Welcome to part two of DiS's publication of Plan B's extensive interview transcripts with Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky, co-founders of Constellation records. Yesterday they discussed being 'of Montreal'; today the founders of the notoriously leftwing label go talk politics.
Plan B: Until recently your website had a front page stating ‘Economic downturn = progress’ – care to expand on this? Is it the recession's damage to the capitalist system you’re alluding to, or the idea bad times = good art?
CST: Only that the sole definition of progress on a global scale (starting with the world's industrialized economies) that we can conceive of at this point will require concepts like contraction, reduced consumption, and the elimination of bubbles and other calculated financial ponzi schemes.
We go on to say 'let's all try to work on making this equation a reality' – meaning of course that there is going to be nothing pretty about a sustained economic downturn unless, as citizens and consumers, we can conceive of it as fundamentally progressive. Certainly this conception is not going to come from our official leaders – at least not on any evidence thus far. You have to wonder what the four trillion dollars that has been thrown into the 'world financial system' in the past few months might otherwise have paid for.
PB: How do your politics dovetail with the running of a label? The original mission statement of Constellation is that you hope to 'enact a mode of cultural production that critiques the worst tendencies of the music industry, artistic commodification, and perhaps in some tiny way, the world at large.'
CST: We’ve tried. Back when we occasionally wrote these manifestos we were trying to provoke a conversation. We were trying to summon up some sort of reaction 'from our own ranks' as it were, some sort of talk about the impossible promise of indie rock/punk rock. And that pretty much failed, as we should have expected, but honestly didn't – because of course why would anyone go out of her way to read such arch polemics with generosity of spirit or double-take?
It was a risk, but we genuinely thought at least some segment of the music media would both place it in a tradition of politco-artistic manifestos and take us up on it in some way. Instead, it was generally ignored or read as pure sanctimony. Except perhaps by some number of actual musicians, local organizers and music fans, who seemed to get it.
PB: Would you still hold this as your maxim?
CST: Yes. Ultimately of course we also fucking meant it, and were challenging ourselves to live up to it.
PB: How successful do you feel you’ve been?
Not very, given the primary intention: to trigger reactions and provoke discourse 'within the industry'.
On the other hand:
Godspeed declined countless opportunities to 'take it to the next level' and consistently refused to do any number of things that would have been the most natural moves in the world for a band in their position at the time, which would have lined their pockets without anyone barely noticing or caring.
Constellation, for its part, has to this day never signed a contract with any of its bands. We've never paid a lawyer, and we've never lost a band. We've issued every single title for the last decade on CD and LP (save one Franke Sparo EP of radio sessions and our two compilations) and we've kept them all in print, without downgrading the packaging, so that anyone discovering the label or any of its artists today can pay a normal, non-collector price for any of our records.
We have never attributed any label overhead to a release budget.
We've accounted for every penny of every project and even on records that only sell a couple thousand copies, there have been royalties paid to the artist, strictly from record sales alone.
We've consistently devoted the bulk of our production budgets to artwork and packaging and still print with the same tiny silkscreen, foil-stamp and offset shops that we first sought out in 1997.
We still hand-assemble, bag, sticker and seal every single CD and LP in-house, and we have never printed a bar code on an album jacket. We've never allowed any of the music we've released to be used to sell a product.
One-hundred percent of licensing revenue for film or television usages that may have come our way has been passed on to the band in question. Recently, we've found ourselves working with career artists like Vic Chesnutt and Carla Bozulich, who have traversed the entire sordid arc of the music industry and 20 years later, seem genuinely happy to be working with us – they've found a home on the label and an extended family of musicians and engineers affiliated with Constellation and with the Hotel2Tango, and are making some of the most powerful and committed work of their lives.
And on the other hand, and in the past two years:
Our entire catalogue has been made widely available as commercial MP3s.
We have hired professional, outside publicists in the USA for certain releases.
We once discounted our entire back catalogue for sale pricing at Fopp in the UK.
We have applied for and received label-specific subsidies from the Canadian government.
These are all things we said, at one point or another, either publicly or privately, that we would not do. We have nothing to say in our defense, other than that the music industry has indeed gotten worse and worse and just about everyone, in different ways, from major labels on down to 'indie artists', have conspired directly or indirectly to make music fans feel and believe that they have little reason to actually pay for recorded music.
Unfortunately, and unlike most labels these days, record sales are our sole revenue stream.
