ORONTO— Along the side of a restored Victorian mansion in the heart of downtown Toronto lies an oversized door that reads Page Music. Behind its century-old façade—20 foot high ceilings, a huge winding staircase leading up to the offices and a striking stained glass window of the some saintly figure—business is strictly focused on today. Huge posters of musical acts festoon wood-paneled walls. Among them is a life-sized Barenaked Ladies picture that seems strangely out of place given the label's predominantly urban repertoire.
This is no coincidence upon learning that Steven Page, the Ladies' lead vocalist and guitarist, is the older brother of Matthew, the independent label's president. Their breakthrough EP, with "If I had a Million Dollars," was Page Music's first release.
Indee labels like Page Music have always been the unsung heroes of new music. They are the scouts, the judges and the rule-breakers. But all their effort comes with a price: every so often they discover an act that changes, or reinvents popular music (like the BNL) and when the band gets noticed the label will have to let them go. The act usually gets picked up by some industry bigwig for millions of dollars, leaving the indee label without it's trailblazing artist—and, not to mention, its greatest source of income.
Page Music is no stranger to this trend. The BNL soon garnered national exposure with their famed Speaker's Corner showcase, and after the success of songs like "A Million Dollars" and "You Could Be My Yoko Ono," they were catapulted into national stardom and a nice major label contract to boot. That left Page Music, which at the time was purely a promotional tool for the BNL (Matthew recalls going to his brother's shows to sell tapes and T-shirts), without its only act.
Soon Page Music got on its feet and began signing bands like Glueleg and The Lowest of the Low from the Toronto area. Now, 11 years later, Page Music has decided to shift towards funkier artists who have a more urban, R 'n' B sound. They have signed numerous artists, like the Pocket Dwellers and Ivana Santilli. But, it seems Page Music is once again about to run into the same dilemma that faced them with the BNL.
"We can't afford to lock an artist into a long-term contract," laments Matthew Page, "Let's face it, they all want to be stars." He understands now that labels like his are "stepping stones" for artists—where they get a chance to record a CD or two, tour extensively and basically get their names out to the public. And when the time is right, a major label will sign them to a contract that will make the artist some real money. This relationship is akin to professional sports: the indee labels are the farm teams which allow the artist to develop in the hopes of getting called up to "the big show" of the major (league) record label.
Ivana Santilli, who sang backup vocals for the Canadian pop-funk trio Bass is Base, has recorded an album called Brown with Page Music. It has sold over 13 000 copies, considering that indee gold is 5000 units sold, Santilli's success is certainly groundbreaking. Her video for "Sun + Moon = Stars" has received major rotation on Much Music and she is now doing commercials on CBC for the Junos.
Page says she has "cracked the mainstream," and he knows that this bodes well for his label's future, but how long until the majors start knocking? It's a question he does not know the answer to, however, he knows it is best for the artist to leave when the opportunity arrives. Besides, why should he hold them back from success?
Oddly though, Page and many in his position detest the major labels, because he knows all they care about is the almighty dollar. Sitting in his office, with A&R marketing director Chris Gayle, Page discusses what to do with the Pocket Dwellers, a new act they signed which fuses funk, hip hop, rock and soul. Considering the explosion of "hybrid" bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, it is quite possible that the Dwellers' fusion could catch on. But Page and Gayle are realistic.
"They're greatest asset is they're so different. They bring together all these genres: there's hip hop, jazz, funk…" Gayle begins.
"And they're damn entertaining!" Page interrupts. (He often does that.)
"That's the thing, how do you get that across to the mass audience, unless…"
"Really," Page says, once again interrupting, "The only way to expose people to an act like that is through touring. That gets people calling the radio stations saying 'Hey these guys rock and you guys should play them?'"
Pausing, Gayle says, "Yeah, they're great live, but they don't fit into anything…"
"They don't fit into molds. I mean it's not Backstreet Boys or I Mother Earth."
"The thing with major labels is that they want to make the most money with the least amount of money spent…"
"More like the least amount of effort," Page says, raising the rant, "Unless there's another band that's already had success doing a similar thing, they aren't gonna touch it. They're all followers, especially out here. They look for talent that can be produced like everything else you hear."
"With the 'Dwellers, they want be remembered. They want to start a new genre, become the bookmarks. So when another band comes along like them, people can call them 'Pocket Dwellers-esque.'" Gayle says.
That's the predicament. Allow the artist to grow, and when they're ready, watch them leave the nest only to be perverted by the major record labels. But that is simply how the world is. The majors must make money and stay competitive—so they will only sign acts they feel that can make money for them.
Page Music, and labels like it, are still essential though. Without them, how would Sony or EMI know about bands like the Pocket Dwellers, or Ivana Santilli or even the Barenaked Ladies? The only consolation Matthew Page can take from the reality that he faces is his label is doing an essential service for the music industry and the public: discovering innovative music for people to enjoy.