JAIMIE VERNON – SUPPLY AND (LACK OF) DEMAND

As the line between art and commerce continues being eroded by divested corporate interests in the form of major record labels (BMG, EMI, SONY, UNIVERSAL, WARNER) that control that art, word came last week that digital media manufacturing giants CINRAM have filed for bankruptcy. To the layman the immediate reaction is “Who?”. To those in the music industry this announcement is more ominous portents of an inevitable music apocalypse.


Once upon a time music was manufactured in-house in giant secret warehouses supervised and controlled by the head offices of record labels themselves. The first vinyl pressing plants in Canada were RCA Records’ in Smith Falls, Ontario, Decca, plus Sparton Records (who were pressing product for Columbia as far back as 1939) and Regal (pressing for Capitol Records) both in London, Ontario to accommodate the need for big band 78 RPMs and the future explosion of the new-fangled 7” format in the early 1950s. As Canada wasn’t yet a major label haven – and merely had sub-contracted satellite offices taking directives from their US counterparts – soon other pressing plants slowly started popping up around Canada and took solace in providing service to intrepid independent labels or artists with enough money to afford their own vanity pressings. It’s the reason many Canadian record releases in the 1950s and 1960s were limited to less than 500 copies – turning those very releases into golden collectibles 50 years later.

As the majors slowly committed to setting up permanent outposts lock, stock and barrel in Canada during the late 1960s, the need for having their own pressing plants became a necessity especially at the dawn of the CanCon legislative era post-1971. Everyone was getting on board the Canadian Content train, signing every conceivable act from PEI to Victoria which meant records were being cranked out at an extra-ordinary rate. For every twenty vinyl singles being punched out in plants around the country, only one or two might actually make it on the radio. It was the dawn of a new business model in an untried territory and music was being distilled like so many donuts at Tim Horton’s – creating the illusion of an artificial demand. More than half of everything cranked out in those early days became promotion only and destined for delete bins or returned to the manufacturer and ground up into re-useable pellets to help with the pressing of even more records.

The meat and potatoes of the labels was still manufacturing international hit records domestically –  a sound business decision as it saved shipping costs from the US especially in the pre-NAFTA days. But it soon made sense to run the plants as separate money-making entities where labels like CBS and Capitol could lease out press time to independent manufacturers like Canadian Custom Records, Ahed Music, and others. By the 1980s, the smaller independent pressing plants like World, Impact, Pickwick and others were squashed by the majors (and on occasion, their facilities were taken over or their presses bought outright). Today, the Pickwick offices in Ajax still stand as a storage facility – and a place where I get the snail mail for this very column delivered to a private mailbox.

The domination of the major label owned pressing plants naturally became problematic for independent record makers as press time – though available – was severely limited. My own label had one album bounced for three months by the CBS Records plant in Don Mills, Ontario during the lead-up to Christmas 1987 because Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ album was being run non-stop from September to November 1987.  In fact, CBS couldn’t keep up with demand and had to enlist the use of pressing plants owned by other labels.  Our album didn’t make it onto the presses until February 1988!!

By this time the compact disc had already made its debut in North America (it had been debuted in Europe years before). The labels were gun shy about investing in new manufacturing technology and many of the early discs were imported – first from the original Phillips plant in Germany, and then from one of the test Beta plants in the US.

It wasn’t long before the labels in Canada made the transition and phased out vinyl manufacturing altogether leaving vanity pressings once again in the hands of new independent pressing companies. CBS became SONY in Canada at the dawn of the 1990s and their Don Mills plant was refit to accommodate the latest digital advances in CD and DVD manufacturing. Similarly, Capitol-EMI did the same at their American Drive facility in Mississauga. On occasion my label worked with both companies in getting CDs made (in fact, we used EMI exclusively from 2000 to 2001), but I preferred a personal touch and through a wonderful broker named Joe Wood at RDR we were making product through independent Americ-Disc in Quebec for the majority of our releases. When Americ-Disc went bust the broker switched to the other “kid” in town: CINRAM who had a significant market share in digital media manufacturing globally that rivaled the major labels. The success of their independent clients around the world made it possible to set up plants in dozens of densely populated music markets.  Canada’s homebase was on Markham Road in Scarborough east of Toronto proper. That plant was soon operating 24/7 and as the Napster era kicked in and CD sales were beginning to affect sales by the major labels, one-by-one each of the labels decided to sell off their manufacturing assets (SONY’s was the last to go only a few years ago). One by one CINRAM became the on-demand pressing facility for the major labels. That service soon expanded to warehousing inventory as well and CINRAM soon moved their over-flow warehouse from Finch Avenue to a spanking new 400,000 sq. ft. depot on McNicoll Avenue. Having dealt with EMI again shortly before my label went under, I was privy to a tour of the facility. It holds ALL the inventory of the remaining five major labels and several movie studios. It’s an entire city block long.

So, CINRAM has filed for bankruptcy protection. A new investor has offered to take over the business and its inherent debt. But if that fails to fly (like the Chapter 13 failure of Tower Records in the US several years ago), that leaves the labels and their ability to manufacture their short runs of CD and DVD product in serious jeopardy. I scoffed at the rumour that the labels would stop making CDs by the end of this year…but I failed to predict this unforeseen monkey wrench that may force it to happen prematurely. No matter how this pans out more jobs will be lost and that erosion of art will continue right into 2013.

