Storm’s a-brewin’

Photo by Chris Smith

Joel Plaskett is coming to town to play a show at the Our Future in Music conference and festival—an event that aims to help musicians make a living making music and chart a course through these tumultuous waters. What better time, then, to pick the Canadian rock icon’s brain about the rapidly changing music industry, and what those changes could mean for musicians, the music, and the fans? Elling Lien caught up with Plaskett by phone.


You’re coming in on Friday to play at the Our Future in Music. I wanted to ask you some questions about the Canadian music business, and what it means to be making a living as a Canadian musician these days.  What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed since you started out in the 90s?

The biggest, most obvious change for anyone trying to make their records and sell them is on the record industry front—that records don’t sell like they used to. Record labels don’t sign bands as readily as they used to. Even if they get excited about things, they’re far more reluctant to throw much money at it, because they’re scared nothing will sell.

With me being in Thrush Hermit we were 18 in ‘93 when all the hype was happening around Halifax. It was a special thing happening in Halifax at the time. There was more record attention here than there would have been normally at that time. We had an American publisher come up when we were 18 and offer us a publishing deal to help us develop, which we took. And that led to a record deal with Elektra, based out of New York in 1996, which gave us a bunch of money to go make a record in Memphis. It allowed us to all pay the bills and play music for a living. We were really lucky.

There was a lot of money for us at that time, and it’s never happened that way again. [laugh] And I feel like I’m making better music and they are more accessible records. This is no slight on Maple [the label he’s on now.] I’m actually much happier in the situation that I’m in—don’t get me wrong. But I’ve tried to get my records released again in the States since then, and it’s hard to find anybody to jump. It’s also that I’m a little less willing to go out and tour for months and months on the idea that something might happen.

I pick my battles a little more now.

Certainly my profile is based in Canada, and things have gotten a lot easier for me in some regards.

What about live music?

I think live music in the Maritimes is as organized and more together than it’s ever been. There are more venues to play, cool festivals happening… It seems like the small towns are more organized for it these days.

“We’re playing Marystown’s Come Home Year? Cool! Where’s that?”

Do you think audiences are more hungry for live music these days?

I don’t know, this may just be me talking out loud, but the feeling I’m getting is that younger audiences are very underestimated by record industry demographic studies. Kids are broader than a lot of people in the industry think. Young people are really open to a broad range of music, and people have grown up in the past ten years with computers in their faces and access to all this music—but the live show is the most authentic exposure.

More interesting stuff could be happening on television—there’s Canadian Idol, which I think reminded people “oh, there can be a live element to it” even if it’s in this pop context, and it’s not great, right? But people see music truly live on TV, and it’s got that kind of energy to it. There’s an indication there’s something ticking, you know what I mean?

You can put teenagers in a room with a really ferocious live performance and they’re like, “this is awesome. I didn’t even know I liked this type of music.”

Like, for example, we played our big Alderney Landing show the other day and the demographic of people that came out was really wide. There were kids and there were families, but it was a big rock and roll show.

Old Man Luedecke opened, but not everyone would say “it’s a big rock and roll show so let’s have this guy on a banjo open it,” right? But I saw him at a  show when he released his record and was like, “This is awesome. How can you not tap your foot to this? I know my fans will like him.”

People are pretty wide open to good music if it’s presented in an honest way in a live scenario. That’s what I think you don’t get when you’re paying attention to music online or to the television or radio. Everything seems more cut and dry.

Do you think live performance is how musicians will make their money? That it’s becoming more of a prime focus?

That’s my experience.

But the live performance is just a little bit freaky though, because when you want to cease touring, or cut it back considerably… Musicians are at the mercy of whether or not there are good shows being organized, venues coming and going… It’s not like the audience is just going to disappear, but it’s also a question of how much time do you want to spend on the road.

It’s a hard lifestyle, because it means being away from your friends and your family and stepping into a bubble for so many months of the year.

Being a musician has always reminded me a little of being in the army. You get this call and you have to go somewhere, be away from friends and family…

It’s funny, I’ve been thinking of it like that. I grew up down in Lunenburg when it was a fishing community—before it was a World Heritage Site—but all the fishermen would go out, and they’d all be out at sea.

“Jim will be back in three weeks,” and he’s gone, then he comes home, then he goes out again. All these people are gone doing this thing, and it has that in common with the music community. Bands go out on tour, and all their friends and family and loved ones are at home.

