Paul Lewton has been mercilessly shitting on the Canadian music industry left and right, so we went to meet up with him to see what his problem is.
This is what he looks like.
When Paul Lawton started Slagging Off, a then-anonymous Tumblr with the heading “death to the Canadian music industry,” he was just an ex-academic from Lethbridge, Alberta who played bass in the punk band the Ketamines. What began as a jokey attempt to review every band at CMW in alphabetical order (wrote Lawton, “even if we take one awful band off the road this summer, the project was a success”) has grown into an outpost of criticism with (according to him, anyway) over 10,000 views a day dissecting the Canadian music industry.
Even if Lawton’s posts on FACTOR’s granting system, Canadian music festivals, and dressing downs of bands like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case may be easy targets, what was revelatory is that they were even being discussed at all. While Canadian music institutions like Exclaim!, the Polaris Prize and the campfire-friendly playlists of CBC Radio 3 compose what we consider to be a thriving indie landscape, they’re also stagnant pools that lack critical attention.
But can one guy’s shitty Tumblr fix our granting system and repair Canadian rock for the better? We met Lawton at Sneaky Dee’s to discuss what bridges he hasn’t burned yet, his anti-Polaris stance, and how the fuck The Trews—based on his calculations—received over $618,000 in the last decade through FACTOR grants.
VICE: Who are you and where did you come from?
Paul Lawton: I was teaching at the University of Lethbridge for five years and I really hated it. I was teaching media and digital culture, like the “Facebook class,” and I found the level of engagement with undergrads in Lethbridge really lacking. Now I work as a spokesperson for a non-profit and live in Toronto. I’ve been doing music for almost 20 years. I’m 35, I’ve toured Canada a lot and have my own record label, and was the go to punk/indie promoter for a long time in Alberta.
How did you get the idea for “Slagging Off?”
Well, I started it when they first announced CMW, it’s really only a month old. They had posted all the bands for CMW and I was making fun of them on my real Twitter account. But then my band got asked to play, and the guy that asked us was Dan Burke from the Silver Dollar. It’s a bit weird for a musician to be making fun of other bands. It happens all the time, just not publically.
Some people would say that you’re just bitter.
I’ve had a lot of really good experiences in Canadian music. One of the reasons I’m so critical and hard on it is because I love it so much and I think it could be so much better. I think I’m bitter that so many people are willing to subject themselves to a system that hates them. I just want to be an eye opener to other bands in Canada who think they’re fighting on an even playing field when they’re really not.
Well your criticism of the FACTOR granting system seems symptomatic of the Canadian cultural granting system as a whole. The same members of Broken Social Scene get rewarded with grants year after year.
One of the main critiques of my blog is that I’m mad because of my own subjective taste. But it doesn’t matter that I think Metric are shitty, I hate the funding body with its own subjective taste that makes objects through funding specific things. FACTOR wrote to me and said “You know these grants are only available for top-tier artists.” But if the people who are running the organization are the ones deciding who the top and lower-tier artists are…
Yeah, but just because I think Dan Mangan’s music sucks doesn’t mean he hasn’t created a successful business strategy.
I would never argue that Dan Mangan shouldn’t be able to make a living. But if you want to make any effective change in this system, you can’t make a difference until you can stop the tide of the thousands and thousands of bands that will step over you for their chance. For example, I have a personal rule that I will never put my band in a pay-to-play venue but there are thousand bands behind me that will. I’m really against CMW, and in retrospect I should have said no to playing the festival.
Were you worried about seeming like a hypocrite?
Of course, I was hypocritical. It’s really hard to have a purist ideal in this world, as a musician or a cultural critic, or whatever. My band sold a song to Target in the United States, and we had a song in a commercial that was out for a week. And there’s not one day that I don’t think about it. On the one hand they paid us like thirty grand, it bought us a tour van. But on the other hand, we sold a song to Target.
The criticisms on Slagging Off, it’s not like they’re new. People complain all the time that CMW sucks, FACTOR is compromised, and the music on CBC Radio is lame… But why do you think you’re the first blogger to comment on this publicly?
That’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, like how does this blog not already exist? Canadian music is just this core of pre-networked people in walking distance from the offices of Factor andExclaim. I feel like I’m hyper conscious of that as a guy that came from the prairies. So a lot of my blog is, “Whoa, is this how it really is?”
You’ve also mentioned that you think the Polaris prize is a joke. I’ve been on the jury since 2009. Do you feel that way because of who ultimately wins?
Well, a $30,000 prize is crazy for a musician, that’s a lot of money. Plus you also get use of a tour van. I know that there are bands that are long listed for Polaris that aren’t in that top tier, but you see the narrowing down process go the same way every year. It’s the bands that have the most funding that get whittled down to the last stages because they’re the ones that have the PR people and the machine behind them.
The other thing I don’t like about Polaris is that they’ve got all those music writers across Canada that they invite, like “C’mon, be a juror. You’re part of the team here.” And then the final decision happens behind closed doors with five people or whatever. So there’s no critique of Polaris, because to critique Polaris is to critique yourself, in a way. Because you’re like, “Well I’m part of this system.”
If you could prescribe some remedies for the Canadian music industry, what would they be?
On the funding level, there are very specific things that should happen sooner than later. Certain labels should not be able to keep going back to the well, that money should be spread around more. There should be a funding maximum that a label or a musician should have. If they’re going to get all this outside money, they should prove they have more than just knowing the right people.
How do they prove that?
It’s simple, ticket and record sales. We’re giving The Trews over $600,000 dollars in Canadian money. Are they selling records? Are people coming to their shows? At a certain point why aren’t you like (Hamilton musician) B.A. Johnston, playing 300 shows a year, only in Canada? That’s the kind of shit that should be funded.
Do you think the Canadian music press is lacking in criticism?
There’s no heavy lifting in pointing out that a band sucks, I’ll agree to that. I know how much work it takes to critically evaluate a record, especially something you don’t like. But at the end of the day it’s telling that this blog went viral and none of the hundreds of Canadian indie blogs ever do anything.
Look, this is a fucking Tumblr. It’s unedited, it’s poorly thought out, it’s highly problematic—but at the same time, it scratched an itch. If you’re a music writer and you like a band, then I think it’s really important that you express that love. But if you have that golden rule mentality of “if I can’t say anything nice,” you end up creating this stagnant pool.
I’ve been out on the blog for a week and bunch of people said my band sucked and that was it. Even now, it seems quaint that we’re even talking about a Tumblr where a guy made fun of some Canadian bands.
Watch our Canadian music show!