Virtual to reality: Vancouver-based Monstercat changing face of indie labels

Dec 19 2017, 11:29 pm

Monstercat is redefining the independent label while reshaping the global electronic music industry – and it’s all taking place right here in Vancouver.

Operating in the heart of Railtown, just east of Gastown and in the very office that Hootsuite once called home, the tightly-knit small-but-growing team has over 3 million YouTube subscribers, over 1 million record sales, and eleven number one chart-toppers on iTunes. The label, which started as a YouTube channel in 2011, mostly focuses on singles, allowing artists freedom over their work. With three new tracks released on a weekly basis, Monstercat created a virtual community of fans – loyal fans of the artists, and of the label itself. And Monstercat has taken virtual into reality by introducing its label showcase and hitting the road for its first tour last year.

The story of Monstercat starts in Ontario, specifically the University of Waterloo, where founders Mike Darlington (CEO) and Ari Paunonen (COO) started a YouTube channel to share and promote music. Less than a year later, in the start of 2012, the two found themselves in Vancouver for meetings. While here, they visited Whistler, and – as the story goes – the rest is history.

As I continue to explore Vancouver’s local music scene, I made my way to Monstercat’s office one evening. After a tour of the space, the co-founders and I made our way to their sunshine-filled rooftop where I got to learn more about the Vancouver-based company that’s changing the face of independent labels on a global scale.

Brandon Artis Photography

How long has Monstercat called Vancouver home?

Mike: Since August 2013.

How do you think this city inspired/influenced Monstercat?

Mike: I think that where Vancouver’s got the strength is in the lifestyle aspect. Running a record label and building a business is who you know, where you work and where the artists are. At the same time, I think what it comes down to at the end of the day is if you’re not happy, then you can’t be creative, you can’t be comfortable, you can’t be happy. That is one thing Vancouver does is the ability to have a really full lifestyle. I felt like when we were working in Waterloo or Toronto, it felt like it was all about work all the time. It didn’t feel like a balanced lifestyle. Our team here, they go for hikes, they’ll bike to work every day and happy to do so. There’s just more things for people to do, and it keeps for a more clear head so that when you are here and you’re trying to come up with new things, you’re in a good state of mind. The move here for us was for inspiration and lifestyle.
Ari: It’s also been really helpful for acquiring talent. Developers don’t necessarily want to be in the valley, so it’s been good for us too get those guys up here. People fall in love with Vancouver when they come here.

What do you think Monstercat’s influence has been on the local and global electronic music scene?

Mike: Those are two very different questions. On a global level, Monstercat was one of the first labels to 1) be born from YouTube – where YouTube was a strong growth platform for our community. 2) Monstercat also showed people that you don’t have to do things the traditional model of a record label. More than anything it was about building a community and a brand around the music. In the record label world, that is not usually done. It is all about the artist, the music, and the record label is very behind the scenes. Monstercat was one of the first to show that you can have people that are fans of the labels and of the brand. Since we’ve grown I’ve seen a lot of artist collectives, labels, and YouTube brands that have taken the same approach – you really build your own ecosystem that people can be a part of where they love the artist, they love the music, they love the brand, it brings everybody together. I think that was kind of an effect we had. On the local level, it’s tough to say what our effect on the local level was. Vancouver had a strong electronic presence before we got here – Blueprint, Timbre Concerts, and Twisted have been here forever. The one thing we might have done is we’ve let people know that you can be an electronic music producer here in Vancouver, and you don’t have to think that you have to move to LA, or Toronto, or New York to be successful. You can grow, build an audience, and be living here. That’s really something I am hoping we are showing people.

Mike Darlington (Brandon Artis Photography)

So you’ve been here almost two years, what do you think of the music scene here in Vancouver?

Mike: I’d say that it definitely does a really good job, like in anytime of the week, there are three or four top tier artists coming through the city. But what sets Vancouver apart though, is that these people that are coming through the city are coming through but also experiencing the city. When artists come here, they are happy to come here. And I think it’s still a growing city for electronic music. We’re still early in it, while maybe in the East Coast it’s been going on a little bit longer. But at the same time we have to credit B.C., and Vancouver, for developing the North American bass scene. We have Datzik, Excision, Downlink, so many of the biggest bass artists in the world came from B.C. and that really says something.

Monstercat’s growth was quite organic, from YouTube to an independent label. How do you think Monstercat sort of redefined the “indie label”?

Ari: We did so many things differently at that point. We brought communities of people online together. Other record labels used to start off from artists that were already making it. We started by building digital audiences, Mike can speak to that. We have people coming together every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for the past four years. This has created a sustainable ecosystem where artists get paid. We are very transparent and this system is really working. Martin (Haywyre) is a great example of somebody who is now making music full-time because he has a dependable revenue stream from a label. He’s starting to tour, and he’s building from a very solid foundation.
Mike: We developed a very strong digital presence around the brand, where people knew the music could be found within the brand. In a lot of ways, people became fans of the brand. What a lot of independent labels try to do is they want to build and develop an artist as much as possible, and they want to go and try to sign a seven-figure deal for them where they get their kickback on the deal. For us its more about developing as an ecosystem with the people involved in it. So we all grow together. Everybody’s success is relevant together.

