By Maya-Roisin Slater
VANCOUVER — It might seem like records have served as a shining beacon of hope for the music industry lately. In a world inundated with streaming and illegal downloading, records appear to be the only form of music people will go out of their way to purchase. The phoenix that is vinyl has risen from the ashes of the early 2000s to become a hot topic of debate for some who get going over analogue sound and others who participate in any trend foreshadowed by Urban Outfitter’s online catalogue. Parents have dusted off their collections to bestow upon the grubby hands of starry-eyed Millennials just developing a taste for crate digging. Old bitter kooks who have been yelling from street corners that this was the only way to consume music can rest easy knowing they were right all along. Though it may look from the outside like vinyl is a hot and heavy commodity experiencing a lasting resurgence, there are whispers from the underground that tell a different story. One of these tales comes from an independent Canadian label called Mammoth Cave Recording Company.
Mammoth Cave was started in 2008 by passionate musicians and frustrated prairie boys Paul Lawton and Evan Van Reekum with the intent of documenting the work of underrated Alberta bands who were making amazing music and still going unrecognized by major labels. In their six-year tenure as music lovers and distributors they have released material from top notch acts like Calgary’s Teledrome, Vancouver’s Nervous Talk, Lawton’s own The Ketamines, and curated an impressive series of 7-inch compilation albums recorded by various Canadian bands. On February 26, Mammoth Cave announced that after many years of fighting back and a lot of money lost they will be closing down. The death of this small yet influential label opens up an interesting conversation about the brutal conditions independent labels face in order to release the otherwise unheard music of their favourite local bands. With a sinking Canadian dollar, rising postage costs, an archaic music grant system, and illegal downloading and streaming rearing its ugly head as the standard in music consumption, the obstacles presented on the journey to pressing seem unsurpassable.
Lawton says the most discouraging part about working in the vinyl pressing business is a combination of “The collective disinterest in music that isn’t heralded by key PR agencies, pressing plant woes and Canada Post.” He goes on to say that, “It’s basically all discouraging, which is why we stopped.” This is where that interesting conversation we mentioned earlier about the obstacles proprietors of local music face takes a dark turn. Not a turn that winds into an uncomfortable open ended conversation, but a turn that ends with this conversation ceasing altogether, abruptly and without resolution. Those who are championing the music that sweaty teenagers in rural towns are fawning over in their corresponding illegal venues, championing the music played by your friend’s band that blows you away, championing the music scene kids will make zines or medium quality music magazines about, these people are losing confidence. When those who took the “quitting your day job and having your music played on the radio in Paris” style dreams to a practical level start losing faith, that’s when we should all start shitting our shorts. Lawton has not lost faith in the art form, just the bureaucracy around it.
“We still love music, we still love playing music. But the business part of independent music is a laughable joke. Anyone who says they are doing well in the current state of things are flat lying to you.”
On the bright side, the boys behind Mammoth Recording Company aren’t just bitter old squabs with unsolvable complaints. Lowering postage prices and strengthening the Canadian dollar are things that would make pressing easier, but are more difficult for us as the general public to lobby for. However, asking for government funded grant money to be given to the small guys who really need it so they can deal with these factors seems like something the arts community should be able to influence. The grant system has become congested and despite the fact that the proof is in the pudding numbers-wise, the money is still not being spread around to those covering new ground in the independent music scene.
“The millions of dollars of grant money going to Arts & Crafts and Paper Bag (etc)? Yeah, those labels don’t need all that money. I know for 100 per cent fact that we were selling on par with some of their lower-tiered artists. The money is there; spread it around. Period,” Lawton says.
In order to catalyze this change in the distribution of government funded arts money, and to save the brothers and sisters of Mammoth Cave who are still pressing and releasing our favourite Canadian music, we just need to talk. Talk to customers at your day job, people on the bus, creeps in bars, talk about your favourite local bands. Talk about their new releases, talk about that guitar riff you hated and the sarcastic existential observation you really related to. Don’t hoard the small time bands you know about like gold in a pretentious treasure chest, share the music; don’t be afraid to get excited when you find something great. Eventually the demand for releases and re-releases will grow until the people behind the movement become bigger than the obstacles. As Lawton says, we need to champion the things we love. “Tell people about the bands you find out about. Too many people are scared to look dumb. Mammoth Cave was basically a megaphone to talk about the music we loved. Take the Vancouver bands we love and released on vinyl – Needles//Pins, Korean Gut, B-Lines, White Lung, Shearing Pinx, Role Mach, Nu Sensae, Indian Wars, Yung Mums – we love those bands, and wanted to tell everyone we knew about them.”
In the end, Mammoth Cave leaves behind a bittersweet story that sheds light on the current state of the Canadian independent music scene, but more than that they leave behind a discography of incredible music to discover. Lawton is most proud of the footprint that the Bloodstains series left behind “I think the Bloodstains Series will stand the test of time. Look at the Bloodstains Alberta, B.C., Prairies and Ontario 7″s and the zillion bands that got to be part of those records.” He also is proud of the impact they made by giving many Canadian bands a bigger platform. Like lovers leaving a relationship for what seems like a stupid reason, the boys of Mammoth Cave look at the independent music scene and wish they could have done more for it. As the Mammoth Cave era comes to an end, both founders are returning to their roots onstage in unfamiliar towns behind instruments. This summer Van Reekum will be releasing an EP with his band Fist City on the U.K. label Transgres p0-12sive. Lawton is beginning the process of recording with one of his bands Century Palm and is also playing with Tough Age who will be coming to the Astoria on May 2nd.
Fulfill your magpie fantasies and dig through the remains of Mammoth Cave on their website.BC, British Columbia, independent music, Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave closes, Mammoth Cave Recording Company, record labels, vinyl, vinyl records