In May this year, I conducted a series of email interviews with various key players from Montreal's uber-inspirational, ultra-independent Constellation record label. They were for a piece in the final Plan B magazine, which was a focus on the Constellation of 2009, about how its roster and politics may or may not have changed since they days when Godspeed You! Black Emperor were its flagship act. The replies from founders Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky ran to an in-depth, 10,000 word history of the label, and er, being honest, they were quite a lot better than the article itself. The original intent was to publish the transcripts on Plan B's website. However, as the site is essentially just a forum/archive now, Plan B editor Louis Pattison and Ian and Don themselves very kindly said DiS could host the transcripts.
As they've already been turned into a 'proper' article once, and as I think they should be pretty interesting to anybody interested in Constellation or the business of running an independent label, they're reproduced here in unedited form. At the same time even it's probably worth noting that even divided into three, these are looooooooong and not for everyone.
And just to stress that the original focus of this piece was on the Constellation of NOW - see coming weeks for reviews of new records by Vic Chesnutt, Evangelista and Do Make Say Think, while post-Unicorns mob Clues will be playing at DiS's stage at In The City Manchester on Oct 19.
PART ONE: HISTORY + CONTEXT
Plan B: How did the two of you first meet? What were your backgrounds before Constellation? (Ian was in Sofa, I think?)
Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky (CST): Ian is a musician (Don is not) and was a member of Sofa (pictured below), which had been active locally for a couple of years when we first met (through mutual friends) in 1994. Aside from the band, Ian was working at a local bakery and subsisting in the same ways that most people were at the time, and many still do. Don was in the process of finally extricating himself from a long series of ‘life’ mistakes that included stupid education choices, some half dozen years working in the corporate world, and hiding in the closet through most of his 20s.
PB: Clearly a conversation or ongoing series of conversations must have taken place to lead to you setting up a label; some insight into those would be nice...
CST: There were plenty of conversations for sure, but in pragmatic terms they were almost exclusively about local conditions and local terms of engagement and not really about a label per se.
Creating artist-friendly, sustainable, alternative spaces was the overriding concern and impetus. Alongside that, there were of course long conversations about culture and politics more generally, but there was nothing very deliberate or even especially deliberative about any of this. The idea that being musicians and self-organising, putting on shows and starting a label was going to be a ticket to any sort of financial reward was not even entertained. We were plotting how we could pull off the next weekend, not any grand strategy. Because events were usually in unsanctioned spaces, it always felt like it could all get busted up at any moment.
Our agenda was to make, encourage and enable work locally that felt engaged, constructive and consistent with a wider social and political analysis. We knew full well we were trumped by all sorts of dedicated, deeply committed, seriously selfless bona fide local political activists. But we fucking loved the promise and power of music, and we were (and remain) very much aware and self-critical about what a privilege we were allowing ourselves. So we just absolutely refused to be fucking artistes about it!
But we also felt strongly that this didn't mean adherence to stale codes. "Punk rock" had already caricaturized itself a few times over. The Vans Warped Tour was only the latest iteration rearing its head at the time. And again, while we obviously were not sitting around explicitly discussing a re-definition of punk rock, it was equally obvious to us that music and the terms of its production should entail a critical response to existing conditions – and that part of this should involve the creation of our own humble poetics and mythologies. This was to be both admissible and celebrated insofar as all the terms of engagement surrounding and grounding them 'behind the scenes' were maintained with decency and on a human scale.
PB: Is there anything that you would describe as particularly ‘of Montreal’ about Constellation? In any way, really – I gather for starters that a lack of venues was one reason for your founding, but as a foreigner I’ve always been intrigued about whether being in French Canada is significant...
CST: As some other answers indicate, Constellation emerged pretty much completely in response to local conditions and on a local horizon.
