The most downplayed part of college is the live music. By far. You don’t always get to see bands before they transform into Nickelback for $5. Colleges are where the bands play before they turn into big deals. But behind the closed doors of the Canadian college music scene, is a tight-knit network of bands, promoters, event planners, and, of course, colleges. Here’s the story of three bandsall Canadian, all with different audiencesthat broke the college market. And why.

 

By RYAN BOLTON, originally published in TRAVIS magazine

 

It’s late on a wintry Tuesday night at a college bar. Blue and red lights fall on the plaid-wearing students rocking back and forth with alcoholic beverages cradled in one hand. The other hand is jutting straight in the air like a semi-religious experience. They start to sing along. They know the words to this song. The lead singer, “feeling it,” just points the black microphone in the crowd’s direction, catching their collective voices for the chorus. They know this song.

It’s OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson.” But OutKast isn’t anywhere in sight. It’s the Arkells adding their indie flavour to the massive hit from 2001. And they’re doing it justice. And so is the Sheridan College crowd swaying to and fro, blurting out, I’m sorry Ms. Jackson. Oooh. I am for real. Never meant to make your daughter cry. It’s one of those moments where the crowd and the band get lost together. The slouching economy doesn’t matter. The subpar grade on your last essay about Virginia Woolf doesn’t matter. Your boyfriend being a Jersey Shore-like jerk last night doesn’t matter, either. You’re caught up in the music. Everything is where it needs to be. Cheap beer in hand. Friends at side. An industry-breaking band plugging hard for 250 students. College life seems to be all right in this moment.

Canadian films tend to suck. We can’t compete with big-budget Hollywood flicks with steamy actors like Matt Damon and Halle Berry. We can’t even get the storytelling right when we do have a decent budget (ahem, Passchendaele). Canadian television makes us want to inflict pain upon ourselves. Canadian literature is passable, but it doesn’t compare (and never has) to the works of American and British wordsmiths. Otherwise than curling, we do have something to be damn proud of, though: Our music. Running back to Gordon Lightfoot and Rush, Canada has always caught the attention of a world audience. We have an abundant resource of oil, nickel and musical talent. With our relatively small population, we can certainly pound it out on an international stage. (With all the hate set aside, Nickelback was the highest-ranking band of the decade, says Billboard. You can’t just ignore that.) It’s not a bad thing whatsoever that Canadian radio needs to play at least 35 percent of Canadian content, up from 30 percent in 1998, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). It gets the talent out there, circulating in our coffee shops and in our college bars. And so it has for a few generations now.

Arguably, this is part of the reason why Canadian music is so strong—we have a lot invested. Another, more paramount reason is a healthy and demanding university and college market, with much hyped frosh and frost weeks. With some 53 percent of the population attaining a post-secondary diploma of some kind, according to StatsCan, our students demand a certain level of talent. And here in the Great White North, that typically amounts to live bands playing until their fingers bleed to impress the college market. Not all, but most of Canada’s biggest acts in recent years first broke the Canadian college scene before they joined the ranks of mainstream artists. And it’s been happening for a long time now. Like some tribal rite of passage, up-and-coming Canadian musical artists must endure the savage waters of college bars. If they gain approval trumping the frosh week circuit across such a monstrous country, topping college radio, they move forward. If they don’t, they end up dismantling into smaller, bands that make a go at things on MySpace. Or they take the more common route: Turning into house bands playing to cougars and heavy drinkers at the local dive that dishes out wings for 50 cents a pop. It’s just how the record spins.

Plugging away for six years in academia—first at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I worked at both the pub and nightclub, and then at Sheridan—I took in a lot of shows. Both inside and outside of the school grounds. I went out to each show soaking up the music culture. There is a different mood, anticipation for college shows than your typical rock show in any city on any given night. There’s more effort put into the college shows by means of publicity, production value and hype all the way down to how the bands perform. The college shows are packed with friends that you share the hallways with. They’re of similar age and share similar interests. They’re just as amped to be at the show as you are, just as pumped to not be sitting through Intro to Business. College shows have always kept their distance from regular club shows. The beer is slightly smoother. The anticipation bubbles a little bit more. The atmosphere is more welcoming, but just as equally fired up. And the bands, well, they tend to play that much harder.

Arkells play hard. It could be to 15 half-drunk kids stumbling around The Dakota Tavern or in front of a rowdy outdoor crowd at V-Fest—they jam hard. Their modern-rock ballads fused with Springsteen-like messages always hit hard, making you take notice. Part of the reason for this, according to Max Kerman, the mini-Afro-sporting frontman, is because the Hamilton band got their start playing the small college shows. They paid their dues getting chewed up by the fault-finding college crowd. Indeed, the quintet not only got their start, but met at McMaster University in Hamilton. Nick Dika, Mike DeAngelis and Max met in first year. Dan Griffin joined the mix in third year and Tim Oxford joined shortly thereafter. By 2007, while all in school, Arkells were solidified. It was the same year they pumped out their debut EP, Deadlines.

