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Alissa Quart On Toronto's Breaking Social Scene

20 November 2006

In her New York Times Magazine piece (February 26, 2006; downloadable here) on the Toronto ‘youth’ music scene that revolves around the ‘flagship’ band BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE, ALISSA QUART shows that piercing wit and, at times, brutal insight, are alive and well in today’s muckraking rock journalism. To call Quart’s piece a “24-Hour Party People for the analytical Barnes & Noble sushi-bar set” would not do it justice—as Quart’s emphasis is more on mythologization through demythologization. To those that fear that such demythologizations may rob the music of its mystique and even its fun, Quart’s expose offers a thrilling rebuke in her investigations of the social illusions that, however tentatively, unite consumer and producer in today’s ‘alternative’ music business.

Largely absent from Quart’s piece is a discussion about the music itself. Oh there’s the salutary juxtapositions of seemingly incompatible, or at least diverse, affinities (“Sometimes Broken Social Scene sounds like LAWRENCE WELK crossed with THE REPLACEMENTS, with a little BRIAN ENO in the mix; sometimes it sounds a bit like PAVEMENT; sometimes more like U2, but with JANE BIRKIN on lead vocals”), and the obligatory flattering physical description (in this case KEVIN DREW’s “strawberry blond hair dangling”) and disabused descriptions of the crowd working the singer as evidence of the latter’s charisma, but not much a sense that the band itself has much to say. In some ways, this is a more honest approach to rock journalism. Viewed sociologically, the successful rock (or pop) band, however ‘indie,’ has largely become a placeholder (the ‘sublime object’) that exists more due to a (perceived) market demand than an intrinsic musical or lyrical value. If this sounds dangerously cynical, it must be pointed out that Quart does not quite make this claim herself. Nor is Quart’s article simply a cautionary tale for any young idealistic, yet worldly ambitious, band who still holds on to some notion, however ill-grounded, that rock music can still ‘stick it to the man.’

I take Quart’s article as a challenge, not only to BSS themselves, but to the industry that is now putting its promotional muscle behind them, as well as to any young, or not so young (but nonetheless ‘new’ or undiscovered) band, or even solo act, to consider the implications of their ‘utopian,’ or even incrementalist, goals more thoroughly. Without judging the musicians from a superior, yet envious, ‘detached’ point of view of many other critics, Quart explores what could be called labor issues on the production side of the contemporary consumer industry, catering primarily to a notion of ‘alternative’ youth culture, thus extending the work explored more at length in her celebrated debut tome, Branded.

In the process Quart interviews several avatars of the scene, and reveals contrasts between their particular models of distributing and promoting the music. The contrast, and antagonism, that emerges between two of these men, STEVEN KADO and JEFFREY REMEDIOS is particularly fascinating as Quart, without necessarily taking sides herself, reveals not only these two men’s antagonistic attitudes towards each other, but also hints at discrepancies between thee words they use to present themselves and their actions. While reading Quart’s portraits of these two men, I almost forget I’m reading journalism and am briefly transported into the emotional intrigue of Chekhovian drama. Enter the dramatis personae.

Steven Kado, the 25 year-old spokesman for Blocks Recording Club, has “hipsterish pursuits like urban planning” and coined the term “Torontopia” to “help give a utopian cast to the city’s sprawling but idealistic music community” or one could say to ‘create’ a notion of a community center (though that phase has long since lost its hipster cred in a ways that ‘urban studies’ presumably has not). One of the ways in which Quart fleshes out Kado’s character in her piece is by comparing him to other people who run labels in Toronto. “Compared to the even more D.I.Y. Toronto label, Consumption Records,” Kado is much more of a label with a distribution and profit motive, and strategic with-holding marketing plans. Sure, he’ll use the term ‘recording club’ rather than a ‘label,’ but that may ultimately be a merely linguistic sleight of hand (like the way the term ‘total quality management’ circulated to give the illusion of a more ‘democratic’ office space).

Yet Quart does not only campore Kados to more lo-fi and less professional recording collectives or labels, but also shows him contrasting himself to the bigger labels. As such, Kado could be said to be the protagonist of Quart’s essay, whose voice guides us to the clearest understanding a 25 year-old can have of Toronto’s burgeoning music scene. Quart’s Kado structurally occupies the ‘goldilocksian mean’ between ARISTOTLE’s poles of excess and deficiency. Whether or not Quart herself holds such a mean as a quintessential value, she takes pains to emphasize Kado’s differences with his biggest local nemesis JEFFREY REMEDIOS.

While Quart does not to take sides with either of these men, her initial description of Remedios seems less pejoratively judgmental than her initial desciption of Kado. Remedios is a “polished, affable man of 30.” Furthermore, Remedios is much more willing to acknowledge the role of commerce in his label than Kado is. He named it Arts and Crafts precisely for that reason. Remedios’ philosophy as well as his personal style have certain affinities to TONY WILSON in 24 Hour Party People, who, though a hustler and huckster, is also very proud of his gentle nurturing relationship with his artists—if not quite seeing himself as their ‘keeper.’

Toward the end of the essay, however, Quart quotes Kado’s criticisms of Remedios in ways that could make one rethink Remedios’ integrity. “They (Remedios’ Arts & Crafts label) outsource promotion. They are a slick small organization that is a response to the record industry being doomed. I wish they would own up to being a small business, with a corporate structure.” Out of context, Kado’s charges of Remedios’ hypocrisy seems right on. Furthermore, because Quart places Kado’s negative assessment of Remedios near the end of her essay (in addition to backing it up with another quote by JONNY DOVERCOAT, who also considers Kado to have more integrity than Remedios) and because Quart structures her essay so that Remedios is not allowed to defend himself against these charges, as Kado and Dovercoat essentially get the last word on the matter, it could be assumed that Quart herself largely agrees with Kado’s attitude and business model.

Yet, if we consider Quart’s earlier descriptions of these two men, coupled with her earlier contrast of Kado’s Blocks organization with Consumption Records, Kado’s criticisms of Remedios can be seen as inaccurate projections as well as sour grapes in the name of a spurious integrity. After all, while Kado claims he wishes Remedios would “own up to being a small business,” earlier Remedios is quoted as saying he chose the name Arts & Crafts for his label because he wanted to emphasize the commerce aspect of what he was doing.

It isn’t that the contrast between Remedios and Kado dissolves by the end of the essay, but that Remedios, by not stooping to Kado’s level (and criticizing him), emerges as the more attractive of the two (which could be my own personal bias; if my band were based in Toronto, judging only by the evidence in this article, I’d probably rather work with Remedios and be on Arts and Craft than work with Kado, not simply because Remedios is more slick, but also because he seems to have better self-knowledge and is thus more trustworthy). This may not be Quart’s intention, but something I detect between the lines in spite of Quart’s central argument. I do not know either of these men personally, nor what interview excerpts lie in the cutting room, so I could be drawing the wrong conclusion from Quart’s presentation of the (many, many) voices of the Toronto scene in a ‘fair and balanced’ way that allows the reader to decide. If I were more journalistically curious and funded, I would have to google every other article that has been written about these two men in hopes to find other interpretations. Maybe I’d even have to book a flight to Toronto and conduct my own interviews.

But in the meantime, I think it’s illuminating and does no harm to look at “Kado” and “Remedios” as if they were literary characters, or even archetypes of contrasting music-business types I’ve encountered, and will probably continue to encounter. And by delineating some of the contours of this issue, Quart provides a valuable service to me and other musicians who still have hopes for the possibility of a self-sustaining alternative scene that will not fade away with the darling buds of May.