Raise the Roots: Sebastian Cowan
Turning down a job with Sony isn't the only way that Sebastian Cowan raised eyebrows in the music scene. His label Arbutus Records functions as a collaboration between a variety of artists working toward one common goal: creating goodness.
When Sebastian Cowan was offered a job with Sony Records fresh out of college, he did what any self-respecting 21 year-old would do—he turned them down to do his own thing. Graduating with a degree in audio technology and music industry from a school in England and armed with some experience working with Mute Records (Goldfrapp, Depeche Mode, Moby, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), Cowan moved from the UK to Montreal, Canada where he co-founded his own loft venue, Lab Synthese, in a 4,600-square-foot former textile factory to provide a place where his friends could play. From the venue sprang a label and from the label sprang a digital distribution subsidiary and publishing wing.
Four years later, it’s hard to define what exactly Arbutus Records is. Cowan prefers the term “artist collective” in honor of the fact that Arbutus’ core is still simply a group of friends who work together to make art, create collaborations, and promote each other’s work. Unlike traditional record labels, all five of the artists that Arbutus formally represents, including South By Southwest darlings Tops, Tonstartssbandht and pop mistress Grimes, live within two blocks of Cowan’s home. These artists, combined with the myriad other friends and artists the collective works with in a less official capacity party together, tour together, build the label together, and each have a say in how nearly every aspect of their music is presented and promoted. It’s a group effort, one that relies on the collective’s size and amicability to survive. Here’s how they do it.
Get In Media: So, what exactly is your job title now?
Sebastian Cowan: What I do is pretty flexible, and I think that’s what allows me to do all the things I do because the way I look at it, the music industry is inherently tied with technology, and technology [is] being innovated at an exponential rate. So, the old designations that existed with the music industry no longer apply in the way that they used to … being open in this regard has really allowed us to do a vast amount of things well.
GIM: How does the collaboration model work?
SC: … The model evolved out of that venue that I ran … What really became special to me [about Lab Synthese] was community development, so whenever there was a show that took place, one of my friends had to play on the bill and very quickly this kind of expanded and developed my friend group into musicians that I really enjoyed … It came to a point where cleaning up beer bottles and managing four other roommates who were going to be less invested in this particular vision was too inefficient, and I thought that the label thing might be more effective, so I started doing that. Everyone on the label lives two blocks from my apartment, and my office is across the train tracks from my house … The bands all rehearse in the warehouse that my office is in, and I have a recording studio where most of the bands have recorded in or are mixed in or mastered in, so it’s all pretty insular in a way.
GIM: That’s a big contrast to the larger labels.
SC: Yeah, I guess, especially when it started. I don’t really like the word “collective.” It’s kind of cheesy or something, but I really wanted to have that mentality where everyone would contribute and work on this thing to make it a greater whole than any one of its parts … Whenever any decisions are made, the artists are always very much involved. “Well do you think we should go with this distributor or how do you feel about this?” All the things that would normally just kind of be in the structure of the label, the artists have a role in determining what happens, and I think this is the best way to make sure that the structure of Arbutus serves them in the best way it can.
GIM: Do you run into problems with that [business model]? I feel like it could be too many cooks in the kitchen.
SC: For the most part, stuff moves forward and is communicated at a rate that I can keep up with, but most of the artists I work with, sometimes, they just don’t even care that much. A lot of them don’t own phones, don’t check their emails very often. Whenever anything goes forward, I let them know, “This is what’s happening” and a lot of times, they’re just more concerned with being able to make their art and trust the decisions that I make … I’ve never really run into conflict, because I think that people realize as long as stuff’s moving forward, they’re excited.
GIM: Does size play into that? Does having five artists make it manageable for this kind of model?
SC: Yeah, definitely … We’re also involved on an emotional level, so there’s a lot that goes into it, and that helps us because we really understand where the artists are coming from and where they want to go, which is, I think, the most important relationship with anyone working in the creative industry … I’ve never really had a desire to be one of those labels with a million bands on it because you kind of lose the identity of what it is you want to do because it’s so diversified. Whereas, even though all the artists we work with make different music, there [are] kind of certain similarities that all link in on a social level and an interest level that I think ties music together. That’s able to be represented because we only work with a small degree of artists.
