Driving the back-roads of Canadian culture is no easy task. Detours, dead-ends and cavernous pot-holes mark the way. But these distinctive land-marks are the strange, unknown and enticing possibilities that make the journey worth the effort. Looking for independent Canadian culture? — take the tiny unmarked roads travelled by very few people. That’s where you’ll find the Canadian underground, identified by dogged and distinctive cultural enterprises pursued by artists of all disciplines and publishers of every format for no profit and very little recognition. These are artists who are struggling not to get out of the pot-holes, off the dirt-roads and back to the highway, but to get so far away from the beaten path that the thruways of conformity are finally forgotten. Or are they?
Over the last few years, attitudes have changed. The image of the crazed Canuck artist ignored in Canada and sporting a perilous following in certain European countries has given way. Suddenly, it’s hip to be cool and cool to be different. Consumers are following the new Canadian underground on a four-lane parallel course leading from the factory to the bank. Bands, publishers, comic artists and even zine-makers are seeing dollar signs, pouring pavement and trying not to get their t-shirts dirty. New Canadian culture is mean, marketable and looks a lot like the hipster ‘counter-culture’ of our Southern neighbors.
We used to live in a country where government recognized that the arts were an essential and lasting element of society. In that country, grants were given out fairly generously, and there was enough money floating around the various Canadian cultural industries for the really desperate, the actual artists, to occasionally get thrown a bone to gnaw on. Now, with the Liberal government in Ottawa and the Conservatives in Ontario leading the charge to dismantle the grant system, what little money there is tends to go to middle-class projects of no interest to younger generations. Corporate arts organizations are eating up the cash, and appealing to their version of the main-stream public. Fringe artists are out in the cold.
At the same time, technology has developed to the point where large numbers of people with some education, plenty of time and a little bit of cash can create quality cultural product. Innovations in technology have not only made it much cheaper and easier to put out, say, an indie CD, or a glossy magazine, they have also made it easier to market and distribute such products. Nowadays, if you are looking to get things done in the business world of alternative culture you probably have a fax machine, email, a laser printer, a web site and an answering machine with call display. These technologies, when used correctly, conspire to make crazed schmucks in their basements look like serious entrepreneurs. So a drying up of grants has caused people to become more serious about their image, their product and their marketing skills.
At the same time, government’s move to ultra-conservative government-by- deficit has shifted the polarity of the population. Now more than ever, people are looking for alternatives to the slick corporate hand-shake and the dismantling of social programs. Where do they find these alternatives? In this same product-conscious new Canadian underground. Corporate distrust might be nothing more than a trend, but in Canada it is driving buyers toward that spot where independent culture is poking its ugly nose out of the back-roads. Sales are up. Peter Hardman, marketing director at indie label and indie distributor Cargo Records, puts it this way: “We’ve had some lucky and successful years.”
Leading the consumer revolution in underground Can-con are the kids. The reason ads are suddenly post-modern, the CBC is programming inner city angst and ‘rock’ radio stations have gone ‘alternative’ is because that’s what the kids are buying. Montreal based Hardman explains the sudden popularity of independent music as the result of a self-fulfilling trend.
“What’s happening now,” he says, “is like what happened in Britain in the late seventies where an unbelievable amount of new talent chose to sign with indie labels. And now, the late eighties decline of British music and a bursting creativity in Canada has led to something similar happening here. Artists in Canada like Hayden and Treblecharger and, of course, the Barenaked Ladies, achieved success with independent releases. So where a few years ago artists thought it wasn’t possible, now they have examples that show it is possible. That is a real inspiration for people who, ideologically, feel more comfortable working with an indie.”
In other words, economic success has pointed the way forward while luck gives a push from behind. Meanwhile, ‘artists’ like the Barenaked Ladies and Hayden who never really claimed to have an indie ideology signed with major labels as soon as the A&R guys saw the dollar signs. Nevertheless, Hardman accurately pinpoints the way their example has spawned a Renaissance in home-grown music and resulted in the formation of hundreds of bands, new record labels and micro-distribution companies across the country. Most of them will have the life-span of the fruit fly. As Hardman says: “Punters only have so much money. Radio can only play so many records.”
