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Decade in review: music scene, not a machine

While major labels spent the decade playing catch-up with the evil internet, the tight-knit Halifax music community kept a steady beat, coming out stronger and louder than ever.


Ten years is an awfully long period of time to cover, at least in the life of the average Halifax musician. Because of our diverse scene, turnover is high---Halifax could be named the call centre of Canadian music scenes. From the end of the 1990s' "new Seattle" to a new mecca for weird punk, local music has seen its share of changes, echoing what happens internationally in our own organic way.

In the last decade, major labels have fallen out of favour as bands are doing it for themselves, small labels are taking things down the bare bones, old festivals have expanded and new festivals cropped up, catering to genres that, once on the fringes of the last decade, now take centre stage. Downloading is ubiquitous and, more recently, so is a resurgence of vinyl and cassettes. Local music has come out on top of 2009 and remained stronger for it.

Darcy Spidle runs Divorce Records and Divorce Distro, and puts on the OBEY Convention, a festival that showcases experimental music and has just celebrated its third year.

"Since I moved here in the mid-'90s, I've thought Halifax was a great place to start out, and it's a great place to stay if you don't mind big drives. That being said, many people I know end up moving to Montreal," says Spidle. "I can understand the need to seek larger audiences, and if I was focused on being a working musician, I'm sure I'd have considered the option of moving. But I have tailored my involvement with music to allow myself to stay here."

There are a lot of reasons things work here: A plethora of universities and a provincial cultural importance placed on music, which translates to government money. The need to fill a gap left by a lack of touring bands only adds to our propensity to entertain ourselves.

Mat Dunlap and Dave Ewenson run Just Friends Records and host Let's Get Baked with Mat and Dave, a syndicated radio cooking show that features interviews with local and internationally touring bands. They cite community involvement as one of the reasons the local scene shines.

"Halifax seems like good dude/dudette central. We have a lot of community all-stars that start up festivals, like OBEY or In the Dead of Winter, labels, cool music nights, like $Rockin 4 Dollar$, or make movies," says Ewenson. "Those are the people that make the scene grow."

"I think that since there is less of a major label presence in music a lot of people are starting projects in the spirit of having fun, and being creative or different than a lot of what is happening in the mainstream," says Dunlap. "It's not like people have a lot of money to throw around in Halifax. Some of the bigger cities get more regular attention so a band can make a big splash even though they haven't had to stray that far away from home. In Halifax you have to do a lot more to grab the attention of some of the more major media, and you definitely have a lot further to go for touring."

To say the Halifax scene is tightly knit is putting it mildly. Try "incestuous" and you're on the right track. Our geographical location means a lot of people are more likely to stay put rather than make the trek to Montreal, and less bands from away are likely to play here at all. Baby got put in the corner---but she found a few friends and started 17 bands, a label and a festival.

"One group of bands/artists tends to spawn the next, and so on. You can trace a lot of bands back a decade or two either through their influences or members. Crazy," says Spidle. "And Halifax kids that are into music grow up in such a rich band culture. The scene propels itself, but there's a strong infrastructure as well---hard-working labels and festivals, CKDU, CBC, live venues, support from the local media, et cetera," says Spidle. "On top of all that, the internet has afforded bands the tools to record, book tours, release albums and generally spread the word on what they are doing. The effects of the DIY internet revolution are probably especially important to artists in remote centres like Halifax."

Waye Mason has been a part of the musical landscape of Halifax since starting No Records Distro. He now teaches at NSCC and is director of the Halifax Pop Explosion.

"I have spent my whole adult life working in music in Halifax, working collaboratively to build a scene and an industry," says Mason. "Two decades ago, it was a stupid idea to not move away and there were no nationally known bands from here---that were not Celtic or folk---and now there are over a dozen well-known and dozens up-and-coming. I feel proud to be a part of it. I think Halifax has a lot of small genre-based scenes that are able to co-exist and cooperate and make music, and it helps make it really exciting to create here."

Sure, it might be a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to living and working in Halifax, but Mason puts it plainly: "When has it ever been easy to make a living in music anywhere?" He stands by the fact that you have to treat it like any job. "You have to be doing it 24/seven/365 to break out and become a full-time, national and internationally viable band."

At least living on a peninsula in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean hasn't stopped us from participating in the fury for vinyl like any other big city in the past 10 years.

Divorce Distro deals primarily with vinyl and Spidle waxes (ha) poetic about the reasons behind this shift. "I think people are finding that there is more to music than just a file in your computer," he says. "Cassettes and vinyl bring craft and art back into the equation. You just end up with such a collectible item and hell, analogue just sounds so good."

"It's different and interesting," says Ewenson. "Plus, what are you going to sell at shows these days? CDs? Gross."

"I think with home recording being a lot easier now there are just a lot of people putting out recordings that aren't exactly full-length records, so people are just having a bit more fun with how they present that material," says Dunlap.

There is also a cultural commitment to music on the east coast. Mason mentions "Nova Scotia's support for music, both festivals like Celtic Colours, Halifax Pop Explosion, Lunenburg Folk Harbour and Harmony Bazaar, and the government programs and Music Nova Scotia all have created a wonderful and unique incubator and support system for all sorts of genres of music."

Josh Hogan, who is vocalist for Orchid's Curse and runs Diminished Fifth Records, echoes Mason's opinion. "The one huge advantage we have in Nova Scotia is having an organization like Music Nova Scotia," he says, "who works so hard to help out the music community."

Diminished Fifth got into the music industry about four years ago ("pretty much the worst time to enter into the volatile market"). Hogan started the label out of necessity in 2006, when Orchid's Curse was preparing to release its debut album: "I quickly realized there was little to no support for the metal community anywhere in Atlantic Canada."

D5R has more than remedied this situation. Since its inception, the label has garnered distribution in Canada (Sonic Unyon/Universal), USA/Mexico (Relapse) and United Kingdom/Ireland (Code7/PHD), won an ECMA (2009 Loud Recording of the Year for Iron Giant), have two more albums nominated for Loud Recording this year (Black Moor and We, the Undersigned) and are nominated for Record Label of the Year.

"Like it or not the industry has changed and is still continually changing," says Hogan. "I, for one, feel like it is changing for the better because even though there are less big bands, there are way more bands/musicians pursuing their passion in music."

Because of the commitment of people like Mason, Spidle, Dunlap, Ewenson, Hogan and hundreds more, Halifax perseveres. Having faith in the community we've made, and enthusiasm for DIY style has given the Halifax scene the backbone to remain at the forefront of creativity and retain its vibrancy.

"Halifax really is great and there is no reason to leave," says Dunlap. "Life is easy. With such a small community, it makes it pretty easy to do what we do without being thrown to the wolves."

Stephanie Johns is The Coast's Scene and Heard columnist.

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