We remain idealists and intend to still be here when the world swings back around.
PB: It would seem Godspeed were by far the most politically outspoken of your bands... is it a mistake to think of Constellation as ‘political’ label outside of the sphere of record company politics?
CST: Constellation is not a political label outside the sphere of music industry politics, just to clarify. What that means for us is that, as the label owners and directors, the politics that shape and govern label practices sometimes do involve our analysis and/or critique of trends or phenomena in the music industry that are not necessarily and strictly speaking about record company operations. Perhaps that clarification is largely a function of how narrowly we have defined ourselves as a record company, viz. the end of the preceding answer!
In any case, there are cultural and industrial trends central to the way recorded music is commercialized, commodified and consumed that we have an opinion about, and that shapes label 'policy'. Since we have no formal contractual bond with our artists, label policies sometimes require an explanation and/or an argument that is ultimately 'political'.
But it is absolutely not important to make an ideological connection [with our artists]. The only thing that matters is mutual respect, from the outset, and a good, human understanding between parties as to what each expects from or will ask of the other. Trust is the basis for the connection: ethics, not politics or ideology,
Video: A Silver Mount Zion: 'Movie (Never Made)'
PB: You’ve rarely signed any bands explicitly agit/left-leaning lyrically... is that because there are few bands with lyrics of that nature who gel with the ahem Constellation sound?
CST: On the one hand, listen to Silver Mt. Zion, Black Ox Orkestar (pictured top) - well, read the translations from Yiddish - and more recently, Vic Chesnutt.
With the first two examples at least, there's some pretty explicit stuff. On the very first SMZ record, Efrim makes his vocal debut by singing "Let's kill first the bankers… Let's televise and broadcast the raping of kings." He doesn’t really back down much from there over subsequent albums.
Scott Gilmore, singing in Yiddish on two pretty fucking brilliant Black Ox records, includes verses like "Do the oppressed mirror the oppressor?/The beaten child is on the street with fists/And the sad race of wise men/Sends brutes/To the border." This is a modern Jewish folk quartet, singing in Yiddish, about stuff that is quite explicitly critical of the Israeli security state.
But sure, on the other hand, we have not gone out of our way to seek out agit-prop, left-leaning bands. And Chumbawumba just wouldn't ever take our calls.
If someone locally, over all these years, had wedded explicitly 'political' lyrics to music that turned our crank, we would have embraced it for sure. There is nothing about the way any of our vocal artists sing and compose songs that is aesthetically incompatible with overt or polemically 'leftist' words.
Perhaps we’re just drawn to more subtle lyrical styles. There's definitely abundant politics in Frankie Sparo lyrics, but it ain't Billy Bragg (no disrespect to Mr. Bragg of course). Shellac can be thought of as an 'agit' band lyrically, and if a group mining similar territory (but not derivatively of course) were to have emerged from Montreal we’d have been all over that. Fugazi, The Ex, Dog Faced Hermans all come to mind as music-makers that musically slay us, with lyrics to boot.
In controlled doses, balls-out sloganeering works pretty well in screamo hardcore, but probably Constellation would pass, if for no other reason than that, sometimes, we do actually dissuade overtures from bands we really like because we feel the label might hinder more than help them. That's a whole other discussion – that sometimes the label feels it has to respect certain limits imposed by its core audience and or by the distribution networks it has cultivated.
PB: Especially back in the Nineties, would it be anything near the mark to say a roster of largely instrumental bands WAS a political statement?
CST: No, Constellation really did not set out to (and did not) foster an instrumental roster. Is it possible to make a political statement unintentionally on the level you're suggesting? Maybe.
Perhaps 'personal' music politics, in the sense of band hierarchies, rejections of standard forms, and musicians' previous experiences in groups with different internal power structures would be more relevant. Insofar as instrumental rock groups, however different aesthetically, might have shared some common thread of dissatisfaction with conventional forms or the internal politics of previous group configurations and songwriting dynamics (not that we’re saying this was the case with the members of early Constellation bands – we honestly don't know one way or the other) then maybe the additive political sensibilities of these players helped inform and shape the label in certain ways.
But again, we’re not suggesting a political 'result' for the label derived from the formal aesthetics of the music. More from how the personalities of the participating musicians fed into other aspects of 'behind-the-scenes' administrative or organizational discourse around the label.
