The Evolution Of The East Coast Music Industry... And Why It Will Survive
A Personal Journey
by Check Teed
It’s February 6, 2005, and my band, Ermine, is about to take the stage at the Seahorse Tavern, a mainstay Halifax pub for over 50 years. It’s been a tough year in the Halifax music scene: three major venues — including the legendary Marquee Club — have shut their doors in the last 12 months and musical acts are scrambling to find stages. Suddenly, getting a weekend gig is hard work and to ensure return bookings, you need to fill the room with cover-paying, booze-drinking patrons.
We were initially scheduled to headline the show, but future Juno winner Wintersleep was in desperate need of a gig so we gladly added them to the bill. Our gig quickly became a must-attend event and people from all over the city fought for a chance to be at the front of the stage. By the time we stepped into the spotlight, people were squeezed into every nook and cranny of the bar. The crush of humanity was so great that they resorted to standing on tables. The air was dense with sweat, alcohol and that 60-year-old bar-bathroom smell, and the entire crowd swayed and moved to the music. The room capacity was 180 yet somehow over 400 people made their way through the door throughout the evening. Needless to say we didn’t have issues booking the Seahorse any time after that.
I’ve now spent 25 years as a member of the East Coast music industry, a dream that seemed impossible as a child. Growing up in Saint John, New Brunswick, I found my options limited. Aside from the occasional fiddler showcase at the Parkway Mall, my main sources of musical culture were CBC video shows (Video Hits and Good Rockin’ Tonight) and CFBC, an AM radio station that spun a wide swath of Top 40 hits. Occasionally I’d hear rumours of Saint John bands at school or through older siblings but until I was a teenager the thought of recording an album was akin to flying to the moon.
Backstreet Records in Saint John, New Brunswick by Tyler Warren Ellis
My first taste of the Saint John music scene was courtesy of Backstreet Records, a staple of the local music community for over 35 years. I had stumbled upon it occasionally as a child — it was the weird record store that didn’t sell anything I heard on the radio — but rarely spent any time browsing the racks. I’d ask about a particular artist, get a negative answer from a dude behind the counter and then retreat to the safe confines of the discount bin.
This experience changed the summer before I entered high school. I found myself on an extended leave from the east side and ended up with a few hours to kill in Saint John’s uptown. I had started to chart my own musical course. I discovered heavy metal and learned how to play bass, and I decided that the weird record store might have some Metallica bootlegs in its used cassette-tape section. I was thumbing my way through the racks, making mental notes of albums with cool covers, when I noticed a section header that would change my life forever... Local.
Intrigued, I switched my focus to the handful of demos situated at the end of the cassette shelf. Most of the cassettes were handmade, complete with photocopied covers, and some looked downright horrifying. Alexander Salamander’s classic single “Grandma’s Laminated Appendix/Internal Organ Casserole” will forever be etched into my brain. Curiosity wouldn’t let me leave empty-handed so I grabbed Dead Corps’ self-titled cassette — the cover art reminded me of the punk band D.R.I. — and took it home for a listen.
This scene would be repeated not only by me but by thousands of music fans throughout Atlantic Canada. The cost of multi-track recording decreased substantially in the 1980s and ’90s, thanks to the rise of portable cassette studios, and bands began coming out of the woodwork with their lo-fi masterpieces. Independent music stores were eager to support this new wave of artists, and thriving indie music scenes soon popped up throughout the eastern provinces.
Sloan, a Halifax-based act signed by Geffen Records in 1992, led the charge. The band was heralded as the Canadian answer to Nirvana, thus making Halifax the next Seattle. Soon labels were signing a wide swath of East Coast indie artists, including Eric’s Trip (Sub Pop), The Monoxides (BMG) and Thrush Hermit (led and founded by Joel Plaskett). For those of us starting our careers these signings gave us hope for a bright musical future.
Meanwhile a parallel movement was forming out of Halifax. Promoter Rob Cohn launched the Maritime Music Awards in 1989, an event that led to the launch of the East Coast Music Association and the East Coast Music Awards (ECMAs). From humble beginnings at the Flamingo Café and Lounge in Halifax (the inaugural event featured performances and presentations by a young Sarah McLachlan), the ECMAs quickly grew into a must-attend industry event. In less than 10 years the award show graduated from clubs to stadiums and expanded its territory to include visits to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The surrounding events also took on a life of their own, with showcase and schmoozing opportunities stretching out over a four-day weekend. Artists such as The Rankin Family, Ashley MacIsaac, and The Ennis Sisters used the event as a catalyst for their careers, hitting the national stage shortly after their introduction to the ECMAs. Although the ECMAs were a runaway success — the award show was broadcast nationally to millions of viewers at its peak — the association had its share of detractors. Many independent acts accused the ECMAs of focusing too heavily on roots/traditional music and leaving alternative acts out of the spotlight. Artists set up competing showcases, lovingly dubbed “no-cases” in response to the perceived snub, during the ECMA weekend. These artists hoped to capitalize on the buzz surrounding the event and preached to anyone within earshot that the East Coast offered more than just folk music and fiddles.
Juno award-winning group Wintersleep performing in Teed’s living room
My introduction to the ECMAs was thanks to a no-case in 2000. By this point I had graduated from music fan to music promoter, organizing regular all-ages shows and releasing Saint John’s Finest, a compilation of music by Saint John punk, metal and alternative bands. Word about our healthy community had started to spread and the album cracked the national college charts shortly after its release. I was invited by Cape Breton’s campus station, CAPR, to apply for East Coast Unauthorized, a no-case taking place during ECMA 2000. I forwarded applications for most of the bands on Saint John’s Finest, and five unknown Saint John acts (Amused, DROWNd, The Butterfly Effect, The Addiction Seekers and Jolene Erb) were on their way to the ECMAs shortly thereafter.