The significance of French Canada, which may have shaped Constellation to varying degrees:
We, along with many of the early musicians on the label, moved to Montreal from other parts of Canada in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Whatever our relative fluency in the French language, culturally we were a minority, and decidedly marginal (or more so than we would have been elsewhere, all things being equal). That breeds its own sense of self-reliance, humility and cultural anxiety. Quebec nationalism is a fucked up thing, but it is not easily dismissed, at least not in its origins – it is not simply xenophobic or conservative or racist, and in fact was forged chiefly from left-wing liberation ideologies and anti-clericism in the Sixties and Seventies. On social policy, Quebec remains one of the most overtly liberal cultures in North America. French Catholics turned against the church en masse, and Quebec remains among the most irreligious provinces in Canada as well. Which isn't to say Anglos were not also identified as the oppressor, and that a central facet of Quebec nationalism isn't viscerally anti-'English Canada'. It very much was (and still is, though the whole nationalist position is by this point pretty incoherent, deeply compromised and almost laughably equivocal). The point is, you could not waltz around Montréal as an English-speaker from outside Quebec in the Eighties and Nineties and thumb your nose at Quebec nationalism – not politically, and certainly not if you cared about your personal safety! In the midst of larger political dynamics (viz. MAI, NAFTA and other 'Free Trade' protests in the late Nineties) there was a whole added layer of intensely regional and distinctly Quebec/Canadian cultural politics at work. In completely ineffable and indescribable ways, this no doubt shaped the 'identity' of Constellation and its early 'founding community'.
Also thanks to Quebec nationalism, there was a huge exodus of English wealth and population from Montreal in particular (which until the mid-Seventies was the industrial and financial capital of Canada). Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, this was a significant feature of the urban geography. The economy here was anaemic and sluggish, and there were tons of empty buildings. But a relatively healthy social welfare state existed as well, so the situation was not extreme – no Detroit-style collapse from within, comparatively little crime. Just piles of cheap apartments and warehouse spaces in perfectly calm and centrally-located neighbourhoods. An artist paradise, really. The extremely low cost of living – and of rents in particular – allowed people to get by on very little while inhabiting comparatively palatial (if run-down) spaces. No doubt this gestated a concentration of autonomous cultural activity, and in very direct terms, kept Constellation overhead very low.
Even though Constellation took no part in it, Quebec provided significant amounts of cultural funding for the arts, and in general terms, there was a slower, more 'continental' European pace to life in Montreal that included a critical mass of people interested in homegrown culture and curious to explore smaller, less hyped, more experimental stuff. As the label drew from musicians on both sides of the linguistic/cultural fence – Godspeed, Exhaust and Fly Pan Am all counted native Montrealers and Francophones among their ranks – and insofar as these bands were also making wordless music, there was a certain cultural bridge nascent in the stuff we were supporting and disseminating. While there was nothing overtly strategic about the disavowal of language in the music of these groups – certainly not in any 'commercial' sense, as everything else about them was about as non-commercial as you could get, especially at the time (long long songs, deconstructed forms, anti-charismatic and anonymous performance) – on some level the music was open and accessible to both cultures/languages. And for reasons best left to more acute cultural theorists, Quebec has had a long love affair with 'progressive' music (Pink Floyd, Genesis, Soft Machine) so there was strangely fertile ground for long-form bands like Godspeed and Fly Pan Am. Gradually, local followings coalesced around these groups that, importantly, did not depend on contemporary Anglo-American pop cultural literacy.
PB: Can you tell me a bit about the Musique Fragile concert series?
CST: After abandoning the idea for a full-time performance space, and moving into a loft in the old quarter of the city in the summer of 1997, we began curating and hosting an intimate monthly concert series called 'Musique Fragile’. The idea was to provide a warm and attentive environment for local and regional musicians (sorely lacking in Montréal’s club circuit at the time) with performances ranging from pop to free improvisation to electronic experimentalism. The shows were extremely well attended and received, and the first-ever Silver Mt Zion performance and Frankie Sparo Montréal debut happened here. More than anything, the series confirmed that a certain sense of communal hunger existed in the city for experiences/environments/approaches that were otherwise lacking.
PB: Was there ever any doubt in your minds that Constellation would ‘work’, insofar as it could be a long-running, viable label? If not was there a time or event that led to your believing that it was ‘working’.
CST: We started out thinking we were going to open a small, artist-friendly performance space and imagined starting the 'label' side of things by putting together compilations of live recordings from the space, selling them from the counter along with our vegetarian sandwiches and cheap beer. We never really asked ourselves the question of 'viablity' from a strictly label perspective. We definitely acknowledged we were putting the cart before the horse when we abandoned the idea of an officially sanctioned space (and along with it, any notion of a potentially viable cashflow foundation from which a label might grow).
