Media @ McGill

François Mouillot | Mapping the Underground: Scenes and Record Labels in Montreal Experimental Music

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My dissertation examines the role of independent record labels on the map of contemporary music scenes in relation to two strands of experimental music in Montreal. Specifically, it examines the Distribution Ambiances Magnétiques Etcetera (DAME) and Constellation Records music labels as emblematic points of convergence within the Francophone and Anglophone loci of experimental music scenes in the city. Through their engagement with notions of stylistic, political and commercial emergence, conflict and coalescence, record labels function as some of the most active and important nodes of activity within the multiplicity of processes that come to define a music scene. This dissertation has two primary goals: first, to provide accounts of musical trends that have helped define Montreal’s musical identity over the past 30 years; second to re-evaluate the role of independent record labels and other industrial intermediaries in light of profound technological and industrial changes affecting the production, consumption and distribution of music.


Chapter 1:

The first chapter recasts the common understanding of record labels as industrial ‘gatekeepers’, in order to re-conceptualize them as ‘vectors of propulsion’ and ‘translational checkpoints’ in relation to their social and cultural functions within urban cultural scenes. I begin this process by contrasting three types of labels within a larger schematic history of the Anglo/North-American music industry: major companies, independent labels, and ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) labels. I locate DAME and Constellation Records in this third category, within a spectrum of counter-cultural DIY labels that, from the 1970’s onwards, have attempted to provide an alternative to the ‘big business’ practices of mainstream entertainment companies. I summarize key issues and perspectives related to the mass digitization of music and their implications for the music industry at large and for small-scale independent labels within the context of music scenes. Finally, I provide a re-evaluation of the very notion of the independent label in light of these historical, technological and industrial contextual changes.

Chapter 2:

This chapter focuses on Distribution Ambiances Magnétiques Etcetera (DAME), a label associated with a strand of experimental music based on free improvisation known as ‘Musique actuelle’ that emerged out of the Francophone Montreal culture in the 1980’s. Through an analysis of the movement in relation to the organizing principles underpinning its label, I investigate the connecting principles between Québec’s cultural identity politics largely rooted in language, and non-language based experimental and improvised music. I argue that strong relationships with provincial and federal granting agencies, a musical aesthetics shaped by the specificities of Montreal performance spaces and the movement’s alternative organization have conferred DAME its own articulation of Quebecois identity markers. In turn, I argue that because the label also owes its early survival and structural inspiration to an international network of like-minded musicians and promoters, a cosmopolitan character that has allowed the scene to evolve with Montreal’s demographic changes is nevertheless inherent to ‘Musique actuelle’. 

Chapter 3:

This chapter analyzes Constellation Records and its association with the rise of an Anglo-bohemian culture in 1990’s Montreal. First, I argue that through shared musical heritage and in grievances connected to conservative political climates, there exists a common lineage between post-punk genres (an influence claimed by Constellation Records’ owners) and the kind of ‘post-rock’ genre the label has widely been associated with. Following this, I outline how this lineage begins to bring forward the commonality of influences that exist between ‘Musique actuelle’ and the rock-based experimental sounds promoted by Constellation Records, notably through DIY ethics. Finally, I examine how the relative commercial success of some of the label’s artists has led to investment in real estate allowing for the establishment of permanent key infrastructures that, in turn, benefitted other experimental music practice such as ‘Musique actuelle’ and DAME.

Chapter 4:

In this section, I examine the role of local and virtual scenic institutions in creating overlaps and collaborations between the scenes affiliated with DAME and Constellation Records. I first establish a selective map of some of the early and more recent institutions that take part in the contemporary landscape of experimental music in Montreal. Specific attention is paid to the network of live and recording venues connected to Constellation records, the international Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research project at McGill University, the Suoni per il Popolo festival, specific federal and provincial funding bodies, and the avant-montreal internet listserv. Second, I outline some of the historical, cultural or political reasons for which some of those infrastructures initially started off placing greater emphasis on specific scenes, before analyzing the ways in which they have evolved to serve as bridges and as points of convergence for actors involved in diverse experimental scenes across the city. This chapter therefore focuses on the interconnectivity and the role specific institutions in generating movement within and across specific scenes and language communities. 

Chapter 5:

The final chapter examines Constellation Records’ artist Colin Stetson and his idiosyncratic practice of the bass saxophone as an example of fusion between significant aspects of musical aesthetics promoted by both DAME and Constellation. I begin with a stylistic analysis of Stetson’s music, which blends avant-garde jazz techniques linked to histories of musical improvisation connected to ‘Musique actuelle’ with popular music sensibility and song structures reminiscent of the ‘Constellation sound’. This chapter points to the role of specific instruments such as the saxophone as one of mediation between different experimental music scenes. It considers the ways in which both DAME and Constellation have contributed to such a role by promoting music by instrumentalists like Stetson, organized performances and recording sessions that have propelled the use of the instrument across scene boundaries. This chapter concludes by examining the modalities under which – in part through the work of labels – local cultural identity can get inscribed in artefacts like specific musical instruments, in addition to other markers such as language and politics.