ECMA 2000 was the beginning of my love affair with the ECMAs. No other event on the East Coast puts you in direct contact with so many artists and industry professionals at once. For those who regularly attend, it’s like homecoming week. Prior to the event my only contacts outside Saint John were the CAPR volunteers who organized the no-case, but by the time I left I was in regular contact with several artists and industry professionals, some of whom I am friends with to this day.
Ermine in Newfoundland for the 2004 ECMAs
The ECMAs were also an opportunity to gauge abilities in comparison to the rest of the industry. Amused and The Butterfly Effect performed amazing no-cases over the weekend, and Jolene Erb was actively courted by national record labels following the event. While ECMA 2000 wasn’t a runaway personal success, it served as a catalyst to learn about our region’s rich musical history. Initially I was inspired by the alternative and independent scenes: Julie Doiron and the Wooden Stars’ self-titled album is one of my all-time favourites and Sloan’s One Chord to Another prompted my eventual move to Halifax.
However the deeper I delved into the East Coast catalogue, the more I fell in love with my community and its eclectic musical background. Each province in the region had its own set of unique musical heroes who opened doors for their fellow musicians and exported our culture well beyond our borders. The Wonderful Grand Band (featuring “man of a thousand songs” Ron Hynes) had a small but mighty catalogue in the 1970s and ’80s that continues to inspire Newfoundland songwriters. Nova Scotia artists such as Hip Club Groove and Buck 65 introduced my generation to independent hip hop. John Allan Cameron led a 1970s Celtic music revival that continues today and PEI hard rock band Haywire achieved platinum success a decade before our region was thrust into the national spotlight. I spent the next seven years straddling the line between struggling indie musician and emerging industry professional. When I wasn’t taking the stage with Ermine, I was receiving a first-class education in the local music industry. It was initially an uphill battle. Saint John was a bit of a professional black hole when it came to music at the turn of the century, but years of collecting contacts began to pay dividends. Ermine started to gig regularly outside New Brunswick and I accepted job offers from other professionals in the industry. When I wasn’t on tour I was promoting artists in clubs, teaching musicians about writing grants, and writing about the local music scene for regional and national publications. It wasn’t always lucrative; dressing up as the mall’s Easter Bunny was probably my low point. But in hindsight I know that very few people at the mall had as much fun as I did that day!
Ermine during a promotional photo shoot in support of second album, The Murra, 2006.
Being fully immersed in the music community enabled me to watch several friends and colleagues graduate from clubs to the national and international stage. I booked Classified for a live radio broadcast in 2003. Initially I would have been lucky to get 80 people through the door. Six years later he became a platinum-selling artist. I worked with Juno winner Amelia Curran on an Atlantic Fringe Festival production in 2007 (a musical, go figure) and spent a brief few weeks as Jenn Grant’s substitute bass player. As a freelance writer I also interviewed dozens of musicians, watching as artists like Jill Barber and Matt Mays worked their way from the back pages to the front covers of newspapers and magazines throughout the country.
As my musical generation slowly worked its way up the industry ranks, the hard stance many of us had taken against the ECMAs slowly softened. Bands that had previously no-cased against the backdrop of the ECMAs were now official showcase artists, award nominees and in some cases, winners. Predictably, many of the new artists who followed our cohort took the same hard stance we had taken against the ECMAs only a few years earlier. Some industry professionals have a hard time concealing their contempt for this sort of behaviour but I see this spirit as a healthy part of an ever-evolving community. As Buddy Ackerman says in the film Swimming with Sharks, “If you’re not a rebel by the age of 20, you got no heart.”
However Ackerman also said, “If you haven’t turned establishment by 30, you’ve got no brains.” When I turned 30 I got off the road, went back to school and tried to leave my musical life behind. Two degrees later, it nearly worked. But like any fierce addiction, music had a way of drawing me back in. I was teaching school by day and booking acts at bars by night. I’d go to events to pitch ideas for classroom projects and get music-industry job offers instead. Eventually I found a home where I could marry my love of the music industry with my education background: the InterAction School of Performing Arts. The music department staff is entirely made up of professional musicians with stage and studio experience they can pass down to their students. I have group classes so students can form bands and three jam rooms that can be run simultaneously. Better yet I have access to the Sanctuary Theatre, the school’s official venue, which means I can still book acts when I need a quick live-music hit. When the ECMAs came through town in spring 2017 the theatre was used as one of the official showcase venues. It was filled to the brim with music fans all weekend.
Classified photographed in Toronto, 2015 by Jess Baumung
There are moments that I miss the late nights, the sweaty stages and the thrill of nailing down a performance in front of an enthusiastic audience. But I consider myself lucky. Although most of my contemporaries quit music once their playing days were over, I am still working in the industry. The fact that I can even point to an industry when I talk to my students — and provide dozens of successful East Coast artists as examples — means we have made huge strides in the last 25 years. The Local rack consisted of a dozen or so cassettes when Dead Corps’ demo changed my life. Today it is five double CD racks deep, with East Coast vinyl dotted throughout the store. This — more than anything — makes me believe in the future of the East Coast music scene.
ecma.com | iactspa.com