It was the typical young band start. They would “harass” the school’s promoter into letting them open for illScarlett and The Trews when they came to town. They would play as many shows as they could, often jumping on a crammed Greyhound bus with some of their equipment to play a gig in London or Toronto. On some nights they would play a show in, say, Guelph and get back to Hamilton around 2 a.m. and then start to thrust out an essay by 11 a.m. So was the life.

“It was kind of crazy in retrospect,” says Kerman, before the Sheridan show where he rapped the OutKast tune. But being in school was a solid way to play a lot of gigs while learning the ropes while they went. They were somehow able to balance their academics while growing as a band. A prolific band at that. “The small, empty shows was where we got to grow our teeth out a little, because we learned you have to try to put on a good show no matter what.” In those years—which for the band, really, weren’t that long ago—they played the opener shows, which built their character, defined their chemistry and made them play that much harder.

As they all graduated in 2008, it was a quick transition point. They were scooped up by Joel Carriere at Dine Alone Records who reached out to the band through MySpace. Trading in the essays for gigs, the band played everywhere. They started to criss-cross the country playing the college hot spots (they played Sheridan last January for an acoustic set). And although they have run the gamut of shows and audiences—they have played Edgefest, the Telus World Ski & Snowboard Festival in Whistler and traveled with the Waking Eyes, not to mention sharing the stage with Alexisonfire, Constantines and Sam Roberts Band—they carved their groove out of the college market. Now, they’re one of the most acclaimed Canadians bands in recent memory, save for maybe Bedouin Soundclash, to have done so. And really, with their LP Jackson Square only dropping in late 2008, Arkells are still youngins in the college stream. The next stop is doing what the Tragically Hip could never do: Breaking the U.S. college market. And ditto with Europe.

“Some of my favourite shows in the last few months have been college shows,” says Kerman as he sinks into a black couch above Sheridan’s Connexion bar. “There’s a unique energy about the room. It’s a different environment than just playing clubs. We were talking about it last week that we wish we could play more college shows…” he continues before suddenly cutting himself off.

“I’m not pandering to your magazine article at all, it’s sincere.”

Starting out as Rainbow Butt Monkeys, Finger Eleven has played a shitload of colleges. Sheridan being a common stomping ground for the veteran five-piece hailing from the neighbouring city of Burlington. Now, one of the country’s biggest alternative bands, having picked up platinum status with their self-titled 2003 album and snatching Rock Album of the Year at the 2008 Juno’s, Finger Eleven has had a long climb. It all started with the college shows.

“It made our careers,” Rick Jackett, one the band’s guitarists, tells me. “That’s what we did: We constantly toured playing Canada’s colleges.”

Making their start in the suburban fields of Burlington, there weren’t a lot of local venues. There was a lot of talent coming out of the city band-wise, but nowhere to plug into. So the band, who at the time ran under the unserious and slightly humourous handle of Rainbow Butt Monkeys, started to set up gigs in Hamilton, Oakville and Toronto. (They transferred over to the Finger Eleven moniker after signing with Coalition Entertainment and released their breakthrough album, Tip in 1997.) “Sheridan College was a big one for us. We played there quite a few times,” says a genial Jackett, looking back fondly on the nascent years.

The band still accounts a college show as the first time they played outside of the GTA bubble to a crowd that cared about their music. They were playing in Thunder Bay as the Butt Monkeys to a strong turnout. The audience was anticipating them and they even knew their lyrics. And better yet, they were given the rider they requested and were given a “safe place” to stay at night. “We actually felt like a real band then.”

As the chart-topping band is currently penning new material for their sixth studio album—due out sometime this year—they say the college market is where the boat started to sail. College shows have left an impression on them, just as they have probably left an impression on the audience, says Jackett. It was the college scene that buoyed Finger Eleven “when all other avenues go away.” The band only recently started to lose the self-doubt that they could make music their career. “It took a long time to justify being in a band,” says Jackett, introducing a serious air to his typically jovial tone. “It was more recent than you would think that we thought we could actually make this a career.” Having released their first album back in 1995, 15 years is a long time to finally feel unsure in the music industry. It’s just how the record spins, apparently.

“I just want to stress for young bands that it sometimes gets lonely when you start,” offers Jackett as a final note, a sense of service accompanying his words. “You don’t know where to start. But the college market is a great place to start. I mean, that’s where we got our start.” Now look at them.

When Bif Naked’s voice rings out over the radio, you know who it is. Your mind immediately jumps to a visual of a tattooed chick with long, black hair that knows how to rock out. It’s OK, it happens to all of us. She has that distinctive vocal pitch that catches your attention and makes you question if she’s yelling at you. She’s not. Well, not really. But the veteran music rocker and female idol in her own right, has had a long and turbulent career spanning 20 years. And like many other bands, she got her start when she was still in school. Naked—it’s weird to call someone by that, her real name is Beth Torbert—was in her first year at the University of Winnipeg when she started to play in her first band, Jungle Milk. It was a large collection of “real hippy-dippy” musicians that played world music that included Bad Brains covers. “It was a really nurturing introduction for me as an individual firstly, and as a musician,” the 38-year-old rocker recalls. “I definitely credit that type of idealistic naiveté that I had as a liberal arts student.” After Jungle Milk broke up, Naked joined a punk thrash band called Gorilla Gorilla, which was when she took on the Bif Naked title. Shortly thereafter, she made it on her own, carving out her territory in a largely male-oriented industry at the time. “I was quite undaunted by this and it carried me through for the last 20 years.” She won’t say it, but Naked definitely led the way for other female-fronted Canadian bands like Metric and Dragonette. Not to forget Tegan and Sara, whom Naked attributes as a real “success story.”

