Secretly Canadian is an independent record label with a wide variety of tasty genres to choose from. You’ll be tempted to lick everything at least once. On the front of their site, the OUTNOW artists’ album covers are shown in miniature squares above the OUTSOON album covers. When you hover over whatever catches your eye, the typically-clever band name is displayed. Their catalog includes “critically-acclaimed” performers such as Suuns, JJ, David Vandervelde, Yeasayer, Windsor For the Derby, Here We Go Magic, The War on Drugs and more. After you make your selection, you are directed to a mouth-watering description of the music itself and a partial description of the artist’s journey. You get a feel for the individual’s personality and interests as well as a glimpse of their sound. Usually, there is a downloadable link where you can grab a sample song. Clicking on their name again takes you to a list of downloads and purchases you can make – every artist has free downloads available. This appears to be the label’s primary lead-in to ultimately generate sales.
I believe that, in this case, the technique of offering free downloads is effective because people will be so delighted to find these particular bands that they will want to support the “little people” in hopes that more music like this will become available. I, myself, was greatly heartened when I sampled the sounds on SecretlyCanadian.com. I felt comforted to know I wasn’t alone in my musical experimentation and creativity – and I also felt a thrill of hope that I might find new artists of interest to me. I’ve long become bored with radio play and I’d all but given up hope that there was anything truly different out there. I believe that many people feel the same way I do about the nauseating repetition of cookie-cutter genres on the radio and on the Billboard hit lists; that’s why companies like this one are so important.
My research on Secretly Canadian revealed that this lean group of 15 was predominantly concerned with “artist development.” Chris Swanson, an original founder of the label, explained to Emile Milgrim from Spacelab Music News that his close-knit group of music and record-culture enthusiasts was interested in creating a catalog which reflected the musical tastes of the company’s members. “It’s really important to us that we put out records of all shapes and sizes,” he professed. As eclectic aficionados and talent scouts, they waded through scores of applicants and retrieved those they found to be the most stimulating. As businessmen, they expanded their horizons, pushing into other arenas, such as distribution, and partnering with other companies in order to attract larger distributors – not in pursuit of fame and fortune, but rather as a way to realize their ambitions for custom handling of each artist. Swanson explained the importance of discovering the “specialness” of each project. He placed great emphasis on keeping the individual musician in mind. His desire was to tailor each campaign to each record. All records are available for online purchase on their websites – as well as on Amazon.com – and, due to Swanson’s big thinking and entrepreneurial maneuvering, they are also available at stores such as Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, CD Universe and Second Spin.
The fan being targeted by Secretly Canadian is clearly one similar to myself: artistic, appreciative of originality, bored with the status quo and desperately in search of something new under the sun. The biggest obstacle facing labels such as this one is summed up in one word: greed. Corporate greed, to be exact. Larger companies swallow independent companies whole – sometimes outright and sometimes merely by virtue of their mass. There are precious few businesses in the United States that are satisfied with sharing the market; most capitalistic entities here in the States prefer to compete only as long as it takes to ultimately monopolize their markets. In the music industry, MTV and VH1 are both holdings of a $13 billion media giant – and there are no real competitors for music television at all. According to Bedford St. Martin’s Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, Clear Channel dominates the airwaves in the United States, boasting ownership of over 1,100 radio stations with access to upward of 110 million listeners. Since Clear Channel has stringent policies which enforce limits on their playlists, it is unlikely that a listener will sample an artist who is Secretly Canadian on the radio. And, although Secretly Canadian is bigger than other labels, it still can’t toss advertising dollars over its shoulder.
But the most obvious obstacle to these fine folks is this: not everyone is going to care about discovering new music and not everyone appreciates art when they hear it. Many people simply prefer to cozy up to what’s familiar and leave the scary unknown outside their door.
However, these obstacles merely hinder the label’s potential for billion-dollar expansion. Is this a problem? These guys have clearly decided that the Billionaire’s Club isn’t really for them, anyway. No; they’re dedicated to the dream. They’re interested in watching creativity bloom and talent thrive. There’s no dollar value on that and that’s what makes it so worthwhile.
In late May 2010, Lala.com – a free online catalog of over 6 million songs from independent artists – was shut down. Apparently, iTunes bought them out in 2009 for $80 million. This site made it possible for new artists to reach consumers in an open, unrestrained forum of artistic expression and reciprocal appreciation. Each user had an online “cloud” where they stored their favorites and could come back to listen to them anytime from virtually anywhere. After the takeover, eager listeners bent on discovery were left with nothing; all virtual clouds evaporated, leaving users drenched in the aftermath of corporate greed and capitalistic aspirations.
I learned of Lala.com’s tragic end as I was doing research for this very assignment. Angered – and a little panicked – I googled frantically to find an alternative source for free, downloadable, independent music. I came upon a site called Spotify, which was structurally similar to Lala.com. It is a place where users can store playlists, search for their favorite artists, share tunes with friends, find similar artists to the ones they enjoy – and even find local artists in their area. Unfortunately, when I tried to subscribe to this magically-delicious-sounding service, I was informed that, although their dream is to have all the music in the world available instantly to everyone wherever they are, “…for the time being, we’re not able to launch in every country. We’re really sorry about this, but it takes time to arrange licensing agreements with record labels and local publishing rights societies. Rest assured we’re doing everything we can to resolve this, and hope to offer Spotify in many more countries as soon as possible.” Spotify is available in Finland, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
I then went on to discover that yet another liberal, cloud-utilizing company – SimplifyMedia – had been obtained by one of the other media monsters, Google. It shut down in March of 2010.
Other alternatives to Lala.com weren’t valid alternatives at all; they were pay sites.
We need more hippies and less billion-dollar corporate takeovers… but for now, we just need some more Kleenex.