For international stars and local Montreal acts alike, it’s becoming more common for physical copies to arrive after a digital launch — when they arrive at all.
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I’m an endangered species of music fan: In 2022, I still buy CDs.
Not as many as I used to, mind you, when I’d pop into HMV at Ste-Catherine and Peel Sts. almost weekly and walk out with a fresh stack, occasionally taking advantage of their overly generous return policy.
Since streaming doles out percentages of pennies per play, buying a record still feels like the most direct way to support hard-working local artists. But that’s when there’s a physical album available, which is becoming less commonplace.
In the pre-streaming days, when torrents were the scourge of the industry, I was accumulating boxes of CDs from my time as an album reviewer for the Montreal Mirror in the late 2000s. When I was on the Polaris Music Prize grand jury in 2017, I received all 10 shortlisted albums on CD for evaluating purposes.
When Montreal’s own Backxwash won the Polaris Music Prize in 2020 for God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It, there was no official CD to hand out. It’s an album that doesn’t exist in any physical form, or even on streaming services thanks to sampling issues. Whereas my collection of Montreal music from the indie heyday just over a decade ago is neatly catalogued on my shelf, the current era is a hodgepodge of playlists and mislabelled files, at risk of getting lost in the shuffle.
At the moment, you won’t be able to find Skiifall — one of the most exciting young artists to emerge from the city — in a record store, but now that he’s signed to XL Recordings in the U.K. (Adele’s former label home), expect that to be rectified. Even Kaytranada’s Bubba, the Grammy winner for best dance/electronic album in 2021, was never released on CD, unless you want to give an eBay bootleg a try. On his website, the $40 double LP of Bubba is long sold out, and with vinyl releases treated more like collectors’ items these days, once they’re gone, you never know when they might return.
Contrary to rosy reports earlier this year, the compact disc is not making a comeback. Sales are up a tick for the first time since 2004, but in March, Sony announced the closure of its last disc production facility in the U.S., moving its entire operations to Salzburg, Austria. Meanwhile, vinyl pressing plants are stretched thin as demand for the format grows and the costs for materials balloon. Friday is weekly release day for the music industry, but it’s becoming more common for vinyl to come weeks or even months after the initial digital launch.
No one is immune to delays, even industry vets and big label acts. Fans of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis had to wait a little longer for the physical release of the duo’s album Carnage last year. Noted vinyl revivalist and Third Man Records founder Jack White even called his upcoming tour, which stops at Place Bell in Laval on April 16, the Supply Chain Issues Tour.
In terms of Montreal artists, Basia Bulat’s The Garden came out via local imprint Secret City on Feb. 25, but the physical release was a month later. Myriam Gendron’s beautiful folk release Ma délire — Songs of Love, Lost & Found was the toast of 2021 best-album lists, but the vinyl, a joint release between U.S. label Feeding Tube and European label Les Albums Claus, is only finding its way into North American mailboxes and record stores now.
“I think the pandemic affected supply chains quite a bit, and an already fragile industry couldn’t handle the increased demand,” said Gendron. “We made several bids before entrusting the task to a Dutch company. Originally the records were supposed to be ready in December, then it got delayed a bit. The vinyl was finally released in Europe at the end of January, but we forgot to plan for delays related to transatlantic transport.
“I received my copies two months later, at the end of March. In all, it took almost a year from the time I sent my master tapes to the time I could hold the vinyl in my hands. It’s long, but I’m very satisfied. It’s essential.
“I’m happy I can finally honour all of the Bandcamp orders,” Gendron added. “But all the copies I received have already been sold — there’s nothing left.”
A second run of the vinyl is coming in June, entirely made in Quebec.
The Lyonz are a hip-hop duo from Montreal who spin vinyl at DJ sets around town, so there’s an added connection to the format.
“We played an all-vinyl set last night, and we got to throw in one of our songs. Thankfully, we had it pressed,” Anthony Salvo, one-half of the group, said recently.
Like many acts born in the playlist era, the Lyonz steadily released two songs every month or so in the lead-up to their album Change in Colour, which came out in October. Only one single was released on vinyl, as a limited-edition 10-inch, and the LP itself exists only online. They’ve looked into getting the album pressed, but so far it hasn’t panned out. When you’re an independent artist, you’re often the one seeking out a willing participant in vinyl production.
“We have friends who’ve waited over a year to get their records,” said Lyonz member Terrell McLeod Richardson. “We respect dance music culture and how vinyl fits into that, so it’s important for us to get it done eventually, one way or another.”
Some independent artists eschew the album format entirely, appealing to shortened attention spans by going one single or EP at a time. But in November, St-Léonard rapper Rowjay went the full-release route with the sprawling Carnaval de Finesse 2: Les Chroniques d’un Jeune Entrepreneur, a 19-track, 55-minute opus that until now has only been on streaming.
With demand building locally and in France and Belgium, Rowjay finally has CD copies to sell. Five hundred, to be exact. They’ll be available at his next Montreal show, April 20 at Ausgang Plaza.
“I don’t really see a point as an independent artist to try and sell in big stores,” Rowjay said. “But I think it’s good business if you’re selling directly to the consumer. It didn’t cost me much to print 500 copies, and I think I can sell them all.”
Even if younger members of his fan base are content to stream, he said some have asked about a physical copy as a sort of commemorative tchotchke. Rowjay intends to mark the album’s one-year anniversary with a vinyl release, and has an even rarer collectors’ edition of the CD in the works.
“I think it’s a great way to build a relationship with your fan base,” he added.
Last year, former Montrealer D-Track released Hull, an ode to his Gatineau home, with beats from Outaouais native Nicholas Craven. He’s on a label, Coyote Records, and if you ever check out Sunrise Records and its fairly impressive section devoted to Quebec rap, you’ll notice plenty of copies of his 2019 album Dieu est un Yankee. But Hull is nowhere to be found, though there was a social media post from around the time of the album’s release in which he’s unboxing copies at home.
Turns out you can procure a CD if you go to one of his shows or direct message him. Vinyl copies are on the way this month, courtesy of U.S. label Novelty Records.
“With Hull, my label wouldn’t print CDs because it’s not profitable,” D-Track explained. “I pretty much printed CDs by myself, so I only sell them at shows or if people holler at me. It’s not distributed in stores, unlike my older albums.”
On a local level, it doesn’t hurt to go directly to the source if you really want a physical copy of an album.
In an interview about her album The Garden, Bulat offered some perspective on my record-collecting conundrum. Now that streaming dominates the listening space, perhaps we’re all just renting much of our music for the foreseeable future and physical records are a privilege to own.
“I love having records that you can hold, and I love being part of that world, because I think it’s actually a very short-lived world,” Bulat said. “For most of music’s history, we haven’t had physical copies. It’s been a short time that the medium has even existed.”
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