Video: Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'The Dead Flag Blues'
We whistled through our very limited savings manufacturing our first 3 releases in 1997 (300 7"s and 1000 CDs for Sofa, 500 LPs for Godspeed) - and needless to say, kept working our day jobs. At that stage, it was an utter leap of faith. We knew nothing about the music industry writ large. We had done no research about it. We designed our own record packaging by ripping apart stuff we liked to see how the flaps and folds and glue came together. We were the epitome of the bedroom art project, and our horizon remained utterly local. We held out hope that eventually these bands might sell enough of these records at shows and out of the back of the van that we might recoup costs. But from the start, we made careful budgets and actually got some enjoyment and pride from putting together basic spreadsheets. We knew that if we basically did all the labour ourselves with rulers and exacto knives and glue guns, we could make some pretty clumsy but beautiful objects to contain some clumsy but beautiful sounds - and if we could sell most of them, we stood a chance of making a bit of surplus to throw at the next project.
We still remember receiving our first order from the USA arm of Southern Records Distribution in 1998 for perhaps a total of 100 copies of stuff; we were beside ourselves, just totally ecstatic. Of course it was just a consignment order but holy shit our records were going be in indie record shops! And Southern had a (very well-deserved) reputation for not screwing labels, for paying reliably. We couldn't know it at the time, but allying ourselves with Southern was just tremendously crucial, given the mountain of horrible anecdotes about the minefield of distribution - not getting paid, receiving piles of mangled returns months or more often years after sending out an order, etc. Southern not only accepted our 'politics' (which often directly conspired against maximising sales potential, in all sorts of ways) but embraced them - and again, it bears repeating: reported and paid in a transparent and reliable way, on time, every month. We work with them to this day.
But yes, there was definitely a point, at the end of 1998, by which time we were in production on the second Godspeed record, the first CD by Do Make Say Think, and an EP by Sackville (our first release on both CD and LP formats) that we realised we were spending every waking hour outside of our day jobs making records and shipping out orders of 100 here, 200 there, month after month. For most of 1998, we'd been in the incredibly fortunate position of scrambling to keep up with demand, literally never having worked the phones or spent any time soliciting interest in our wares, much less overtly marketing them. We had just been keeping our heads down, making the stuff, staying very close to home. But we realized we could afford to pay ourselves a subsistence wage from the label's share of profit split, without affecting the core costs or the artist royalty.
We also realized we had pre-orders for our upcoming releases that were rock solid and exceeding what we could manage with cash in-hand. With the help of some short-term personal loans, we made a bona fide injection of capital into the label and properly funded the next production cycle. That was the turning point – we made Constellaton a 'going concern' while keeping our personal and label overhead at a minimum (which we do to this day), and emerged with the foundations of something we began to understand as viable.
PB: From an outside perspective it would seem the last ten years of Constellation as a business have been pretty smooth; since getting up and running properly, could you pick out any landmark events – has anything felt like a triumph? Has the label ever been under serious threat? How significant a blow has the rise of downloading been?
CST: Perhaps, if measured against the challenges that many labels face on an ongoing basis just to survive, Constellation’s ride could be called 'pretty smooth', a privilege we’re well aware of and grateful for. At the same time, the external perception of us sometimes seems to be one of a mini behemoth, awash in record sales and riches – nothing could be further from the truth. While we’ve had our share of solid years, it has certainly taken every last ounce of resourcefulness to keep Constellation running in the manner we want to run it. We’ve had our share of triumphs – mostly experienced as maintaining a host of core principals through thick and thin – and some flirtations with disaster (just as we co-purchased a building to permanently house Constellation and relocate the Hotel2Tango studio, and just as repairs and renovations had bled us dry, a big shift in one major segment of our USA distribution caused cashflow to all but dry up for several months – that was pretty hairy).
