ketaminesPhoto: The Ketamines

This is part of an AUX series about Canadians who’ve travelled to Toronto to pursue their musical dreams. Check out the first part, on Newfoundland ex-pats Brutal Youth, right here.

While plenty of musicians move to Toronto hoping to crack the city’s notoriously competitive music scene, Paul Lawton, founder of Lethbridge-bred vinyl label Mammoth Cave Recording Co., didn’t know what to expect. “There’s mental and physical strain with moving across the country,” he says over a drink at 416 Snack Bar. “And when you’re operating a small label, it puts itself lower on the priority list.”

What’s stranger, though, is how well Lawton has acquitted: Since moving, he cut numerous records—a Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet reissue, LPs from Needles // Pins and The Mandates—and many more. His band, The Ketamines, spent July hovering at the top of Canadian campus radio charts, thanks to their You Can’t Serve Two Masters LP. And, of course, he put the Canadian music industry under fire via his Slagging Off blog, which put everything from Canadian Music Week to FACTOR grants in the crosshairs. If it’s fame Lawton sought, then—within certain circles—mission accomplished.

It’s brought a lot of attention to Lawton, and, by proxy, his myriad projects. But he didn’t arrive in Toronto with a set plan. “When I lived in Alberta, in my mind, I saw labels our size thriving in Toronto,” he says. “I thought, ‘Those bands aren’t any better than bands in my scene,’ and vice versa.

But you come here, and you realize that [a lot of bands that succeed] are in the right networks here. That pays off in tangible terms.”

Don’t misconstrue this as sunny optimism: While Lawton says he loves living in Toronto—he, in fact, recently relocated to the city’s exploding east-end—he maintains he hasn’t been a benefactor of Toronto’s industry circles. Much of Mammoth Cave’s support, he says, still comes from Western Canada. (He points to one release that essentially sold out its first pressing while barely registering a sale in the east.) His friends, and much of his band, consist of Alberta expats. And for all his successes, he still maintains that it’s tough to break even.

But he isn’t complaining, either. In fact, he’s still willing to call his relocation a success. “Though our success comes with an asterisk. We’ve been successful, but not because of the city,” he adds. “But when we moved here, we started to see structural reasons why we could still sell records and be broke.

“We had to ask, ‘How are labels surviving here, for real?’ Then you hear that certain labels are getting subsides: FACTOR grants, video grants, marketing grants. I mean, we didn’t even think of that, but being here, you hear bands talking about, like, ‘Hey, did you know about this [grant] deadline coming up?’”

Here’s what Lawton’s getting at: He’s always been wise to music, but settling in Toronto—and its diverse arts scene—has helped him learn invaluable lessons about the music industry, cynical as they might be. And even if he’s centred in Southern Ontario, he tries to relay that message back west. “I still try to help bands back in Lethbridge.” Even if it’s by proxy.

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