The Art and Craft of taking indie global
Home to Broken Social Scene, Feist and many more, Kevin Drew and Jeffrey Remedios explain how Toronto’s Arts & Crafts label has survived and thrived over the past decade
A record label can be a thing of great beauty. The best ones, the ones which last the course, have many chapters. There’s the initial wave of enthusiasm, the early successes, the striving to keep everything together, the daily grind, the victors and the vanquished. In the end, you’re left with a catalogue of music, which is the real story.
In the case of Toronto’s Arts & Crafts, their 10-year history mirrors Canada’s magnificent musical momentum over the decade. Since 2003, Arts & Crafts has provided a home for Broken Social Scene, Feist, Stars, Timber Timbre and many more natives, as well as international acts such as Bloc Party, Phoenix and New Buffalo.
It began in 2003 with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew and record label executive Jeffrey Remedios. “It was an amazing time in Toronto for emerging music,” remembers Remedios. “Folks were looking inward for validation pretty much for the first time. Kevin and Brendan [Canning] brought me to hear what was to become You Forgot It In People and I jumped at the chance to work with them.”
For his part, Drew says he was after control. “I had watched so many people progress or regress in their careers for many years. I liked to study why things didn’t work out, and one of the main things was being able to have the power to say no and run your own career how you wanted to.
“Jeffrey wanted to start a label and create a business that could actually work and pay musicians and help musicians make a living. Earlier in my career, I had gone to business school for music, but knew that I wanted to play the creative side and have him play the business side and that’s how we came to fruition.”
Remedios had previously worked with a traditional record label. “I had some strong ideas about how we could work holistically with artists rather than in one of the traditional silos. I asked Kevin if he wanted to be my partner and from that place we could work on all things BSS. I think because he co-owned the company that gave him the confidence to trust in my somewhat crazy ideas.”
Initially, Arts & Crafts largely worked with friends and friends-of-friends, which meant honesty was part of the deal. “It’s very hard to look someone you know in the eye and not pay them,” says Drew. “That was the one thing I really saw in bands, that the splitting of the money always made people crumble.
“Right at the beginning, I had a chat with Chris Murphy from Sloan and I asked him how they stay together, and he said they cut everything equally, so I knew equality was the way to keep things going. I couldn’t in good conscience take more from people I was playing with, touring with, living the same life with and going through the same things with. I think we paid everyone well over the years. Some mistakes were made and people got lost in the cracks, but I hope we did OK overall.”
“You’re supposed to trust friends, so that can give you an edge when you’re working with friends,” adds Remedios. “Nothing builds trust like transparency, paying people well and paying on time. Oh, and third-party legal and accounting. Everyone is still friends 10 years later.”
Some of the accounting advice came from keeping it in the family. Drew calls his father David “the hero of the story” for coming onboard. “He retired right when we were starting to make serious money, and I was tired of getting out the calculator and spreadsheet to figure out what everybody was owed. We needed a business person who could see it from both band side and label side because it was becoming more difficult as the years went on to wear both hats.
“He’d spent 30 years in book distribution and went through a lot of changes, so he learned how to deal with that. Six months after he came on board, he delivered his verdict on the music industry: ‘I thought the book industry was fucked, but this is ridiculous. You guys are fucked!’”
Arts & Crafts was an “ambitious” entity from the start, says Remedios. “The ongoing digital transformation of our world gave us, possibly false, confidence that we could achieve anything. I never felt like there was any ceiling on what level we could take something to. One goal we’ve always had was to take Canadian bands beyond Canada – though it was never success at all costs, it was always work to try and honour the music.”
Drew took inspiration from what was going on down the road in Chicago. “When we started, there was that Thrill Jockey system, where you’d someone like John McEntire as part of five or six bands. That was quite inspiring in terms of what we could do with the musicians we knew. With that comes competition, and that was so healthy back in the day because you were constantly challenging one another. If I miss anything now, I miss that camaraderie of challenge that we had.”
Final question time – what record defines the past decade at Arts & Crafts for them?
“That’s a hard question because it would exclude so many people and would be pointless in terms of how we tried to do things over the years,” says Drew. “I’ve taken a lot of people’s lives into my hands and, sometimes, things haven’t worked out like they should have. I’ve seen a lot of things go unrecognised. For all the power and energy and placements and systems and time, it didn’t happen or work.
“That’s the hardest thing to accept when you run a label – these people come into your life or your friends give you their record and those careers don’t reach the potential that they should.
“You want to find a reason but there is never that one reason – and that’s a complicated feeling for any artist or label. We decided to choose records based on what we loved and what they sounded like, and if the people were prepared to do the work and gamble on us and I think that’s what You Forgot It In People was about from the beginning.”
“I have to say You Forgot It In People ,” says Remedios. “It put us in business and put us on the map. I listened to it the other day and it’s aging well.”