The songs are fine but the dance is unacceptable, and an indie-rock hero has been pushed too far. "Do the hustle," an old disco anthem implored, "do it." But the beat for some is getting old.
Had I heard Jason Collett correctly? Speaking casually at the Dakota Tavern, the singer-songwriter had told me he viewed the release of his new album with some hesitancy – an admission of unusual candour in a music business where hype is king and gold. "This is my sixth album," he said over the room's beery din, "and I've never had such ambivalence toward any of them before." So why put it out then? "I'm a musician, it's what we do," he said. "We know no one will buy it, but we feed the mythology by continuing to put out our music anyway."
A few minutes later, Collett took the stage as the host of the Basement Revue, an annual series of music and literary salons he co-curates with poetry editor Damian Rogers. Acoustic guitar in hand, he told the crowd about a business meeting he'd had with his record-label people – marketers who erroneously spun his memories of his disco-loving parents into the selling angle that his album was inspired by dance music.
He shook his head and sang the record's title track, a catchy expression of frustration about building brands, living in a van and "You got to do what you can, when you're a song and dance man."
These are testing times for those in the business of music: Sales are down, streaming doesn't pay the artists and the touring circuit is saturated. And if Collett has nostalgic recollections of his parents in polyester boogieing to Van McCoy, he's not sure he has the heart for the dance himself any longer.
A few days later, in the quiet kitchen of the comfortable house he shares with his wife and children, Collett speaks about his weariness and wariness of the industry he's in. "I've taken more time than I've ever taken between records," says the thin, handsome and likeable 46-year-old father of four. "A big part of it is that I'm reluctant to re-engage in the whole process."
Produced by his friend Afie Jurvanen (the gifted musician who records under the name Bahamas), Song and Dance Man is a surprisingly spry record, with Collett's irritations presented in tuneful and breezy styles. "The title song crystallizes my ambivalence in a light-hearted way," he says of his playful jab at the industry. "A few of the previous songs I'd written were heavy-handed and overthought."
Other wry, easygoing tracks include the Lou Reed-speak of Provincial Blues ("Honey we all get left behind by the times sometimes") and the whistle-happy Forever Young is Getting Old ("It was easy come and easy go/ Now there's no easy road").
Speaking about the business tricks and social-media stunts involved with music marketing today, Collett shakes his head. "All these things people are doing are crucial to get anything going," he says. "But everybody's desperate, and I can't help but think, 10 years from now, we're all going to look back on this as a time that we got ridiculous."
Collett uses the word "undignified" when it comes to some of his peers' crowdfunded solicitations, such as artists singing to their fans on Skype for a buck. But others, the ones who have embraced fan-based financing, disagree.
"It's an extension of who I am," says the loquacious Toronto folk singer Corin Raymond says, speaking about the personal touches involved with his crowdfunded forthcoming album Hobo Jungle Fever Dreams. For $150, Raymond offered to read a short story or a chapter or two from a favourite book over the phone. Two donors signed up for the readings. "A lot of musicians would be uncomfortable doing it, but it happens I'm not," Raymond says. "Crowdfunding is here to stay, and we all have to make friends with it in our own way."
But Collett says he has "hustle fatigue," a cynical condition that is the opposite of the optimism expressed in 1998 by the New Radicals, who buoyantly and defiantly chirped about not giving up, one dance still being left and something self-diagnosed called the "dreamer's disease."
At the turn of the millennium, the dreamer's disease was rampant. In fact, the free-spirited Broken Social Scene collective (to which Collett belonged) and the Arts & Crafts record label (to which he was signed) all happened on the strength of the infection. "It was a very exciting time," Collett says about the indie-rock revolution. "It felt like we'd thrown off the shackles of the major record labels. The Internet was exciting and it cut out the middleman."
But that has all changed. The same Internet that once promised liberation is now the master, and recording artists are up in arms when it comes to the inequities of digital-music distribution. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, the chamber-pop auteur Joanna Newsom said streaming services are part of a "cynical and musician-hating system" and that Spotify specifically was a "villainous cabal of major labels."
Just this month, Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker front-man David Lowery filed a class action lawsuit seeking at least $150-million (U.S.) in damages against the streaming colossus Spotify, alleging it knowingly, willingly and unlawfully infringed upon copyrighted music.
"I feel more like a content provider than an artist, and I'm a little weary of throwing more of what I create into the gaping maw of Google," Collett says. "There's something stinky about the relationship."
Taking Collett's concerns in stride is Kieran Roy, the president of Arts & Crafts and Collett's manager since 2007. "Jason made a great record," Roy says. "If people stream it, buy it, come to the shows or not, it's kind of out of his hands. He's trying to fight an uphill battle, but it's not really his to fight. That's why he works with a manager and a label."
Asked about his client's case of hustle fatigue, Roy chuckles a little before offering a second opinion. "Don't take it to mean he doesn't understand the business," Roy says. "He has an acute awareness of the challenges."
Challenges that Collett confronted when Brian D. Johnson asked him to help put together The Al Purdy Songbook, a compilation album attached to Johnson's documentary on the late poet.. The side-project was underfunded; artists involved such as Sarah Harmer, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn were being promised money that wasn't there. "It was frustrating," Collett says. "I essentially threw in the towel this summer."
Speaking about Collett's dissatisfaction with the business and his "ambivalence" toward the release of Song and Dance Man in particular, Roy defends his artist. "It doesn't mean he doesn't care about the art that he's making. It's the furthest thing from the truth." And while acknowledging that the music business is a "young man's game," Roy says Collett is "aging very gracefully and evolving in a creative way."
Evolution? Yes, things can change. Collett recently found a patron of the arts to help finance The Al Purdy Songbook, and the compilation may be released later this year or in time for Canada's sesquicentennial in 2017. Collett is also enthusiastic about the recent changes in Ottawa. "The buttons have been reset when it comes to federal funding for the arts," he says.
As for his record's label misleading disco marketing for Song and Dance Man, Collett laughs and backtracks a bit. "I was a child of that era, and it left an indelible impression on me," he says. "I'm thought of as a roots-orientated singer-songwriter, but, yeah, the sexiness of the seventies is there."
And you can hear it on the title track, with its funky bass line and dryly jangling guitar. Collett, despite his initial misgivings, is looking forward to touring a new album he's proud of.
Every generation has its own songs and its own dances, and every era of musicians has its own kind of hustle. There are no exceptions.
Editor's note: : Brian D. Johnson is the co-producer, with Jason Collett, of The Al Purdy Songbook.