GIM: Does having the collaboration model slow down business?
SC: It probably does, but at the same time, our operation is small enough that we can move faster than the company that’s got a ton of employees, so it allows us to be informed and make the right decisions. There are definitely a lot of people involved in the decisions, but I don’t really feel like it holds us back. We’re all coming from a very similar place. We’re all coming from the same place, and we all want to go to the same place, so it tends to line up pretty congruently.
GIM: Does having a friendship outside of a professional relationship tangle business and personal [relationships]?
SC: It’s a very insular scene. Everyone’s dated everyone else’s girlfriend, so you definitely see that it gets pretty tight at times. But I think on the whole, everyone is inspired by what everyone else is doing, and it has a positive effect.
GIM: You also have a separate digital distribution subsidiary [Moviestar] under Arbutus right?
SC: Yeah, that’s right. It’s named after our most prolific artist and the first artist we ever released, Sean Nicholas Savage. We were trying to figure out a name for this thing, and we thought what would be more appropriate than a song by Sean? … the idea was that there was a lot going on in the scene that we wanted to be able to help and represent and develop, but we weren’t really able to devote the resources to do it without compromising the bands we were already working with, so this is really just something to allow our friends to benefit from any infrastructure that we’ve been able to create.
GIM: And you’re also publishing two novels?
SC: Not all of our friends make music, so the two novels that we published, one is a book of short stories that a childhood friend of mine named Trevor Barton did … the other is by Jasper Baydala. He’s more or less our product manager. He takes care of all of our graphic design and shipping and coordinates things with the artists. I would say he’s primarily a writer, so we put out his last book, and we’re looking to publish a new book by him soon. That’s always been more of an artistic endeavor than an economic one.
GIM: How does that work in terms of publishing experience? Not many labels are producing books.
SC: I don’t know if I would really call us a label, so much as a creative community. With that in mind, it’s not that strange. As far as putting out a book, yeah, it’s something that I have no experience with, but I also had no experience putting out a record for the first record that we put out. I think the first album we released was a CD-R that I burned myself then brought around to record stores and consignments and biked to competitors of the local newspapers to try to get them to review it. You kind of figure it out as you go along, and you ask people who have done it. When I got my first idea to start on a record label, I went and knocked on the door of Constellation (Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra). I had several meetings with (Constellation co-founder) Don Wilke, and I think definitely on an ethical standpoint, everything that we have which I believe in came from him … .
GIM: A lot of people who start artistic communities or release records come from a background of having years of experience at a larger venue or company, but that’s not where you’re coming from. What were the challenges of starting this without having a ton of industry experience?
SC: I don’t know if that’s entirely true … Creation Records (Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, Super Furry Animals) … they really saw My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain and then went on to release Oasis later on. That was what really kind of blew them out. It was a very similar thing. The guy (Creation founder Alan McGee) ran a club, turned it into a label. Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order) are a similar thing … It’s all been organic and natural, and it’s evolved in a way that I think we’ve all been very comfortable with, whereas I think if you come from a background of working for larger companies and then go to start your own thing, it’s much more formulated. I definitely had a formula coming into this, and I did work for labels and studios before doing this, but I think doing everything from the ground up and working within your means always results in a better product.
GIM: With so many varied projects on your plate, how do you decide what’s next?
SC: I don’t know. I guess it just always presents itself. I remember when the four-track we put out by my friend Sean Nicholas Savage, and he was like “I think I should do a tour around this record,” and that was an idea I had never thought about for whatever reason. Obviously, it’s perfectly logical, but it had never crossed my mind before. I kind of reached out to friends and booked him a 10- or 11-day tour around the east coast. We just figure it out as we go along.
GIM: Was it successful?
SC: Yeah. I really believe in the music that I’m working with. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. I don’t really have any expectations, but when something great happens, I kind of feel like it was always supposed to be like that … I devote my entire life to all the music I’m working with, so if someone were to write an article about it or go to a show, I understand why they would do that.
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