Major Label Debut: Kevin Drew and 10 Years of Arts & Crafts
When Kevin Drew co-founded Arts & Crafts, his label was intended simply as a way to get out the music of his band, Broken Social Scene. Now, ten years later, Drew gives PopMatters an unflinching look at the ups and downs of running one of the most influential labels out there today.
Here's a little known fact about Broken Social Scene leader Kevin Drew: he is unflinchingly honest.
Back in 2009, I had caught the Most Serene Republic at a gig in Salt Lake City, Utah. This venue was so small, in fact, that there's an honest-to-goodness pit campfire not too far from the main stage. There, I was talking to the group, who are very much an anomaly in the history of Arts & Crafts, the label Drew co-founded that soon served as a home for almost all of the individual acts that make up the collective known as Broken Social Scene, including Stars, Feist, Jason Collett, Apostle of Hustle, Dan Mangan, and more. The Most Serene Republic were the first group signed to the label that weren't related to Broken Social Scene in any way, shape, or form. Their music stood out.
The guys are gathered around the campfire on a cold Utah night and they tell me of the time shortly after the release of their 2005 debut album for Arts & Crafts, Underwater Cinematographer, when they were working on the abstract mutant hybrid-pop that would turn out to be Phages. It was pop-oriented but still extremely distant to the average listener, and the Arts & Crafts label guys weren't sure what to make of it. The band themselves weren't even sure if it was an album or an EP or what. Apparently, at some point, Kevin Drew comes around, and it's obvious that he's rather stoned. He listens to the music, quite likes it, and as the band told me, "it practically came out the next day."
When I asked Kevin Drew about this story, he bluntly says that he has no memory of that specific incident, but when it came to running Arts & Crafts, that story only illustrates Drew -- as label head -- had the ability to make judgment calls like that, and while every decision may not have resulted in a commercial success, they very much resulted in the release of some quality music that would likely not see the light of day on any other label.
This aesthetic, as well as Drew's personal history in running this minor media empire, is all summed up nicely by the release of Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013, an epic label retrospective that features one disc of some of A&C's most well-known songs and a separate disc of unreleased material, with contributions pouring in from the likes of Broken Social Scene, Stars, Feist, Los Campesinos!, Amy Millan, Ra Ra Riot, Apostle of Hustle, and yes -- The Most Serene Republic.
"You caught me off guard," Drew says, talking about how he wasn't really prepared to talk about the Most Serene Republic, a group that he fondly refers to as "our first band outside the family." He tried to get them to swing by some of the 10th anniversary concerts the label is conducting, but wasn't able to, partially due to one of the members having just joined the Canadian Army, but more because the band doesn't seem to have an official home at A&C anymore. He speaks of the band in the past-tense, at times, with a hint of sadness in his voice, noting how 'I hear they're making new music -- I hope they are."
While the label has certainly housed more commercially successful acts than TMSR, the way the group wound up getting into the fold proved to be somewhat typical of Drew's approach to running the label: almost entirely by gut instinct. "I was staying over at Torquil Campbell's for a few days, and we were listening to promos that Jeffrey [Remedios, A&C's co-founder] wanted to work with. I heard The Most Serene Republic's Underwater Cinematrographer and instantly fell in love with it." The rest, as they say, was history.
"We never had A&R," Drew explains, bypassing typical label conventions. "If we liked the music, we worked with it." In fact, being the label's co-founder, he could sometimes have a whole year of unconventional releases. "It was 2009 I believe when we released discs by Timbre Timbre, Apostle of Hustle, Chikita Violenta. I said to the [label] guys 'Let's have an arty year!' It was my favorite year, but we didn't make a lot of money. [laughs]"
So while the label didn't make bank with every release they put out ("I wish some things did better than they did," he sighs), there was one distinguishing mark to every A&C release: "We've never put out anything we haven't loved." He talked about how whenever he brought in a new group into the fold, he was reminded on a particular quote he heard passed around: "Don't be worried about getting paid: worry about being paid attention to." Of course, Drew always felt that Arts & Crafts artist shouldn't have to choose between the two: they should be receiving both. This is why he viewed Arts & Crafts as a home for these acts, and when it came to those artists getting the recognition they deserved, as a label, Drew notes that "this is a goal that we've reached a lot."