With downloading, we are now likely at the point at which it has become a serious threat to the label. Not that it hadn’t been hurting us for a while, but perhaps hurting us relatively less than others, for whatever reason. Instead of constantly shrinking sales, we would see plateaus. The disturbing thing now is that as physical sales continue to shrink and retailers/distributors continue to go under, these sales are in no way being made up by rising digital sales. It is hard to draw any conclusion other than that too many people simply don’t believe in the need to pay for records any more. Historically and currently, records sales are all we've got (we don't take any cut of film and television licensing - have always passed that on entirely to the bands when it happens).
We think the situation will get worse. The race-to-the-bottom pricing that has plagued physical sales for the past few years has now begun on the digital side. The era of the $9.99 album and $0.99 song will soon be recalled as the digital golden years for labels. Whether the terms of record production and distribution we care about will still be viable in five or even three years is a question we’ve begun to ask ourselves. So yeah, at this moment in time, it's feeling like a pretty significant blow.
PB: Can you please tell me a bit about how you go about making your packaging? (I have this weird vision that you employ a dedicated cardboard bender). Also, out of interest, how do you feel about the CD as a medium? A lot of people are rather dismissive, but the care you put into CD packaging would suggest you’re at least accepting...
CST: When we started the label, we wanted to make stuff, not market it. First and foremost, the art direction and additional context that album packaging lends to a recorded work is hugely meaningful to us, and is what we most enjoy thinking about and executing. We have always felt that, if maintained on a human scale, using sustainable/recycled materials and local artisanal techniques and labourers, the artwork and packaging of an album is irreplaceable. As far as the CD as a format is concerned, we suppose it seems quaint but somehow important to note that a disc contains music digitally sampled at 16 bits/44.1kHz. While this is far from perfect, and certainly much higher resolutions for digital audio fidelity now exists, the consumer trend is obviously and dramatically skewed in the opposite direction. We still find that a bit shocking, honestly. Is everyone really settling for crude digital compression of MP3s? By all means, let’s all listen to piles of stuff that way, to get the gist of what the music is about. But after all, a decent CD player patched to a decent amp feeding a decent set of speakers moderately positioned to create a stereo image and fill a room – this is a massive qualitative shift upwards in sound quality and a much fuller experience of music of just about any sort.
If the suggestion is that people are moving en masse away from CD and back to vinyl, that's an understandable impulse by all aesthetic criteria. If that were to happen we're all seriously in trouble, because the vinyl pressing capacity simply no longer exists (one of the highest-quality plants in North America is no longer accepting new customers), and a return to a truly mass market in LPs would be environmentally disastrous at this stage in the world-historical game. True sonic elitism will kick in rapidly at that point, as manufacturing and shipping costs will price LPs out of reach for many.
Presumably the better future is one of ever-improving broadband and ever-improving compression schemes that will eventually yield a downloadable audio format higher than current CD quality. Can't rule that out of course, but it certainly isn't there yet – and in our experience, it’s not like people are lining up to pay a slight premium for FLAC downloads. The point is no one really wants to pay much for recorded music anymore; it is seen as ubiquitous and disposable.
People are free to experience music however they see fit, but Constellation remains committed to reproducing consumer audio that encourages a high-quality and immersive experience, which ideally includes opening the package, perusing the artwork therein, and playing the album from start to finish – perhaps even with the lights down low, just listening, not doing anything else. It is not for us to demand anyone's undivided attention, but for those who still think music is worthy of such a thing, we will aim to provide.
PB: Has Montreal significantly changed since you were founded? Is it better for venues? At an underground level, has the international success of Canadian bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene made any sort of difference?
CST: Montreal is much better for venues, and like just about everywhere else, the less people spend on actually paying for recordings the more they are hungry for and willing to pay for live music, whether for its sonic power, the spectacle, or the sociability and scenery (or presumably some combination of these).
Live music is alive and well in Montreal, at all levels, underground and overground. Measuring the motives and engagement of those in attendance is and always has been a fool's game. For every show at which a majority of the people present do nothing but talk among themselves, text each other, and occasionally snap a picture of the stage with their cell phones, there is another where the room truly seems to galvanise and levitate, and/or you can hear a pin drop, and/or the sheer glorious sonic assault gets a satisfying number of jaws dropping to the floor and eyes rolling into the backs of skullls. These are usually (though not always) smaller shows. Those precious moments don’t really have anything to do with Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene – which isn't to say those bands aren't capable of creating them. But on an underground level, one would be hard pressed to identify any difference they have made.
