I'm at the band's West End studio in Toronto, and Metric is reacting to good news. They've just found out that their single Youth Without Youth had debuted at No. 1 on Mediabase Canadian Alternative Radio Airplay chart – the first time that feat has been accomplished. Much jubilation, naturally.
And then singer Emily Haines has a second thought on the achievement: “What does it even mean?” she asks. It's a good question, one for which I have no answer.
What I can say is what the chart-topping probably means – that someone at Metric Music International, the band's own label, did their job. MMI , as you might guess, is in the business of Metric music. And, apparently, business is good.
“This record, for the first time, depicts us as people and musicians and a band who are okay with who we are,” says guitarist Jimmy Shaw, sitting at a kitchen table after Haines and the band's publicist leave the room. “That's the sound of this record.”
The new record is Synthetica, the harder, darker follow-up to 2009's Fantasies, the platinum-seller which put the band in front of its biggest crowds ever. Synthetica's hooks and beats should please audiences, but there's often an edge to its shimmer, lyrically and sonically. “That's who we are,” says Shaw.
Much has been made of Metric leaving its independent label, Last Gang, an amicable split which began with the recording and independent release of Fantasies, the quartet's fourth album. “It took a lot of investment, time and energy,” says Shaw, “and it almost bankrupted us.” But it proved fruitful once that record took off internationally – Fantasies sold more than 500,000 copies and was finalist for the Polaris Music Prize.
And now, on the new record, their DIY model is firmly in place. “It feels natural,” says Shaw. “It feels like I can't believe we ever did this any other way.”
The history of bands going alone is spotty, but as established labels lose their grip on markets and media outlets, the practice is growing. In 1968, the Beatles began Apple Records, a boutique label initially set up to facilitate the creativity of the band members' group and solo efforts. (The Apple releases were still distributed and controlled somewhat by major labels.) More recently, major acts such as Barenaked Ladies and Pearl Jam have struck out on their own, though still with ties to majors.
But Metric is doing things differently. Metric Music International has a grand industrious ring to it, but Haines isn't a mogul with a cigar in the side of her mouth, and Shaw isn't down at the plant with a clipboard and a hard hat. The label is simply is a shell for Metric to put out its own music. Says Shaw: “We wanted to be able to exist in a way that there was nobody in between us and Metric fans.” They've hired their own radio team, publicity team, sales staff and administrators. There are no plans for MMI to sign any other bands.
The difference, as Shaw sees it, is a matter of focus, with the people running the labels naturally seeing the company as the priority and the artists as employees. With own label and piecemeal staff, the focus is narrowed. “Everybody feels like they're contributing to the Metric train,” explains Shaw, “as opposed to Metric contributing to the Interscope train or something like that.” (Metric, after three albums on Last Gang, was wooed by major labels in 2007, but declined the offers, concluding that the deals were too one-sided in the labels' favour.)
Last week, singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards tweeted her frustration over what she perceived as a lack of label support. Reached after her tweet, Edwards spoke of the artist-label relationship. “Everybody who puts out a record has a point where the label decides they're going to move onto other things,” says the Juno winner, whose latest album Voyageur was released on Maple Music and in the U.S. on Rounder's Zoë label. “It doesn't mean that these people aren't behind me.”
Edwards acknowledged Voyageur's heavy early marketing commitment, which resulted in the album debuting higher on the charts than any of her previous efforts. But while her label support may now be tailing off, Edwards isn't. “I'm still thinking about touring another year and a half,” she says. “And finding out that people aren't going to work your record like you're going to continue working it, it can be a little shock to your system.”
Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies' understands what Edwards is going through. “When you're attached to any label that has a financial stake in your project, you need to keep that entity apprised of what you're doing. It's not necessarily a big deal but sometimes it's energy expended that you don't necessarily have.”
The Junkies have released music on its own Latent Recordings since 2000, after its American label Geffen Records declined to pick up its option with the band. Timmins enjoys the freedom of going it alone. “There's just the band,” he says. “If you can dream up an idea, and you can afford an idea, there is no one to drag it down.”
On the other hand? “There's no way that a truly artist-run label can have the reach and power of the majors,” he says. “They still, for the most part, control the game.”
Asked about the sometimes tempestuous partnership between label and artist, Steve Waxman at Warner Music Canada says that while he can understand the artist's frustration, he's not sure it's warranted. “I don't think we would ever make decisions without their best interests in mind,” says the industry veteran. “At the top of our mind is selling records, and it doesn't serve us to make the artist look bad.”
Waxman speaks of a label's clout as vital. “Musicians put out a record and expect radio stations just to play it,” he says. “They won't.”
Music, at its essence, is a simple transaction involving someone playing it and someone listening to it, with the music industry jumping in the middle and taking a little piece of that interaction. By taking that piece back, Metric hasn't reinvented the wheel. But they've reordered their own world, which might be the best (and as much) as any musician can hope for today.