By Derrick Milburn
Illustration by Barb Ochman
For more than two decades Jon Bartlett has been among the most influential figures in Canadian independent music.
The Fredericton, New Brunswick native announced his arrival on the national scene in the early-90s with Steaming Toolie. Formed in high school, the five-piece would achieve modest success, including mention in Exclaim! and a review in Vox that called its album Deliciously Saucy “a delightful collection of recordings.”
Music consumed much of Bartlett’s time while studying psychology and film at the University of New Brunswick and he readily admits that it often took priority.
“I was in university, writing lyrics in the margins of all my pages in class, and doing a radio show at CHSR in Fredericton, fully immersing in recording, writing, and all things music,” said Bartlett.
This proved a productive period and he estimates he wrote more than 100 songs before graduating.
“Someone should have tacked on a minor in songwriting,” he joked.
And while this output would fuel Steaming Toolie, and later bands Rhume and Greenfield Main, his scribbles weren’t solely lyrics and bass lines—another idea emerged. Bartlett decided to establish his own label and in March, 1994, launched Kelp Records. His solo debut, a 20-track cassette dubbed Cultivate, was Kelp’s debut release and, in a nod to his east coast home, came vacuum-packed with Dark Harbour dulse.
After graduating in 1997, Bartlett moved to Toronto where he met Andrew Vincent. The two became fast friends and would make beautiful music together. Vincent’s To Thine, recorded in his attic with Bartlett at the controls, was Kelp’s second release and garnered considerable attention.
“We didn’t have many resources, but it was sure fun seeing people start to take interest as we got it out to campus radio and he played more and more shows,” Bartlett said.
At the close of the 90s, Bartlett moved to Ottawa and he soon became a driving force in the capital’s burgeoning music scene. New and established artists alike were attracted to Bartlett’s passion and energy and in a few short years he would add the likes of local legend Jim Bryson, indie-folk outfit The Acorn, and guitar-pop trio Camp Radio to Kelp’s stable.
But as Bartlett notes, “selling records is tough” and despite Kelp’s enviable roster, he was struggling to find predictable income. Struck by the fact that “there was always great reaction to the music that I pitched to people, much of it from Ottawa, I began thinking about trying something on a smaller scale in Ottawa.”
As is his custom, Bartlett went all in and launched Megaphono in 2010 to try his hand at licensing music for film and television.
Megaphono has since grown to include an eponymous music festival held annually in Ottawa that showcases local talent, as well as a management arm that boasts Juno Award-winner and Grammy-nominated soprano Measha Brueggergosman, New Country Rehab, Andy Shauf and U.S. Girls. It is this aspect of the business Bartlett finds most rewarding and relishes being at the heart of everything.
“It’s the music job that was meant for me. It just took me an awfully long time to find it,” he said.
Bartlett’s place amongst industry heavyweights was cemented in July with the release of the Polaris Music Prize Short List and the nomination of two of Kelp artists—a feat never before accomplished in the Prize’s brief history.
Bartlett said he was not surprised that Shauf’s The Party and Half Free by U.S. Girls were recognized.
“I’m biased, but I think it’s indefensible that these were not two of the best albums to come out of Canada in the past year,” he said.
He admits to having no idea what the Polaris nods will mean in the grand scheme, but wants only to continue growing Megaphono, the company, and the showcase into a valuable resource for Ottawa artists.
“I’d love to see it act as a bit of an incubator for talent, finding it, helping artists gain the resources and knowledge and help provide access to opportunities to succeed outside of Ottawa,” he said.
It’s taken more than 20 years to get here, but with the addition of manager to a resume that already includes singer-songwriter, talent scout, producer and CEO among other things, Bartlett feels like he’s finally found his place in the industry. And that’s great news for Bartlett and the Canadian independent music scene alike. •