Ari Paunonen (Brandon Artis Photography)

You’ve worked with some international talent (Krewella) and local (Project 46), what’s the criteria you look for in artists you choose to work with?

Mike: We are looking for artists that definitely fit within our sound – when we talk about our sound, it’s fun, it’s melodic, it’s catchy. We’re not trying to put out music that is crazy underground. We know we are making music that is accessible. We’re also looking for artists that understand their brand and driven, and want to take this and make a career out of it. More important than anything though is we want people that will fit into our family mentality. We’re not looking for those lone wolves that we can help build. You need to know that we are a team. It’s tough because a lot of times we find artists that are incredibly talented, then they are all about themselves and don’t really see the big picture. And if we don’t like them as a person, why would we want to involve them into our little ecosystem?

Speaking of artists, you’ve recently released Haywyre’s LP and he was your first official artist. He is not your typical electronic musician- how did you start working with him?

Mike: Jon (Jonathan Winter – Monstercat’s A&R) and Ari were so stoked on the music and the potential. It was the first time I’d ever heard Ari say ‘I’m flying to go see one of our artists.’
Ari: I heard the music and I thought ‘we have to go, we have to do this.’ Heard him play, we worked on a plan all day in a hotel room, had sticky notes on a white board and we really started planning the Two Fold album launch. And I think we’ve done a lot since then.
(Look out for our upcoming feature on Haywyre in the next few weeks)

MonsterCat - vcb4

Jonathan Winter (Brandon Artis Photography)

The 22nd Compilation album “Monstercat 022- Contact” came out on June 1. The tagline for it is “Music connects us with one another. Bringing us closer to the world around.” What was the inspiration behind the latest comp?

Mike: Our compilations are a representation of the story of our company. If you go through the last 22 compilations, looking at the different album titles, each of them is a representation of where we are. So right now, we are at a point in time where we’ve now started developing artists, we’ve started doing live events, showcase events, and it’s becoming more about actually meeting people, and putting on these shows – and it’s bringing people together. The whole concept behind this was, we’re at a point now where we just did two major showcase events: one with Seasons Vancouver (Blueprint), and one with SXSW. We have two more coming up at Paradiso and Digital Dreams. We wanted to showcase the fact that this is where we’re at, we’re putting on these parties and bringing people together. The album art is actually inspired by the village stage at Shambhala (Music Festival). We absolutely love what they do there.

And of course, besides the artists and comps, there is a podcast as well. Tell us a bit about the podcasts.

Ari: He (Daniel Scarcelli) was a friend of a friend and I had heard through the grapevine that he was a good DJ. He subsequently won this Red Bull Thre3style competition, then he submitted a mix on our mix competition. He actually didn’t get selected and then we just kind of started working with him. That’s how it all started. He started mixing all of our album mixes, then he started creating podcasts for us.
Mike: We are always top ten.
Ari: Then that subsequently turned into our Twitch FM live stream. That’s a 24/7 radio channel. So he manages all that now.

So where does Monstercat go from here?

Mike: This is good timing for that question. Me and Ari had a conversation about this yesterday. I think there are a lot of elements that we still have a long way to improve on as a record label, and in developing artists. We have so much room to improve. But at the end of the day, I really don’t think we will have longevity and success if we don’t affect people’s lives in a really strong way. And that goes beyond music we release. I want Monstercat to be a musical community, a place where people can come together, meet people, discover new music- take that micro ecosystem that we have now with our artists, and I want to expand that on a global level with fans as well. We’ve learned a lot of our fans come to Monstercat to be part of the community where they could meet new people, or they could feel welcome, they could feel comfortable. That’s what I want to continue to build on a global level. I think that will give us longevity beyond dance music, or any genre. There’s always room for community, and there’s always room for music. Those two elements are everlasting.
Ari: Definitely. All we’re doing here now, even with the showcase shows, taking all of these groups of people that exist online, giving them a place to communicate and to meet one another in the real world. And that’s a big challenge for us. We have a varying fan base of ages- some can’t go to shows. But they are all looking for that one thing. At that young age, you look for friends and uniting people through music- that used to be one of our album tag lines. We want to do it globally, all markets for us that we could be developing something different. We want to be different, not just that touring label that comes to town. But that’s all being developed, and all the infrastructure that we’re working on as a company now is going to fuel that engine. We’re a long way off, but I think we can get there.

Since its release earlier this week, Monstercat 022: Contact is already the number one album on the iTunes Dance charts. Monstercat is growing and looking for local talent to join their family. Look out for the listings online in the upcoming weeks.

Brandon Artis Photography

Photos by Brandon Artis Photography. Connect with Brandon on Instagram at @_brandonartis.

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