Yet when the conversation turns to some of the other label politics he's had to deal with, Drew's mood changes, speaking openly and honestly about some of the frustrations he's had, first and foremost being in a highly-regarded rock band that is constantly on tour. "We're out on the road, and it is a war." Does this sometimes mean that he got caught up in more "band business" than "label business"? "Even with Broken Social Scene," he notes, "you just follow the system. We're out on the road six months out of the year -- you just got to stay on top of things. I really wish I could've checked in on [those other bands] mental health."
In fact, as a label head, he's had to have some of those difficult conversations with individual acts as well: "I've had moments with bands where Arts & Crafts hasn't worked for them. You take that home with you. You take it to bed with you! [laughs]"
Sometimes, like in The Most Serene Republic's or Stars' case, they've built up enough public goodwill that they can safely move to another label without any issue ("You should just put it out yourself. You got your own fanbase," he told TMSR). Other times, he has to go to meetings to talk about the marketing strategy for whatever new release is on the horizon, and while assuredly not bitter, Drew is familiar with the usual label go-rounds, even at the label he himself has started: "The word 'hopefully' gets tossed around in so many meetings about labels and marketing plans. I only go to about eight meetings a year 'cos I'm on the road a lot, but that's the word you always hear: 'hopefully.'"
At times, that transition between bandleader and label head could be jarring, if not absolutely overwhelming. "I wear many hats, and you corner yourself when you take on too much. You have to reach out to other people. I reached out to my father after he retired to help out, to take some of those hats, and it is so great to have someone here that you could trust 100%."
That trust the people you bring on board is extremely important to have, and Drew himself has noted that dealing in something as ever-evolving as the music industry can sometimes be a challenge. "It is a ridiculous, ridiculous industry," he vents. "It's all based on money and funding." Even at Arts & Crafts, people can feel the pressure. "Staffers go from having one job to having two jobs to having three jobs to having four." As for his own role in managing all of that, he notes how "one of the hardest things is making sure that everyone is comfortable with their job description."
Yet even with all of the publicity efforts that go into the sheer variety of releases the label gets to put out every year, Drew notes how there are certain things that simply can't be discussed as part of a marketing strategy: "the thing is that you can't go into a kid in St. Louis' bedroom and hear how he's experiencing an album. When I was touring the States I would go into record stores and people would keep coming up to me about Gentlemen Reg. I would go back to him and say 'people are loving it!' It's not something that you can just present to people."
I note how I saw a humorous Tweet a bit ago that was along those lines, saying something along the lines of "how can you get excited for new music when there's like 70,000 albums you haven't heard this year alone?" Drew chuckles at this and agrees: "Exactly. That's exactly it. Everyone keeps telling me to check out this band and that band and they're usually fine, but there's still nothing like those times in high school when you go to a basement party and just stumble upon something amazing."
Yet that's almost exactly how Arts & Crafts started: that loose connection of friends that just wanted to make music. Drew even gets a bit wistful in noting that "there was a lot of camaraderie at the beginning. Yeah, 2003-2006 -- those were good years." While he does note that the people running the label now are some of the best he's ever seen, he's proud of the direction the label has taken in recent years, having "veered away from 'big sounding bands' and more towards singer-songwriter releases."
So what would he say are his biggest successes in Arts & Crafts first decade of existence? "Putting out albums by Broken Social Scene and stars Stars, putting Feist out in Canada and her bringing her label people here. Jason Collett, Apostle of Hustle." You can hear it in Drew's voice: this list of acts he's proud of is never-ending. While sometimes the label pressures may get to him, he is proud of every single note that has ever been played from a release with the humble A&C logo on it. His bones are positively soaked to the marrow in music, and talking about those albums he's helped usher into the world makes him absolutely radiate with joy.
"It was our plan that we wanted to keep it in our crowd," he says, talking about the whole philosophy behind the label. When it came to put together the disc of unreleased material for Arts & Crafts: 2003-2013, "we have so much unreleased material not on the album." While he did mention how fans could expect two new Kevin Drew albums in the near-future (one solo, one a collaborative effort with the Canadian "Rock Me Gently" crooner Andy Kim), looking back at 10 years only made Drew think of one thing: "the underline within it is the music," referring to how whether the record was a massive hit under Feist's name or a little-heard alt-rock gem from the likes of Still Life Still, there is nothing Kevin Drew would rather be doing than putting out the music of his friends and the people he admired. Broken Social Scene may be the mark of his own personal legacy, but the many careers that Arts & Crafts may have launched may prove to outlive even that.
Here's to another 10, Kevin.