By Neil McDonald
Things are about to get a little “wyrd” for independent Canadian bands.
On Feb. 15, Waterloo-based Weird Canada, a blogging collective and online home for “emerging and experimental Canadian music,” will launch Wyrd Distro, the first nonprofit online music store and music distribution company in the country.
To celebrate its debut, 22 free-admission launch parties will be held simultaneously across Canada, with Wyrd Distro co-founders Marie LeBlanc Flanagan and Aaron Levin attending all 22 shows via Skype.
Free cassette compilations featuring Canadian artists whose music was previously only available digitally will be given out at the shows, with most of the cassettes assembled by volunteers at a J-card (cassette booklet) folding party held last weekend, Flanagan said.
The party is a small example of the community that has helped get Wyrd Distro up and running — for example, Flanagan estimates some 350 volunteers helped organize the launch parties in communities “from Vancouver Island to the tip of Newfoundland.”
In a recent phone interview, Flanagan said the idea for the distribution company grew from frustrations shared by small indie labels and artists across Canada, most of whom lack the means to advertise or ship their cassettes and LPs to buyers around the country.
“Bandcamp or iTunes work great for what they do, for selling digital music,” said Flanagan, who moved to Waterloo from Toronto about 18 months ago.
“And we’re probably going to sell digital music eventually as well, as a complement to what we’re doing, but it’s really the physical music that people have a hard time moving around. There’s a real disconnect between the music fans and the D.I.Y. and independent artists who are springing up. There’s an avalanche, there’s an overflow of people who suddenly have access to the tools to make music and they have fans, but they don’t really know how to get their physical media to those fans.”
Flanagan added it’s unrealistic to expect record stores to negotiate with the thousands of micro-labels and independent artists across the country, something Wyrd Distro can now help with.
“It’s just a logistical nightmare” for stores, she said, “so what we have, what the Distro is supposed to be, is just a centralized, one-stop repository for all that stuff.”
With around 25 micro-labels and 300 bands already on board, Wyrd Distro has lots of music currently stacked in boxes at Flanagan’s uptown Waterloo apartment ready to ship. Flanagan said the company wants to be “as inclusive as possible,” though interested artists should be aware of some general guidelines.
“We prefer things that challenge musical standards,” she said. “We prefer things that come from rural areas over cities. We prefer things that are made by people who are marginalized, so whether it’s financial, social, racial, gender — we prefer to amplify the voices of people who aren’t getting amplified otherwise. We like experimentation and risk-taking.”
Said Flanagan: “For us, our community is pretty clearly defined. It’s people who are trying to do it themselves and people who don’t have support and grants and funding, and people who are really struggling to make noises that aren’t that accepted in mainstream culture, people who struggle to find ears for their music.”
Though the artists distributed by Wyrd Distro may not typically have access to grants or funding, the company itself was made possible by a $50,000 grant from the federally-funded FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records) agency.
Flanagan credits the work of “easily” 100 volunteers who helped her research and write the grant application, and said receiving the full amount they asked for was a complete surprise given their background.
“We’re relatively new — we were founded in 2009 — we’re challenging politically, I mean I don’t know the entire history of FACTOR, but I feel like it was a bit of a groundbreaking move for them to fund us,” she said.
Some of the money from the grant went toward an extensive marketing plan, Flanagan said, while much of the rest was spent on hiring a design and coding team to build the company’s online store, which will also feature an online portal for labels and bands to log in and see how their music is selling.
Though the company will be firmly nonprofit — “Our most important bottom line is arts growth and community development,” said Flanagan — they hope to eventually have enough money to be able to rent a warehouse space and pay someone to oversee the operation.
Whatever the outcome financially, Wyrd Distro promises to impact the lives of thousands of artists and indie-label owners across the country.
For the owners of micro-labels, better distribution should relieve constant stress and headaches around shipping, while for the bands it’s “one less thing that they have to worry about,” Flanagan said.
“Now they can just go make music and focus on what they’re good at, rather than the finicky nature of postage and mailers and spreadsheets. I really don’t think musicians should have to be business people. It seems a bit absurd,” she said.
“We don’t ask architects to be bricklayers.”
Special to The Record
Wyrd Distro launch party
With Badminton Racquet, Manlicher Carcano Band
Silence, 46 Essex St., Guelph
Saturday, February 15, 3 p.m.