DISCOVERY
As I emphasized last week in this column, independent product – which is still manufactured in this country through brokers like Duplium, MMS, Indiepool and RDR (all highly recommended as I’ve used all four over the last 15 years) – will continue to release product in a physical format for as long as there is a demand. Here’s some new stuff you should be checking out and supporting:

J. DAVID BAND – “The Twilight In Between”
Vancouver act the J. David Band’s “The Twilight In Between” has been a difficult one to digest not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s one of those rare collections of songs that appear one way on first listen but reveals hidden layers on repeated listens. It’s also a bit deceptive. The disc opens with a radio-friendly ‘hit’ called “Be Right Now” with multi-instrumentalist and singer J. David doing his best Josh Groban meets John Mayer being backed by Matchbox 20 pop ditty. There’s hooks a plenty. http://youtu.be/ot7vjHRlmc8
But I had to do a double take on track 2, “Take Me Down”, as David drops out of falsetto and into full-on moody man voice. This track sets the tone for the remainder of the album and puts David’s vocal into its appropriate context – somewhere between Grapes of Wrath singer Tom Hooper and England’s Nik Kershaw. “Overrated” and “The Twilight In Between” shine as the pace setters here – mid-tempo 1990’s Brit-pop with equal parts Stone Roses, Coldplay and Radiohead. We’re then abruptly, and pleasantly, tossed a curveball with the new country-shuffle of “Walking On”. Another twist follows with the SEAL-like “Peace of Mind” as hinted at with the earlier “Hold On” – it’s less like SEAL’s vocal approach and more about the Trevor Horn-like elements in the production style…atmospheric and dynamic. And just for kicks check out the opus “Bones of America” that dips its toe into 21st Century alt-rock. It will be interesting to see which of these musical paths the J. David Band – which includes Justin Brown (bass) and Tobi Duquette (drums) – will take on their next release and what sound audiences gravitate toward.
http://www.JDavidBand.com

THE WELL WISHERS – “Dreaming of the West Coast”
The Well Wishers – a nom de plume for singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist  Jeff Shelton – is a San Francisco Bay Area ‘band’ whose ‘Dreaming of the West Coast’ is album #6 since Shelton left The Spinning Jennies and cranked out two back-to-back records on Not Lame Records in 2004/2005. The songwriting and production continues to get better as Shelton’s pallet widens and he brings in the help of fellow Spinning Jennies drummer Nick Laquinto on a majority of the tracks. There’s plenty of 12-string Rickenbacker power pop jangly goodness on tracks like “Escape the Light” (which immediately recalls The Byrds and Monkees simultaneously) http://youtu.be/QI4yqaDhepQ and “Here Comes Love” (“Day Tripper” era Beatles and Badfinger), sunshine pop and psychedelia on “Nothing Ever Changes Around Here” (McCartney, Gilbert O’Sullivan) and “Truth Is Coming Home” (XTC). Shelton also cranks up the rock element with “Now And Then” (early mid-60s Kinks and Sweet) and two back-to-back homages to The Who in “Free? No” and “Have Some More Tea”. Of course, that’s the bias of these ears as Shelton himself cites Fountains of Wayne, Matthew Sweet, REM and Sloan as influences. The overt examples are “All I Got” (The Posies) “Honoree” (REM) and “Mother Nature” (Sloan). So your mileage may vary! There’s a lot here for Power Pop fans to digest…and diverse enough to keep listeners engaged.
http://www.facebook.com/thewellwishersband

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com
Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

7 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – SUPPLY AND (LACK OF) DEMAND”

  1. That is one fascinating rundown of pressing plants north of the border, Jaimie. I could not even begin to give you a basic history of pressing in the US. I should have paid more attention, especially since I have always been curious (and yellow).

    Band’s sites have been bookmarked. Listening commences after I finish my column (hopefully tomorrow). Both bands sound intriguing.

  2. Frank,
    We’re still fairly young in the music business having taken most of our orders from the major label overlords for the better part of 50 or 60 years. When SONY took over CBS in 1990 – the band 54.40 was the first domestic artist ever signed to the label. Columbia had been in Canada since 1938 but ALL signing were done through the New York head office…including Celine Dion, Gowan, Platinum Blonde, etc. Capitol, however, was the first major in Canada to actively sign domestic talent right out of the gate.

  3. al mair Says:

    Jamie….you aren’t correct in your comments on Canadian signings by Sony Canada. After the Sony takeover of CBS Canada, Sony Canada had a major commitment to sign Canadian artists. Paul Burger, an experienced Sony International guy was sent in the manage the Canadian company. He signed most, if not all the acts you mentioned, plus Our Lady Peace,Amanda Marshall and others. He also bought in an American A&R guy, whose name escapes me. Leonard Cohen’s contract was also transferred from CBS international to CBS Canada. Paul was the most successful oresident of an American subsidiary. His reward was to be made head of Sony/Europe at a seven figures salary (in pounds).

    • Al…the only mention I made about SONY’s signings was that 54.40 was first (in my reply to Frank). I didn’t get into who signed whom – that’s a whole other blog for a rainy day 🙂

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