For some musicians, being signed to a record label can be everything. It can mean big tours, big album sales, fortune, and fame. It can also mean getting bogged down with contracts and legal grey areas or maybe even giving up creative control. So for artists that want to bypass traditional recording labels, what is there?
Based out of Russell, Ont., Willow Sounds Recording is a membership based co-op recording label started by entrepreneur and musician Tara Shannon. Shannon has been a consultant in the Canadian music industry for close to 20 years and started Willow Sounds after she saw a need for guidance in the music industry and wanted to help young artists put together their business.
Willow Sounds is a record label with an educational focus, meaning their main goal is to help artists start to see their musical career as a business and assist them in efficiently running their own small business.
Everything is done on a consultant basis which means Willow Sounds doesn’t take any credit or ownership for the artists creations. It’s co-operative, so they are there to help and not to profit.
“The whole thing is about empowering artists as opposed to creating dependency,” Shannon says. “The idea is that I’ve done a great job, when they don’t need me anymore!”
Everything from the master recordings to record sales belong to the artist. Willow Sounds’ hands off approach gives artists freedom to create and explore without limitations that a typical label might employ.
Shannon says one of the first things she’ll do for artists is demystify and translate business language.
“A lot of artists will tend to shy away from very scary, sort of cold language, that corporate business uses. Market growth, customers, margins, profit, product. So once you equate those words to words that they understand in their artistic world, it empowers them to understand the elements of business and why it’s important to think of themselves as a business.”
Musician and Willow Sounds member, Jessica Pearson, says Willow Sounds is different from other labels because it is focused on what the artist needs and what their goals are.
“I can be completely myself, I can be vulnerable with my writing and I know that Willow Sound Records and Tara Shannon only want what is best for me and my music,” Pearson said. “Where other labels need to release product that will make money back for them, they sometimes need to change your sound to fit the mold. Willow Sounds isn’t about changing you, its about taking your music and making it the best it can be.”
Willow Sounds really challenges the norm set by large corporate recording labels. There’s no A&R (Artists and Repertoire) person to impress and no image set out by the label. The artist only has to be concerned with the development of their own work. This is a lot different than the standard practice, says Shannon.
“Being signed to a record label is much more like being an employee of a company. You have no direct power, you just do your job,”
While Willow Sounds is unique in its approach, there are certainly other labels and collectives in Ottawa that are straying from the norm. One such label is Record Centre Records, owned and operated by John Thompson of The Record Centre, a shop located in Ottawa’s Wellington West neighborhood.
Record Centre Records is unusual in its approach to being a label because it never quite intended to be a label. With a passion for good sounding records, Record Centre Records grew out of ideas that Thompson said just seemed logical.
For example, The Record Centre records many of their live in-store shows, some of which have actually made it onto vinyl. Starting as a record store, growing into a venue, and now a record label, The Record Centre makes sense in a music community such as Ottawa.
Take Sparklesaurus’s new LP, categorically number 33 on the label. After releasing their debut EP in the summer of 2016, the band became well known and well liked in the community, playing a number of shows at the storefront. Thompson says it just made sense to him.
“We already considered them a part of our community, which is important. We have this thing where, sure, it’s a record store, we sell records and sell things but we also host bands and try to help out a bit (in the community). They were just a part of our community,” Thompson said. “It seemed like the logical thing to do!”
Record Centre Records differs from Willow Sounds in their approach, which is slightly more traditional than the co-op method, but it’s still far away from what a traditional record label looks like. Record Centre Records exists and succeeds because of community. Ottawa has a close knit music community that allows artists, venues, and sometimes label owners to interact and connect with one another. Willow Sounds exists to create more of that community and spread knowledge and understanding that can become lost in the fine print of corporate labels.
Both Willow Sound and Record Centre Records are pushing the limits of what a record label can and should be. Or maybe they’re just simplifying it?