Some might argue that the net result of this independent music boom remains the example it provides younger generations hoping not just for a ‘career’ in music, but in other artistic mediums as well. Do-it-yourself is sweeping the country — or should we call it sell-it- yourself? Whatever implications one wants to attach to this shift in cultural mores, there’s no denying that the god of industry, the market-place, is being affected.
“Availability is a big factor,” says Mississauga zine-maker Paul of the whimsical anti- corporate zines Ground Control and Radio Slack. “And there is a much wider variety of things to chose from for younger generations. Kids who are annoyed with the prevalent culture can find choices and a lot them are getting into the more obscure stuff.”
Ian Danzig, who edits and publishes Canada’s main homage to indie rock, the Toronto based newspaper Exclaim, claims that “for high-school kids now it’s more hip to be into some band you’ve never heard of than to be into some main-stream band.”
The high-school age Paul agrees with Danzig, but shows less enthusiasm for this quest for weirdness.
“Kids will get into alternative culture,” he explains, “but only as long as it’s not ‘scary’. At last year’s Lollapalooza, Marginal [a distributor of mostly American small-press titles to Canadian bookstores] had a booth set up. At the end of the day they had this thing that listed the top ten titles that were sold. The top seven titles were just fluff even though most of the stuff Marginal carries is political.”
Paul is hinting at the ugly side of Canada developing a US-style, dollar-sustained (if not driven) counter-culture industry. Old-style Canadian culture was grant based, which meant it was not for profit, which meant it didn’t have to sell, which meant that it didn’t immediately eliminate most kinds of artistic endeavors and anything too damn complicated. In contrast, the kind of product being produced by the independent Canadian culture industry of the nineties is the saleable kind. If it doesn’t have a hook, if it can’t be explained in less than five minutes, it isn’t worth doing. Generic angst, violence and bad attitude effectively replace location specific projects that either can’t be marketed, or wouldn’t have a market outside of Canada. The selling of the Canadian underground to the US plays a big role in this shift away from grant based culture. While Canada might be able to sustain some radical culture, the real money is in reaching that huge audience of US hipster consumers. In the US, more often than not, radical culture and corporate culture are indistinguishable in their sales techniques and approaches. Go into a Tower Books and you will see shelves and rows of lurid and enticing titles aimed toward the hipster-youth market. Whether they come from Warner or Semiotext(e), they are all amiable facsimiles of books, heavy on concept but light on content.
In Canada, there’s very little being published for the hipster generation. However, newer publishing houses like Insomniac, Gutter Press and Arsenal Pulp are all looking for that elusive nose-ring population. Mike O’Connor, publisher and founder of Insomniac, recently quit his job to concentrate full time on his publishing endeavors. Obviously, money is coming in. He sees Insomniac’s role as filling the generation gap in Canadian publishing, but remains pessimistic about the chances of the small-press scene in Canada producing interesting work.
“In the golden era of small press publishing, the mid seventies, the small press scene was really happening,” he says. “There was a lot of experimentation and self-publishing. Today if you look at the small press scene it tends to emulate major publishers. So the interesting stuff is happening in zines and other formats. I think a lot of people who used to hope that their work would get published in book form don’t feel that the opportunity really exists anymore.”
Insomniac produces generic but visually enticing books with titles like Angels and Amphetamines. These are anthologies of writers grouped together in a packageable theme. If you didn’t already know that these were all Canadian writers, nothing in the writing would ground these anthologies in place or time. These are perfect books for export. While the quality of the writing varies, the package remains constant and, hopefully, young and oh so sexy.
No one can blame O’Connor for his marketing techniques. He knows that Canadian book-stores are less and less willing to support their own, and increasingly reluctant to take chances. He’s banking on the grants cuts killing off many medium size Canadian publishing houses and leaving a gaping hole waiting to filled by new more aggressive publishers. These publishers, not hindered by any state sentiments about culture, will be sales oriented and ultimately, like the indie record labels, will force corporate concerns to react to a younger market.