When Bif Naked started out, people questioned her scene. Because there really wasn’t a “scene” similar to Naked at the time. She was too eclectic and eccentric. “A lot of people just didn’t get it,” she explains over the phone from Vancouver. “They didn’t think that it was necessary for me to have a punk song, a thrash song, a rap song and a ballad [together on an album]. Like, ‘What is with this tattooed girl?’” But the college scene didn’t care. They embraced Naked.

“I know that a lot of Canadian musicians basically cut their teeth touring across Canada during frosh week.” She can’t say it’s the same as it was 10 or so years ago, but “personally we relied on it and looked forward to it every fall.” They were eventually able to book shows throughout the school year at colleges across the country.

It was during a college show back in 1995—she thinks it was at York University—that she first felt validated as an artist. They were getting ready to play a big show that had industry insiders wandering around. The band was nervous. While they were waiting to hit the stage, they were watching MuchMusic when “Tell On You”—Naked’s first single—came on. It was then that she knew it was possible to “make her mark” in the industry. It was possible to make it with her “weird” music, she says, because she was honest, always forgoing a façade to hide behind. And as we continue our chat, I can see why. As we discuss up-and-coming bands—she also likes The New Pornographers—she swiftly jumps into her recent battle with breast cancer. It’s all a part of her personal, tell-all self. But she keeps it ever-light, joking about her “cancer vacation”—the only year in the past couple decades that she didn’t tour.

“Cancer is weird,” she beings, nonchalantly. “People feel isolated and alienated… cancer diagnosis in our society carriers with it an embarrassment.” As she has finished her dosage of chemotherapy, she still volunteers at the local cancer agency to “basically make an ass of myself and try to make everybody laugh.” You don’t hear of many people that have opened for Gwar doing that.

Back at the Arkells show, things are clearing up. I watch a kid with a slouchy black beanie stumble into the boys washroom, evidence of a good night.  I watch a fashion-forward girl’s face light up after snagging a signature from the band. One of those “what-a-wicked-night” smiles. Sitting behind a makeshift table in the corner of the bar, the shaggy-haired boys that make up the Arkells are signing whatever is thrown their way: posters, CDs, T-shirts. I then see Chuck Erman, the guy that brings the talent to Sheridan, guiding a couple timid students up to the table where the band is dishing out the marker ink. A little nervous, the two meek kids stop and wait in line. I pull Erman aside.

The way it works for Erman—and others like him in the college market—is like a scout. Unlike a dog with its nose to the ground, Erman has his eyes scanning MySpace. He’s always plugged into his internal network of agents, marketers and record labels hunting for who’s hot at the time. “When you break the music industry in this country, you find it’s a very small network,” he says, having put on some 200 shows with over 10 years in the business. He is always shopping around for the next band to break. That’s his thing. Hence the Arkells. Hence Hail the Villain. And hence Lights last year before her first music video dropped. The college promoters whisk up the bands after they have drudged up some hype in their local city, be it Toronto, Vancouver or wherever. After that, a lot of these bands get a shot on the deal-breaker stage, which in this country, is known as COCA (Canadian Organization of Campus Activities). Erman sits as the chair of COCA’s National Conference Committee. He has the scoop before there is a scoop. It’s here that buzz-worthy bands get to perform in front of campus event planners from across Canada—from Memorial University in Newfoundland to the University of British Columbia. If bands wow, they automatically have a “built-in cross-Canada tour.” That’s how Bedouin Soundclash took off—they had 13 shows booked out of a COCA conference. Same story with Billy Talent, Finger Eleven, Alexisonfire and Metric.

Erman, peeling off his baseball cap, chalks it up like this: “Pretty much anyone that is considered a marquee band in the last few years has, at one time, played some college in some part of Canada.” Why? Because the college market is the test field, warming up the novices for the big leagues. As the targeted demographic (18- to 25-year-olds that have money) the industry keeps an eye on the opening band to see how they fare at a college. It’s basic algebra: If the band turns heads, gets the kids talking, they get more gigs. If the kids head to the bar looking to drown out the music, the bands hit up the dive bars. (See: cougars and 50 cent wings.)

The Arkells pop their heads into Erman’s office to wave goodbye. The band looks tired, but you can still make out the sheen in each of their eyes. That sheen of a good night. The sheen of being one of the hottest tickets on the college market right now.

I turn back to Erman, curious. After these guys, who is the next big band to break, I question.

“I have no idea,” Erman laughs. It’s just how the record spins, I guess.

Written by Ryan Bolton

Ryan is a Toronto-based writer and photographer that likes to break the rules. His work has taken him around the world to do what he truly loves—storytelling. And drinking cold beer.

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