In music, as elsewhere, the truism remains intact that those with money can do more than those without. Unlike Jack White, most bands can't afford to haul in eight vinyl pressing machines from Germany when they want to go back to analog. Because of the expense and overloaded plants, pressing music to vinyl isn't always practical for the independent musician, and while the beloved cassette tape is an affordable alternative, it's decidedly environmentally unfriendly and impractical. Most independent bands, strapped by the financial realities of making music on their own, can't afford publicists to pump out their music to ears and inboxes across the world.
In Montreal, Raymond Biesinger and Drew Demers, who play together in punk outfit The Famines, were running up against those restraints. Mammoth Cave, their label and vinyl pressing partners, had shut down, noting that they were both "financially and spiritually" bankrupt. Biesinger and Demers were left without the money or means to keep putting out their work on wax. But the two friends weren't ready to quit on releasing music, so they devised a physical alternative to circumvent the "format gentrification" that put vinyl out of reach: they'd release music on paper. Literally.
Biesinger and Demers started putting out their music via download codes on intricately illustrated posters, and soon they had the idea to involve other bands. Their first "paper compilation" featured songs from 23 independent Canadian bands, disseminated on a 20x30" double-sided poster. They called their newfound label Pentagon Black. "With vinyl releases and with cassette releases, you find a little download code on a piece of paper," Demers explains. "So instead of having a thing with the download within the other thing, we just have a giant piece of beautiful paper." Biesinger notes the environmental upsides of the basic format: "One of our pals who runs a tape label was saying, 'We sell exclusively tapes, and I'm convinced that 90 percent of them are just a vector for a download code and actually don't get played.' It's a symbolic object."
When asked if the decision to keep Pentagon Black outside the traditional PR system was ethical or practical, and Biesinger doesn't miss a beat: "It's both." He allows himself a touch of pride for their project: "I think we can say this about ourselves: I think we're actually kind of clever." He and Demers just released their third 'paper LP,' a compilation with independent bands from across Canada. It's the third compilation, but the first of its kind stylistically, as the bands all recorded their tracks live using a phone. Canadian illustrator Lisa Czech handled the graphics, hosted on a six by six inch postcard. The total budget for the 16-band release totalled just two hundred dollars.
Pentagon Black's mission is to reconcile the idealism of music creation with the unforgiving economics that typify the business. Their paper LPs are aligned with "the true state of the economics of being an artist." "I don't think that it's a hard sell on musicians," Demers notes. "They see the value and the cost-efficient way that we do it."
Biesinger adds bluntly, "It is in fact easy, and it's the only reason we're doing it. It's just gotten rid of so much of the risk of being in a band." Whereas a tour of unsold vinyl meant a $3000 debt on their credit cards, the paper LPs are considerably less costly for the duo. "It might be weird to some purists, [but] it's given us a new life."
The paper LPs are certainly a pragmatic sidestep of a prohibitively expensive industry, but they're also an explicitly communal medium, convening bands from thousands of miles away. When musicians sell the compilation at their shows, they're not just supporting their own track, but the work of a dozen other Canadian artists. "You have so many different artists all pushing individually out of their own self-interest, but also pushing your music as well," Demers notes.
Across the country, bands planned release shows for the compilations, generating interest and awareness within their local scenes. From Halifax to Edmonton, the paper compilations are gaining traction, and bands are hitting the road because of it. Touring in Canada is notoriously difficult to execute outside of southern Ontario, and the connections made through Pentagon Black make the trek a little easier. "We would see events cropping up across the country, and it was these artists who have never played together, and they're now seeking each other out actively," Demers says excitedly. "They're playing together, they're sleeping on each other's floors. I think that we basically set up this trade route across Canada."
Bands from coast to coast are already onboard with Pentagon Black's vision. Bill Northcott from Winnipeg's Microdot heard about the project from The Famines' website (which also functions as Pentagon Black's website; Demers quips, "We're a record label without a website"). "It's a new twist on the idea of a cross-country underground compilation," Northcott explains "[It] isn't stifled by someone else's idea of what can and can't be done." His bandmate, Rob Nay, agrees. "Pentagon Black creates a cool vehicle to carry music down a range of far-reaching routes," he says. "It pools together the resources of multiple bands, and it also helps spread their reach wider than operation on their own in a lot of cases. It seems to us like a really smart update on the positive principles of longstanding underground scenes."'
Penelope Stevens, who plays bass, synth, and organ in New Brunswick's Motherhood, is excited to see a broader independent network develop in the country. She and her band co-ran the Shifty Bits Cult, a group dedicated to community-building events in their province, so the Pentagon Black compilations were a spiritual parallel. "Motherhood has always been interested in [and] occupied by DIY community organizing," she notes. "The Pentagon Black crew has been extremely transparent as far as information sharing, financial figuring, and general decision making. They explain why they make the decisions they make, ask for artists' input, and move ahead with opportunities on a first-come, first-serve basis, rewarding artists that are interested in putting the work in. We really appreciate that approach."
Perhaps another common denominator among Pentagon Black participants is that they don't fit the mold of the radio-friendly Canadian scene. "Artists from outside of 'music cities' also struggle to build their networks, gain exposure, and build relationships," Stevens notes. "Because our music doesn't fit the New Brunswick stereotypes (no fiddles!), we have to fight tooth-and-nail to be taken seriously in the Canadian music hegemony."
Similar frustrations have been articulated by artists on the margins of the country's music scene: the popular Canadian industry privileges and upholds a very white, very Anglo-centric standard, and those bands that don't conform often don't enjoy the same economic prosperity and popularity as those that do. So, they're forced to create their own avenues. "We, by necessity, approach our work from a DIY stance, working with those we trust and supporting artists we admire," Stevens says. "I think the same could be said of many Pentagon Black artists. It's important that we, too, have support, which a DIY community like [Pentagon Black] is able to provide."
Biesinger and Demers encourage bands to find new and unique ways to build on their project and organize among themselves. The Pentagon Black compilations are just the first building block. "Everyone has their own interpretation of what it means to them," Demers says. Biesinger adds, "And that's by design. It's neat to see all these imaginative people find different ways to apply this thing that we've given them."
Luke Ottenhof is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.