classes where he studied in the UK, and went on to work for influential British independent labels Beggars and XL. Before he moved back to Montreal at the age of 21, he turned down a five-year contract with major label behemoth Sony. He says now: “I didn’t want to have such a creative time in my life sucked away, working for someone else that I don’t even know if I really believed in. I thought, ‘When am I gonna have my adventure?’”


Tracing the roots of the Montreal scene

The young entrepreneur grew up in Vancouver, where he was first turned on to the potential of warehouse loft parties. Like many before him, he was drawn to the cheap rents and vibrant artistic community of Montreal and turned a loft space into a popular underground music venue called Lab Synthese. The city was once a major textile manufacturer, but when those companies realized the cost savings of producing in developing nations their warehouses became vacant. Combined with the volatile political environment, this meant that artists arriving in Montreal in the early 90s could pay next to nothing to rent big spaces. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their label Constellation sprouted from this fertile scene, which set the stage for the booming post-millennial years. Arcade Fire became the next big thing and suddenly Montreal was the indie rock capital of the world.

Arbutus Records grew organically out of the Lab Synthese loft space. Cowan was making CD-Rs of his friends’ bands associated with the space, biking them down to the college radio station and to the weekly periodical seeking a review. He didn’t begin fully focusing on the label until his beloved venue was forced to close, amidst doubling rents and recurring police raids and fines from the illegal alcohol sales. The label is less a traditional business model than a true artistic community, with an emphasis on friendship and collaboration that sees each member’s individual success contributing to the strength and artistic identity of the whole.

The first act to release on Arbutus, Sean Nicholas Savage, began performing at Lab Synthese soon after arriving in Montreal, then moved in shortly after and recorded several albums with Cowan, making good use of his audio school experience. Many of the label’s other acts lived in the neighbourhood and hung out together, including Claire Boucher, whose 2012 Grimes album has been internationally acclaimed. The New York Times named it “one of the most impressive albums of the year so far.” Other acts such as Doldrums and Blue Hawaii have also been making waves overseas, increasing the visibility of the overall brand. Students of film production programs should note that Arbutus has been moving beyond the confines of a music label to include film and literature, though the new digital subsidiary “Movie Star” largely features the side and solo projects of bands on the label.

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