That multinational corporations are anxious to imitate independent culture is beyond question. Exclaim’s Danzig is quick to point out that major labels are running ads in his newspaper but leaving off their logos. Record companies and soft-drink companies are producing zines and youth culture magazines.
The primary result of this is a blurring in the middle. With both independent culture and corporate culture going after the same market and, to some extent, even putting out the same product, confusion reigns and art declines.
Les Bowser of Doormouse Distribution — Canada’s major distributor of alternative magazines — says this about the burgeoning and saturated magazine industry: “The more magazines look like they are main-stream magazines, the better chance they have.” He points to the multitude of glossy gay-culture magazines he carries as an example of the kinds of magazines that “sell very very well.” So what’s happening to alternative magazines in Canada? “The market is very specialized,” Les says, “very specific. Magazines like Cannabis Canada do well, magazines that are directed toward a very specialized audience.”
Specialization is a friendly, user oriented term and one that people like to employ to describe the fragmenting of North American culture. The argument here is that if independent culture cannot compete with main-stream culture for a variety of reasons generally related to not having enough money, it must compete by filling a niche market, that is, by appealing to a group in society that shares similar ‘fringe’ interests but is large enough to sustain some kind of product.
This brings us back to zinester Paul and his observation that underground culture must be safe before the majority will buy into it. Most kids don’t want revolution, they aren’t interested in developing a radical life-style and don’t intend to carry a boycott short-list of companies who exploit their workers in the third world. Underground culture for younger generations has to be like a toothless mouth, warm, moist and womb-like. Theoretically, specialization is a more effective tool for a sustainable Canadian underground culture. And, of course, specialized zines and other publications are thriving, with subjects as diverse as consensual S&M, life in Northern Ontario and comics in Winnipeg all producing their own periodicals. However, this is a limited form of cultural expression, not necessarily useless or uninteresting, but certainly subject to a comfortable level of repetition and insularity. A country’s culture is the marker of its past, its present, and its future. If specialization and generic pseudo-underground teen stuff is all that’s left of Canadian alternative culture, then the past looks proud, the present looks ugly, and Canada’s future looks dumb and dumber.
Comic lovers the globe over recognize the Montreal-based comic company Drawn and Quarterly as a paragon of excellence and distinction in the ‘adult’ — non super-hero — comic world. In Holland, they are staging a special exhibit of Drawn and Quarterly material. And yet, publisher Chris Oliveros says that he has “an audience in Canada of 500 in a country of 25 million people.” Oliveros says that the organizers in Holland couldn’t believe that government officials in Canada had never heard of Drawn and Quarterly.
From this we can conclude that great Canadian underground cultural entrepreneurs have little choice but to focus on exports. We can also conclude that creating Canadian culture primarily for export does not have to lead to generic art. So okay, at least there still is an alternative culture in Canada. It might not extend to film, visual arts or theater, but hey, we’ve got one hell of a lot of bands. It’s easy to critique the move toward a sustainable underground in Canada, but a lot harder to suggest other options.
Obviously, the Canadian underground is digging itself out of the forest. If the road less travelled metaphor holds true, then most of the ‘culture’ we will be inundated with over the next few years will be noticeable only for its optimistic blandness. At the same time, the pavement being put down now might make it easier for future generations to create art that proves Canada can support an underground producing distinctly Canadian works of art which, nevertheless, sell all over the world.
Talent is the rarest commodity. There are not many profitable artistic endeavors in Canada today with the credibility and vision of Drawn and Quarterly. Canada is a country that refuses to support its true talents, and rewards mediocrity. That this is the result of a culture corrupted both by a visionless grant system and an obsession with creating a US-style culture of consumption is both the starting and ending point of this article.
The global economy is all well and good, but only a grass-roots local economy can stop underground culture from trail-blazing a path straight to the high-way of consumerism.
The Evolution of Radical Culture in Canada