PB: Clearly you have had to make some compromises along the way; was allowing your product to be sold by Amazon or iTunes galling? I can imagine selling digital product must be pretty annoying, given the efforts you go to with packaging.
CST: From the time digital music was in its infancy, we've lobbed many bricks, from many angles, at its shiny facade.
We refused to engage for as long as we could, until we realised that a big ugly McMansion had been built behind that facade and much of what would pass for the future of the record business was likely to take place behind its doors.
We came to the conclusion that we were unfairly holding our artists hostage to our politics. For about a year-and-a-half, we built our own tiny network, figuring if people want to buy our records as MP3s, they can seek them out at a handful of small independent digital shops. This amounted to essentially nothing. Sadly, and somewhat shockingly, online digital distribution and sales is far more dominated by the 'major players' than physical retail. This still frankly baffles us – why not hit an indie site like Insound or Zunior or Fina and give them your digital business? But there it is – people mostly go to the places that are built-in and/or branded, i.e. iTunes, Amazon.
Honestly, at this point it's hard to muster any feelings at all about the digital side of things – the domain is just so utterly apolitical and abstract to us, through and through. To the extent there are conscious consumers considerate enough to actually pay for digital music, truly and without a speck of irony we salute you, no matter who you buy from. It is a tremendous help to our artists and to our core vocation, which is making tangible physical audio packages with lots of love and care. If a digital revenue stream can help us keep serving up quality physical albums for those who continue to care about such frivolity, that's great.
And ultimately we do accept that MP3s work for some people as a preferred format (assuming they are willing to pay for a format in the first place). There are sound environmental reasons for it, and not everyone wants, has room for, or can afford a stereo – which is where the undeniable aesthetic strengths of CDs and LPs reside. We have been dragged into the future and we ain't fighting it no more.
PB: I am looking at my copy of Land Of Kush’s (above) Against The Day and seeing a little Canadian flag in the corner; the way I understand it, government funding is available for Canadian bands... is this something you are entirely happy with?
CST: If you're asking whether we agree with state funding of culture in general, the answer is a resounding yes. As with many countries suffering under conservative or neo-liberal governments, such funding in Canada is under sustained attack, and it really is a handful of crumbs that gets pitched at culture, and then mostly if said culture can be justified purely on economic grounds; in other words, our cultural funding agencies are being transformed into export development corporations.
Constellation existed for its entire history without such funding, though we occasionally helped our bands apply directly for recording and touring grants. The Canadian flag you're seeing on the Kush record is a result of having recently qualified for a national program, aimed primarily at assisting record labels in the transition to the bold new digital age! We clearly needed the help.
PB: Angry young left wing firebrands tend to mellow, it has oft been observed. Have you observed this happening to yourselves?)
CST: It has also often been observed that anger and fire tends to dissipate as material wealth accumulates and one begins to more or less exclusively associate with others whose wealth is accumulating. Fortunately for us (and our politics), material wealth remains pretty elusive and scarce in these parts and what we and our peers do get our hands on is mostly been plowed back into keeping our collective endeavours running. That said, we have no doubt mellowed in ways that we can't yet see very clearly, or are in denial about.
But really not much has changed. We've always been focused on sustainability and maintaining a human scale and a human pace. Twelve years in and it’s still just the two of us, plus a trusty warehouse guy and, as of a few years ago, a part-time indie accountant who has also become a great friend. You need to work a lot harder to sell a record these days, and to some degree we've capitulated on the marketing front, greasing those wheels a tiny bit by hiring out to the occasional publicist – no way are we gonna start working the phones in our own office, at this stage in the game. But the big ideas will always be worth a fight.
PB: Can a 12-year-old record company maintain an outsider status indefinitely? I’m not talking about ‘selling out’, but presumably you must be looked to as role-models/elder statesmen/givers of advice by aspirant young indie labels, there must surely be at least SOME sense of responsibility to such labels..?
CST: Status as insider or outsider seems to us to have very little to do with the label's age and everything to do with ongoing practice. Where we might currently sit on that continuum we will leave to the punters, however, we see nothing inherently 'insider' about taking some responsibility for the crop of kids and labels coming behind us. On the contrary, we've often despaired over the relative dearth of like-minded labels and as such, have never refused any request for advice and/or whatever kind of help we can offer, so long as we can at least glean what we consider to be noble intentions behind a project.
In tomorrow's final part, Constellation talk about, y'know, bands on Constellation.
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