People in Montreal started supporting underground shows the moment there were friendly, accessible, non-threatening spaces hosting them – we witnessed it in 1997-1999, and alongside a much-improved crop of overground, small and mid-sized venues that have taken root in the city since then, there has also been steady activity in loft spaces and rooms well off the beaten path. Creating a setting and making a sound that really gets folks to drop everything else and just listen is hard as hell but 'international success' seems increasingly to conspire against the eyes-closed, ears-open moment, insofar as it is increasingly anchored to the thrill of spectacle and personality recognition, pre-ordained by media saturation.
PB: Banal a question as it may be, but why settle upon the name Constellation? I ask insofar as I never took any wider meaning from it, when I suppose you could have come up with something more redolent of your politics.
CST: Yeah, we nixed Smells Like Anarcho-Syndicalist Records. And no we are not astronomy or astrology buffs in the least. In the end I think we have imbued the name with meaning over the years. We were always interested in the idea that we'd be mapping nodes of activity and drawing lines between little creative flames being tended at various locations in our city. Perhaps later we dug the idea that this largely local map was now visible "at a distance", i.e. by a small following physically remote from our location, deepened our feeling about the name. Also, the word works in French and English, which we felt was important here in Quebec.
CST: Montreal was a prime Canadian locus for the so-called 'anti-globalisastion' movement in the late Nineties and while Constellation (and Don, Ian, Efrim, etc.) in no way sprang from the heart of that culture, it's main features - non-hierarchical and grassroots organising, turbo-captialist/neo-liberal critique, early internet info-sharing and dissemination (before this became all-out 'social networking', and thus quickly left us behind), engagement with serious anarchist politics - were definitely ones we interacted with, stood in solidarity with, and felt responsible to when thinking through our own positions as musicians and self-organising 'artists'.
The challenge to neo-liberal economics, as theory and as practice, was just without question the larger movement we were all reckoning with, it was the air we were all breathing and it was the stuff we were reading, researching, engaging with and educating ourselves about.
And because this is often forgotten:
The Free Trade Area of the Americas conference in Quebec City (about two hours north of Montreal, and the only other major city in the province of Quebec) was held in spring 2001, was I think the very first international conference that newly-elected president George W. Bush attended.
It was also hands down the most insane display of a North American city being locked down against protestors during the 'anti-globalisation' era (pre-9/11). The protests in Quebec City (in which we all participated, helped at the indy media center, donated money and materials, etc.) turned into three non-stop days of entrenched street warfare - not the random battles of Seattle (if only) but a perpetual volley of tear gas as thousands of riot police stood guard, shield-to-shield, around a massive fence had been built to cordon off the heart of the city, within which the fancy hotels and conference rooms were located. I think it has been reliably calcualted that more tear gas was released in a concentrated period than had ever occured in a North American city previously (or since).
It is hard to communicate a sense for the madness and demoralisation of what went down there - the sheer scale of the police operation, the literal transformation of the urban geography into a kind of prison/fortress, the overwhelming and non-stop use of tear gas, and of course the way both 'sides' seemed to be following a pre-ordained script - but if you can make the time it would be well worth spending an bit of time checking out some of the video archives:
It is also surreal, shocking and genuinely, deeply painful to recall that in the years leading up to the first Bush (stolen) election and 9/11 there really was such an overwhelming sense that the neo-liberal agenda was going to be at least attenuated if not actually derailed; that general support, knowledge and understanding from the wider population was growing every year, that at least a mild overall shift back to the left (especially in Canada and USA, where there could hardly be called anything left-of-center anymore in the official political spectrum) was almost a foregone conclusion and the only question was to what degree grassroots groups and institutions could help shape and substantiate this shift, contribute to the critique of 'financialisation' and the revaluation of honest labour/income equality, and actually connect ideas of 'direct democracy' up with general citizenship and the population writ large.
In tomorrow's part two, Constellation move on to the none-more-weighty subject of their politics