‘Arbutus’ is a name that may not mean much to anyone in Montreal, but it is a name familiar to many who’ve grown up in Kitsilano. Though Arbutus Records is based out of Montreal, founder and owner Sebastian Cowan grew up alongside the street. Sitting down with Discorder, he’s quick to reminiscence about the now-defunct Ridge bowling alley, and summers spent on the Gulf Islands surrounded by the peeling bark of arbutus trees.
To those in Montreal, however, Arbutus is synonymous with the record label that emerged from Lab Synthèse. The warehouse live-performance space transformed into Arbutus Records in 2009 — however, only in the past couple of years has Arbutus become a “real record label,” according to Cowan, incorporating and opening up a proper office space.
The turning point for the label was with the release of Grimes’ 2012 smash album, Visions. At the time, Cowan was also her manager, and so Grimes’ departure from her label made room for the changes that occurred.
The label still functions like a collective — “We still rely and identify very strongly with the people around us and the people that help us, and it wouldn’t be possible otherwise,” says Cowan. Contracts are now used to create a distinction between the personal and professional relationships Cowan has with the artists on his label, which include the likes of Braids, TOPS, Blue Hawaii, and Sean Nicholas Savage.
Another integral aspect of Arbutus is its DIY aspect, which goes hand-in-hand with artists being given the freedom to create as they please. “We accomplish a lot with very little … I’ve never believed that there’s a correlation between money and good art,” Cowan says.
Being friends with the musicians has contributed to Arbutus’ unusually small roster of artists, but it’s one of the label’s distinguishing features. Instead of relying on a certain sound or aesthetic to bring cohesion to the label, Arbutus functions on friendships and giving new artists the time to develop. Cowan was once deciding whether or not he was going to put out an album when a friend asked him: “If no one buys a single copy, would you still do it?” Cowan responded yes — this kind of passion summarizes the approach of Arbutus Records.
Arbutus has been expanding, with the recent announcement of Sounds of Beaubien Ouest (SOBO), a new label dedicated to releasing electronic music. Named after the street that Arbutus Records is located in on Montreal. Cowan has had a longstanding interest in the genre, and “would love to be able to put it under Arbutus as well, but it doesn’t always work like that.” Cowan makes no secret of his excitement to be collaborating with Patrick Holland (a former Vancouver and Bowen Island resident) of Project Pablo — “The opportunity to work and learn from him is such a pleasure.”
Another project launched in 2016 was n10.as radio (pronounced like ‘antennas’). Broadcasting out of Arbutus’ offices, the online radio station “fills a huge gap,” says Cowan. He had always been interested in some kind of radio project, but lacked the technological knowledge to do so. He was then approached by friends of a friend who had the technology, but not the industry know-how. “Everyone is on board and ready to do it. That, coupled with how many different presenters there are, put so much goodwill toward [the project].”
“The office space is really doing something socially and culturally and professional, it’s been amazing,” Cowan notes, not only referring to n10.as radio. In recent years, the space has been hosting parties regularly. “We evolved out of a warehouse venue. Throwing parties is very intrinsically linked to where we’ve come from … it’s a huge part of what we do,” explains Cowan. Arbutus has even begun to throw parties in DIY venues in other cities, bringing their brand to places such as Los Angeles, Detroit, London and Toronto.
Arbutus Records has changed, but remains true to their origins of working closely with their artists, and providing creative and social spaces. “If I’m doing what I’m doing, I want to do it in a way that is congruent with our message and what I believe in.”
Check out arbutusrecords.com for more.