When we write about the current climate of indie music, we tend to focus on the tremendous success of a lucky few or the innovations garnering young talent new opportunities. In an industry broken in many ways, too rarely do we speak about the growing chasm between indie labels and majors, and how small, bedroom- and garage-sized operations — the kind that boomed in the '90s and still, today, do the crucial work of putting money into emerging bands and reissuing out-of-print gems — have been made, basically, unsustainable.
This morning, Mammoth Cave Recording Co., the great Lethbridge- and Toronto-based operation run by Evan Van Reekum (of Fist City) and Paul Lawton (of Ketamines and, most recently, Century Palm), announced that it was shutting down. In a disconcerting message sent by email and posted to their Facebook, the founders laid out why exactly it's become impossible to do what they'd seemingly done so well for 7 years and across 44 releases (including titles from B.A. Johnston, Ketamines, Strange Atrractor and re-releases from Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Simply Saucer, and Crash Kills Five).
Shipping prices have skyrocketed, now higher than the price of the record itself, write Van Reekum and Lawton. The Canadian granting system, which does allot millions in subsidies, seems Byzantine and impenetrable, while the weak dollar has diminished their already thin margins. Number one on their list: vinyl production takes 120% longer than when they started. "The 'vinyl comeback' and 'record store day,' the message says, "disproportionately favour Beatles reissues."
"The result of this?" they write. "We are not alone. Many labels our size are barely holding on. We heard more than once already 'we looked to Mammoth Cave as the label doing it right.' We weren't."
Read the full message below.
Mammoth Cave Recording Co. 2009-2015
All LPs $5 / 7"s $2-$3 at http://mammothcaverecording.com/
After a solid run, we are shutting down Mammoth Cave Recording Co. All of our records are teeply discounted except for BA Johnston's records ("Shit Sucks" isn't even out yet!). Everything must go, and we are gonna be shutting the site down shortly. It's been fun. This is hard.
Many reasons for pulling the plug. We are bankrupt - financially and spiritually. We had some highlights, and are proud of the Canadian music we've been a part of sharing, but the well is dry.
We screwed up a lot. We lost a lot of money. We made a mill All in the misguided attempt to find something that worked. To get people as excited about the amazing Canadian bands that were more or less being undocumented.
But the world of creating and selling physical music artifacts was just getting harder every year. So the truth is that we tried, but we cannot stand in the face of the massive cultural shifts taking place that are completely out of our control.
The reality of being a truly independent Canadian label in 2015:
1) Pressing records: records take 120% longer to press than when we started. The "vinyl comeback" and "record store day" disproportionately favour Beatles reissues. SAMO Media were a life saver for us (if you are pressing records in Canada, it's SAMO or nothing), but vinyl production industry can be almost impossible for labels of our size.
2) Weak dollar: the weak Canadian dollar adds even more strain we have to import our records into Canada, and it costs Mammoth Cave 26% more to press a run of records due to the exchange rate, and we were already selling records at close to cost due to extra importing and shipping fees.
3) Canada Post: It now costs more to ship a record than it does to buy a record. And since we started charging the actual amount to ship an LP, we saw customers flat rejecting the REAL price. Postage rates gone up 44% in Canada since 2010. Also, Canada Post fails to deliver records sometimes, so we get to send things twice for twice the cost, but that's a whole other mess.
4) Music consumption patterns have changed: Since we started, music fans went from "collecting" to "downloading" to "streaming." We are a record company, not a digital music servicing company. We love records, we don't love playlists. And the nonsense about the "return of vinyl" has come at the cost of the people who have been keeping it alive all these years.
5) Granting: This whole letter could (and maybe should?) be about the uncompetitive nature of the Canadian music industry. The impenetrability of the Canadian grant system that should be primed to help Canadian music is in fact inhibiting competition. When some labels that sell just as many records as we do are able to subsidize all the issues above with millions of dollars in grant money, something is not right.
The result of this?
We are not alone. Many labels our size are barely holding on. We heard more than once already "we looked to Mammoth Cave as the label doing it right." We weren't.
This email may be preaching to the choir, but take chances on bands not delivered to you via mainstream channels. We had enough support to keep us going for 7 years and 44 releases, but ultimately it is completely unsustainable.
Lots of thanks for the love and support over the last 7 years, especially Arif Ansari, Jeff King and Tony Zucco. We couldn't have done this without true music fans like Dave Shiroky, Jordyn Marcellus and Chris Zuk whose constant enthusiasm kept us alive from day one. Thanks to all the bands who took this trip to the bottom with us. All the people we would love to single out and can't, don't think you were not appreciated. We could not have made this mess alone.
If you are still waiting for an order, it is coming. We won't disappear with your money. We will make everything that is wrong, right in the way that we always have.
In the meantime, fill the holes in your Mammoth Cave collection, and celebrate the amazing music we've been apart of over the years.
Lots of love,
Paul + Evan