15 years: Music business

In honour of The Coast's 15th anniversary, our panel of seasoned experts and promising up-and-comers dish on 15 years of Halifax arts, music, comedy, film and style.

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Like most things in Halifax, the local music business has seen a lot of changes in the past 15 years. Mike Campbell, former MuchMusic VJ and Joel Plaskett's current manager, and David Ewenson, musician and co-founder of Just Friends Records, went down to city mainstay Taz Records to give us the skinny.

So what was the music business in Halifax like in 1993?

Mike Campbell: I moved here in the summer of 1992. I was coming down from MuchMusic, I was still doing the Mike and Mike show and MuchEast. I remember coming from Toronto, which was still basically major-label land, and coming into a scene that was as developed as the Halifax indie-music scene was at the time and thinking, 'I really have to smarten up. I have to start going out, start paying attention to stuff.' It struck me as being a tremendously supportive scene, as opposed to Toronto where it was cutthroat.

David Ewenson: And who's your lawyer...

Campbell: Not only that, but bands undercutting each other. I'd go to shows here, at the Double Deuce and the Pink Flamingo, and as that scene progressed, seeing every band in town at somebody else's show. That struck me as being really unique to Halifax. It was the eye-opening part of 'How could all this be going on here and nobody knows about it?' And the ultimate irony was reading in Harper's Bazaar about the scene here and the whole 'New Seattle' tag and asking people about it and having everybody pissing themselves laughing. So there was also the self-deprecation and nobody within the scene taking it or themselves too seriously, which was refreshing.

Is that the situation today as well?

Ewenson: That sounds a lot like Halifax right now. The majority of people that go out to shows are musicians themselves. You can usually go out to a show and point out this band, this band and this band at everybody's shows. And everybody's just humble in Halifax. The Maritimes are marginalized in general from the rest of the scene so I think everybody that has to drive through New Brunswick to get a tour done just gets it.

Campbell: That hasn't changed---you still have to drive through New Brunswick.

After the whole 'New Seattle' thing, was there a lull in the scene?

Campbell: I don't think anything has changed that radically because, generally speaking, nobody when they're starting out here has any grand illusions that they're going to be giant rock stars. Most of the motives for people getting involved here remain exactly the same. I have seen periods where it's like, 'Who's going to replace the graduating class?'

I can still remember the year the ECMAs were in Halifax and we did the five-and-dime show at the Marquee. That year we had Matt Mays and El Torpedo play, we had Plaskett play, we had The Trews play, I think, Buck 65. Out of that The Trews got a record deal, Matt Mays got a management deal because Louie Thomas had never even seen him before that night. Plaskett got a record deal with Maple, Buck 65 was already in that process. So you graduate that class and then look to the next ones coming...there's tons of great stuff here now.

Ewenson: I find it funny when people start to freak out about venues closing down, because there's always another one that comes up. It happens every few years. If you stick around long enough it levels out. Musicians aren't going to go away---there are new bands starting up every five minutes.

Campbell: The studio facilities are all here and they're getting better and better, too. Now you have real, serious, legitimate places to go and record and you can turn out a record that is as good as anything you're going to hear elsewhere.

Ewenson: People are making vinyl like crazy, too, which is a new thing. Bands are touring like mad---Halifax bands are crisscrossing the country constantly and a lot of people are doing a lot of cool things with their merchandise.

Longevity seemed to be a big part of that first wave of Halifax bands, if not the band still being together, then at least the individual artists.

Ewenson: I hope so. I don't think it's a pressure you put on people because it's not an easy thing to do. But if you love making music and just keep a good head on your shoulders you'll stick with it if it's honest.

I think now, with a lot of musicians around, you'll play in maybe five bands before you find the project where you're all getting along and it's working well and you can really stay sane with it enough to go on tour and make albums together. Some bands will play together for a few years, get some hype and then it breaks apart because some people are going back to school. But you're young. You're 20: Your talent's not going anywhere. In the end it's the music, it's your talent. Bands are getting popular at 40.

Campbell: It's like an athlete in high school or college: Maybe they'll go on to the pros, but most of them don't. It's a shame when the ones that you think have a lot of talent don't. But you talk to the guys in the band and it just doesn't matter that much to them. And they're young. It's really nice when people have talents on all types of levels. Like Andrew Scott from Sloan, who could just as easily make his life as an artist. That's the beauty for him that there isn't that pressure and that allows that band to stay together because it isn't 100 percent necessary to do it.

But there are people who you just know are going to do it, like Mike O'Neill, who has done some of my favourite music in this town. And you're like, 'Well what the hell ever happened to Mike?' Well he's doing sound for Trailer Park Boys and he's got a band with Charles (Austin). Or Super Friendz---that album is two years in the making and they still can't finish it off because people keep writing songs. Some people are cut out to do it and some people just get tired of it. Some people don't like to travel.

Ewenson: It's not surprising that someone who's a songwriter, that loves working on their music, maybe doesn't like being in a bar every month for three nights, unless you're an alcoholic.

Ewenson: What was the first rock show you went to see?

Campbell: I was in grade nine in Catholic school in Belleville, Ontario, and our religion teacher, who was a deacon, packed a bunch of us in the car and drove us to Kingston to go see Chuck Berry and The Guess Who.

Ewenson: Whoa. I saw Bryan Adams in '91, in Revelstoke, BC. It's a town of 9,000 so it was our first traffic jam.

Campbell: Most of our live-music problems in Halifax are just an accident of geography. It costs people money to come here and it cost promoters money to get them here. And again, I blame it on New Brunswick. If New Brunswick had a place where people came out to shows, or had healthy scenes like they do in Halifax, then we wouldn't have a problem. But until that happens we're going to be stuck with this.

---Ian Gormely

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Read the full music business interview here.

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