I still can’t help but feel like, despite the fact I feel like a professional now, I’m pursuing some sort of adolescent fantasy.

Well, aren’t you? [laugh]

But it’s sort of weird in that it’s ceasing to be a fantasy and more reality. And I’m not an adolescent anymore, so it’s trying to retain some sort of sense of who you are that isn’t totally defined by what you do. It’s a hard thing. When you get off the road you can feel kind of useless. But at the same time I don’t want to be defined by always being on the road. I want more in my life besides being inside of clubs and sound checks. It’s a weird thing because it serves your ego too. It can be a satisfying thing, but when that disappears—that daily reminder that what you do is entertaining people—it’s a bit freaky sometimes.

Is there a direction you’d like to see the business head?

I’ll tell you one thing I think is a real drag about the nature of records not selling like they use to. For me, the most unfortunate aspect of it, regardless of the sales dropping off or that there’s not the same sort of money in records for musicians, is that the studio business is declining. A lot of people have home studios now. I mean, I basically set up a thing at home so I can make cool sounding records on my own, but I feel bad for people who are running studios and are trying to create a really cool space for people to go in and make music. The number of bands who can actually afford or justify a month in the studio to make a really cool piece of art is less and less. If it’s going to be listened to as an mp3 on laptop speakers, it’s hard to justify it.

Musicians want people to care that the bass and drums sound slammin’ on a record and to hear the nuances of the music and the dynamic with which the people are playing on the record. That’s all lost over a small set of speakers.

Also the distraction of a screen in front of you is another thing. You’re on MySpace reading comments while you listen to a song. And you’re like ‘I don’t think I’m going to buy this record, I’ll just download it and listen to it on my iPod.’ Suddenly that ability for the band to go into the studio and make a really cool record evaporates.

And it’s not just the expensive gear in the studio, it’s the experience of the people running it…
Yeah, it’s the people running it who care about all that. They’ve dedicated themselves to it. Audio gear is expensive, but then part of it is a really creative thing.

I find it takes three weeks of straight work to make a record in the kind of environment I want to do it. Often it takes longer than that. I think three weeks to a month is what I want to spend if I want to make a record in straight time. Other bands can make it in a week.

Obviously you have to get to a level where you can justify spending that amount of time on it. But I think a lot of bands come and go without proper documentation partly because they’re recording it themselves in the basement and it’s exciting, amazing that people have access to that gear and a lot of cool things happen. But a lot of bands never experience what it’s like to go into an environment tailored to that. Some people are really comfortable in their bedroom making music, but I really feel like that’s something that’s slipping away.

On the other hand, I think live shows are getting better, because bands are coming back to playing live because that’s where they have to make their money.  Yeah, bands might actually be getting better again only because they have to play out more for their bread and butter. Whereas for years that just slipped away. Basically ever since The Beatles could multi-track the idea of playing together …Conversely the thing that’s going to happen is that bands are going to have to get really fucking good to be able to cut a record in like three days in the studio. Maybe it will go right back to the [Mercury] New Orleans Sessions. You know, where everyone cuts live off the floor. That would be wicked. [laugh]

Maybe that’s what will happen because nobody will make a fucking dime from record sales, so they’ll only have five minutes to cut their song.

What do you think about experiments that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have done online—and try to have fans place their own value on their mp3s.

Well, you know, I think it’s sort of brilliant in the current climate in terms of just drawing attention to themselves. Whatever moral or aesthetic decision they had, they’re also doing something that’s pretty cool that you can talk about.

But aside from that, I think it makes sense. The sort of weird thing is I think people justify their downloading and stuff by saying ‘record labels have screwed over bands for years anyway.’ That’s how many people justify it in their minds, but the weird thing is, you know, most people I’ve met at labels, I like.

No doubt labels can be gross, but I think by downloading, ultimately you’re still ripping off bands. Or at least denying compensation.

People also say “I go to the live shows and support them,” or “I buy the record at live shows.” And that’s changing the nature of it. So what you’re going to see as a result is that corporations are not going to have the money. They don’t give out in advance. No band is going to have $50,000 to make a record in a studio. To get a producer and go into a studio is five or six hundred dollars a day, for a reasonable studio rate. Ten days in a studio costs six grand, so if you want to spend thirty days there, and then you want to hire a producer and tape, and pay the musicians who are playing on it a union rate or whatever, that’s not cheap.

