How One Independent Record Label Defied the Odds in Difficult Times
Submitted by Evelyn Robinson
On October 2nd, nearly a decade since their last release, the eight-piece Canadian instrumental rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Godspeed for short) announced a new album, Allelujah! Don't bend! Ascend! The announcement came without any pre-publicity and without any hype, but fans were certain about the album’s quality before they’d heard a single note, and the band’s record label was forced to suspend pre-orders a mere 24 hours after the announcement due to the sheer volume of requests.
Godspeed’s absence can partly be attributed to logistics, and partly to an existential crisis. On the latter, it’s no secret that founding member Efrim went through a period of deep malaise around the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003, and he felt that the purely instrumental nature of the band wasn’t sufficient to express his feelings about the state of the world. As for logistics, it is of course no easy task to transport nine musicians, their equipment, and their crew across multiple countries around the globe; even for a one-member group it poses problems, as fellow Montreal musician Grimes discovered recently when all of her equipment was stolen at a gig in Manchester, England. "Something as simple as taking out professional cover at least mitigates against this logistical pitfall, but an existential crisis can take much longer to resolve."
So what is it about Godspeed and their record label, Constellation Records that draws such attention at a time when so many record labels and the bands they represent are struggling to succeed? True, the audiences Godspeed and Constellation are reaching don’t match the numbers commanded by some of the majors, but when compared with other independent labels of their ilk, Constellation’s endurance and fan loyalty mark them out as a unique brand within the community of Canadian independent record labels.
In one of their typically thoughtful interviews prior to their hiatus beginning in 2003, Godspeed acknowledged how some fans perceived their reticence to engage more with the music press as an effort to remain “wilfully obscure”. In truth, they found their dealings with the press contrived and the published outcome often misrepresented their true message, even if that message was a little ambiguous. Constellation Records has adopted a similar modus operandi over the years, and it might be argued that the root of the label’s success lies in its willingness to grant the bands on its roster the freedom to operate as they please. What separates Constellation from so many other record labels is its resistance to the idea that bands are there to be packaged and sold, and thus must be controlled. Few other bands with Godspeed’s stature could get away with such limited exposure to the conveyor belt of pre-release publicity, but Constellation is content to let the music do the talking. In a world where information overload is the norm, there’s something distinctly old-fashioned about this approach, and it brings its own benefits too – the popular online music site Pitchfork Media ran the story about Godspeed’s new album within moments of the announcement, ensuring the message would instantly go viral.
Slow and Steady
The “less is more” effect isn’t just limited to Constellation’s dealings with the press. The label is notorious for its subdued release cycle, putting out just a handful of albums each year. Given the quality of the bands signed to the label, this ensures that a new release on Constellation is always met with interest from fans and the music press alike, and the scarcity of releases means that the label has the time and resources to package their albums with care: the hand-crafted album artwork is often as striking as the music, and dedicated fans are treated to gorgeous 180g vinyl (the new Godspeed album also features a 12”x48” pull-out poster). A record on Constellation, then, is not just a product but a collectable item – it is a uniquely physical possession in a world where ethereal downloads are outnumbering their tangible counterparts. It also helps that the label sends a handwritten note of thanks with each item ordered through their mail order service.
In summary, this is the formula that has kept one Canadian independent record label flourishing for a decade and a half: understatement, scarcity, and attention to detail. As some labels in their desperation grasp at the latest marketing gimmicks to reclaim lost sales, Constellation has succeeded by maintaining one simple asset: integrity. It seems to have worked.