Godspeed are the kind of artists that inspire an underground group like mine to keep going. They're encouragement to keep ploughing away, sticking to making music that's true to oneself rather than making stuff that's easily sellable, tunes that one could hope to live off. Their win says one day maybe the industry will catch up, but if it does, it doesn't matter for recognition and money shouldn't be one's motivators. Music has existed in the world a lot longer than money has -- any connection between the two is perhaps a falsity of our times and our production methods.
In this era of staid careerism where artists are signing up for business seminars on "how to build your brand," Godspeed are refreshingly true to the age old spirit of rebel pop music, the spirit that values authenticity and originality and rails against the commercialization of musical art. They've built a brand only in the same way you've built a personality; the anarcho-attitude they've long expressed is simply part of who they are as people, particularly bandleader Efrim Menuck.
They've always been open about their politics and accepting of the shitstorm that comes with that. Any musician with an anti-corporate or environmental message is invariably screwed from the get go. You've got to use equipment and vehicles that only large industrious companies make, rendering you open to cries of "hypocrite." As The Partridge Family's Danny Bonaduce once pointed out, "Hey, all you bands singing about the environment -- your guitars are made from trees!" But what's important is that in Godspeed's Polaris statement, they stood up and said something.
For near-on 20 years, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have shown an incredible amount of integrity in sticking to their beliefs -- they're a group who could have chased large successes but belligerently stuck to their ideals instead. I first saw them in London in 1999 and when they returned to the British capital the following year, they brought along a little known Icelandic group called Sigur Ros.
Sigur Ros soon inked a large deal with Universal Publishing who began licensing the group's songs out for Vanilla Sky, 24, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zisou,Queer As Folk, and more. They got signed by the cash rich major labels, first Geffen Records, and later, EMI. Their star rose and rose to the point that they now headline arenas across America. To their credit, they've achieved that while always staying true to their sound, singing in gibberish, and refusing to let their songs be used in ads (bar one, which was apparently an accident).
But Godspeed are even more uncompromising. They take the not 'selling out' to a level very few other musicians are willing to. It's harsh watching the often punishing slog that their adherence to their values has made of their career. Seeing them painted on social media as a hypocritical rockstars feels so off to me. While Sigur Ros were getting big, Godspeed turned down all requests to use their music (making a lone exception for 28 Days Later, cause, hey, it's a zombies). They could have pursued lucrative advances from majors, but instead they stuck with little Chicago indie Kranky Records, plus their friends at Constellation Records in Montreal, the band and the label becoming inextricably linked in the minds of those aware of them.
As my group's drummer Mike Duffield's points out, "They helped create a label that took pride in exclusively working with the smaller record stores, and employing local artists to do all the packaging.They established two great venues in Montreal, Casa Del Popolo, and La Salla Rossa. They established an awesome studio, Hotel2Tango that's produced some great Canadian albums (Arcade Fire's Funeral included)." And British Sea Power's Mercury Prize nominated Do You Like Rock Music record -- I was there for some of the recording of that. I remember shivering in Hotel2Tango's barely heated rooms in the old Godspeed squat, wondering if the group had started to play as a way to stay warm.
I don't share all their politics and I honestly haven't listened to a GY!BE record in a decade (bar their latest, while writing this), but I do think they're one of the most innovative acts to ever come out of Canada. Their explorations of song lengths and combing strings and guitars created new sonic directions in sound, reshaping the timbric palette and form of what rock can be.
Take any indie band with a violin, trace their influences, and their influences' influences, and a lot of times you're going to end up at Godspeed. Sure John Cale's pioneering viola work with The Velvet Underground in the 1960s factors in. But Cale played screetchy avant garde stuff, it was Godspeed that brought the sweeping, soaring strings of classical music into indie rock.
And for their innovations, they should be celebrated -- regardless of how one feels about their politics, their attitude, and their attempts to exist somewhat outside of the music industry system. If they or their label got some grant money sometime, fine -- The Sex Pistols gloated about the £75,000 they got from EMI (back when the company was a major arms manufacturer), and they certainly didn't give a cent of it to buy instruments for prisoners. The Robin Hood aspect of Godspeed's win is commendable.
That said, Godspeed's innovations all date back to the 1990s. My disappointment with this year's Polaris Prize is that, as much as it's nice to see Godspeed recognized, today's innovators are toiling in as much obscurity as GY!BE did back in the day. It's as if this year's Mercury Prize were to go to My Bloody Valentine; staggeringly great pioneers of the shoegaze sound that underpins a lot of today's indie music, but the reason MBV's current album matters is the sonic exploring they did years ago.
Sadly there're great little scenes of music right now in Canada that exist outside the confines of the country's independent music industry. It costs a minimum of $25,000 to $70,000 to launch an act these days, and the chances of making your money back are slim. So a lot uninvested brilliance is slipping through the cracks, a lot of greatly talented people are busy in day jobs. I think about what the world would have lost if Beethoven only got as far as Symphony #4 if he'd had to spend years working a couple jobs to pay debts for his studies.
I think about how poets continue on, dedicated to an art form that it's utterly impossible to earn profits from. And I realize that the music industry no longer just has the two tiers of major and indie, but also a new lower tier of music that's not commercially viable for the independent sector to get involved with. Bands making innovative new music who don't have the inclination to go out and hustle the business end of it, and that no manager will step in and help for there's no money to be made. But the music gets made for the love of it, the self expression, the need to create. It's for those kinds of bands that Godspeed's win should prove an inspiration.