But imagine how many records you’d have to sell now. You’re only selling a few thousand.

Do people buy more of your records at your shows?

I sell a lot at shows, especially when the record first comes out, but I still sell a lot in stores. And the online stuff has picked up as well. I don’t really know the numbers. All I know is the perception of how many records I sold is always higher than what I sold. People were like ‘you must be selling 50,000 records.’ You know I’ve never sold 50,000 records in my life—with any disc. It took me years and years to hit 10,000 sales of any one disc.

They might have to lower the requirements for Platinum and Gold records…

The things that sell are the Canadian Idol records… So there is a hype machine that still sells records to kids, but in that case, Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer. [Note: For the US at least, Walmart is actually the second biggest—iTunes became the biggest music retailer just this February.]

Or Costco.

Yeah! Costco. Weird. I love walking into a record store and asking them what they’re listening to lately and picking up a cool record on a recommendation. Like if you go in and say “I really like this, what do you suggest?”

At Wal-Mart it would be like “I’m not sure where that section is.”

“I really like Christina Aguilera.” “Could I suggest a BBQ to go with that record? A really cheap BBQ and some toilet paper maybe?”

And underwear!

And anything else you could possibly need.

Ah, it’s so easy to complain.

Funny to mention this right away, but you had a song licensed to play in the Zellers commercial—”Nowhere with you.” Do you think musicians should be trying more actively to license their music?
Licensing is everywhere. Silence is golden now… Every fucking moment in your day needs to have a soundtrack!

But having said that, it’s good for musicians in that there are all these little licensing opportunities. Commercials are a bit different, I think, probably because there’s more money depending on what the commercial. But with television, there are really small amounts of money for background licenses and stuff. So and so has such and such a song on Degrassi. …Some little amount of money to put your song in the background.

Movies and commercials go up but then the budgets on everything are starting to creep down because there’s such a glut of bands. Because everyone is recording on their laptops and listening on rinky-dink setups everyone can make a decent recording on a ProTools set up at home—which is cool, but there’s such an insane glut of music out there.

I think a lot of bands, or people just create music with the idea of music supervisors or whatever. Because the sound of indie records and music has been co-opted—you hear it everywhere now. Whispy, female vocals on a little beat pretty much describes any Jetta ad these days. Every sound of every kind of music is now out there in commercial use, depending on what demographic they’re targeting. You have as good a chance as the next guy at getting your music purchased for licensing. But it’s kind of weird, you know? It’s definitely changed. I’ve had a number of licenses now just for small stuff. But it all adds up to what contributes to making a living. It’s helping supplement what used to be record sales. It’s an okay thing.

How about ring tones?

That’s huge. There’s a lawyer that used to work with me from L.A. who ceased doing music law—in terms of negotiating stuff for bands—partly because there’s way less money in it than there used to be. It’s a different story if you’re going to negotiate an advance of two thousand dollars or two hundred dollars. If you’re a lawyer trying to get paid out of that… So he started chasing cell phone companies for stuff over in Asia.

It’s a weird thing to me. People can say ‘I like this, and it’s something I can have on my phone immediately’. And you know what? It’s like the nature of pop music, and I don’t really have a problem with it. But it’s weird how much the technology is affected the art.

The only thing that stays the same is you getting into a van and going somewhere and putting on a show. For me it’s trying to create a different show every night or to live in the moment on stage. Even if you’re playing the same songs. It’s trying to embody them in a different way, so if people come, they experience something, and they want to come again because they realize they’re not going to see the same thing twice. The songs take on a life outside of whatever the recorded medium is. Because for that recorded medium, these days, the only way it’s going to pay for itself is if people come out and sing those songs right back at you at a live show. That’s exciting—but it’s also a shit load of work. So you take it as part of the job.

In no industry—no matter if you’re a miner, or fisherman, or if you’re drilling oil—in what universe do you have job security anymore? So ours is no different and I feel it’s as secure as any.
People will always want to be entertained, no matter what’s going on.

The Joel Plaskett Emergency will perform at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on August 15th, 7:30, as part of the Our Future in Music conference and festival. Damhnait Doyle is also performing. Tickets are available in advance for $35/$27/$20. Call the box office at 729-3900 or toll free 1-800-663-9449. Visit www.­ourfutureinmusic.org or check our listings to find info on more concerts, workshops, and forums. Our Future in Music runs from August 15-24.

Hear some audio clips from our interview with Joel here.

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