An Open Letter To Canada's Music Industry and Grant System: Why Does Metric, MSTRKRFT and 'Well-Funded Mediocrity' Get All The Support?...
By Greg Ipp, Unfamiliar Records
Before I begin, I know this is going to upset some people, and I know it won’t exactly improve my chances of success in this industry. However, please remember that I am speaking in general terms, about things that are happening not necessarily because of specific people, but because of systems and guidelines that are in place. I know there are some really nice folks working in our grant offices; hey, I’ve even met some! But the general sentiment here still rings true, regardless of the individuals who are doing good work.
Over the last five years I have poured countless hundreds of hours, and spent many tens of thousands of dollars on developing a small, independent Canadian record label. We’ve had some great success, and I’d never ask for a penny or an hour back. However, as the inner workings of the industry become more transparent, and as my personal debt mounts, the process is becoming increasingly frustrating.
Prior to launching the label, one aspect of the industry I’d heard so much about were grants: The government’s desire to help Canadian artists by providing funding to help them achieve international success. Enthusiastically, we made applications to VideoFACT (who are not a government entity) and to FACTOR, and waited expectantly for help in providing our artists with the kind of support they deserve. Over the years, that support has never materialized; for all the applications submitted, we have only ever received a couple thousand dollars to partially cover showcase travel expenses for one of our bands.
We have received great reviews for our releases from the likes of Pitchfork, The Toronto Star, Spin, NME, NPR, The Georgia Straight, NOW, Eye, The Onion, KEXP, Rolling Stone, and countless blogs—but that really hasn’t seemed to matter. Nor has the quality of our applications, which have been submitted through top-notch grant writers. Nor has our desire to pour just about every ounce of our energy into our bands; to sweat blood in an effort to garner some notice from the Canadian establishment for our roster.
So today, as I looked over the latest round of VideoFACT grants, I was struck by a thought that has cycled through my head on so many occasions: Why the hell are these bands getting the money? Metric? They have now received two successive video grants in the last three months—one from FACTOR, the other from VideoFACT, for a total of about $60,000. On top of this, they have received various other grants, and have sold over 50,000 units of their new album. MSTRKRFT, who work out of their very own recording studio, and have how many videos now? Dragonette?!
The list was made up primarily of bands under the wing of well-funded labels with cash to spare, or who are already old enough to no longer need the training wheels—and it’s no secret that many of these bands are known to produce music of dubious value. What kills me is the ability these bands have to market themselves as a result of receiving funding.
It’s a testament to their marketing teams that their music sells; it’s not a result of making great music. A good deal of a band’s ability to sell music is based on image and exposure, and in order to achieve either you need money (or, in rare cases, luck, or in even rarer cases, talent—which must still be coupled with luck). What we see here is money buying sales. And money begetting more exposure, which in turn drives sales, which – combined with face-time – will woo the judges (and critics) who drive these contests.
That’s right, face time. Over the years, I have had one too many industry insiders tell me I had to “get to know the judges” in order to win; at this point, I can’t discount that as being a key ingredient in securing grants. It’s been suggested I take one of them out to dinner. Go have coffee. Basically, pander to them; suck up; get myself in their faces so they know who I am, so our bands can “earn” the right to have them as benefactors. Sure, that’s how the industry often works in terms of your reviews, your covers, your shows, and even getting signed, but the Canadian grant system? How sad. How gross.
Here I was thinking we had a chance as a wholly independent record label who has fought tooth and nail for every bit of press we’ve been lucky enough to receive. But – even though our overhead is extraordinarily low – we’ve had to turn to private funding from investors in order to keep the ship running. We have the ability to break even, we can even turn a profit, but every penny of our money must go back into the label, because we need to grow; we need to run as a start-up. Paying ourselves is impossible. So those of us steering the label work multiple jobs, and don’t sleep in order to make it happen. That said, it’s only a matter of time before we either sell ourselves to someone much bigger, or pack it up.
That $60,000 Metric received? We could have released a years worth of albums with that money. That’s right, a year’s worth—with great people working the press, with a few videos, and with some form of tour support. There you have six bands who could have potentially launched careers, or two music videos for a band who really doesn’t need the government paying their way.
The state of the Canadian music industry is at once great, and terrible. There are amazing independent labels working their asses off to put out solid music. Guys like Flemish Eye, and Global Symphonic, and Constellation. But there is also this vast mass of well-funded mediocrity that dominates our Polaris Prize, that taints our Junos, and that completely blankets the MMVAs. Wouldn’t it be great if our grant system were there to allow the black sheep to shake things up? To supply the necessary funding that a well-deserving, if unknown talent needs in order to compete, without the help of an entity already known to the judges? The status quo is maligning our industry, and lining the pockets of those who are willing to play the game.
UPDATE: Metric manager responds…