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- Location: Montréal, QC
- Year founded: 1997
- Employees: 6
- Genres served: Many, all hyphenated
- Current # of recording artists: 27
- Lifetime total of recording artists: 36
- Best-selling album: Yanqui UXO by Godspeed You! Black Emperor (by a long mile)
- Website: cstrecords.com
In the late 1990s, Montréal was a dismal scene for emerging artists, providing mostly pay-to-play venues that made it difficult for underground acts to perform. Recognizing the need for sustainable, artist-friendly music infrastructure, friends and music lovers Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky started Musique Fragile — a monthly concert series run out of an inner-city loft — and launched Constellation, issuing handmade records by local bands.
The label’s third release was Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F#A#∞, which granted both the band and label an instant cult following. Constellation would quickly (but begrudgingly) become synonymous with the post-rock movement, and it has since been home to artists such as Vic Chesnutt, Do Make Say Think, and Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Here Ilavsky shares the label’s impetus and mission.
Why did you start Constellation?
We were responding to local conditions and concerns above all. Montréal, in the mid-’90s, was, from our perspective, sorely lacking in local resources and institutions for the kind of experimental/defiant DIY music we were excited about, that we saw and heard being made by a number of Montréal artists. It was a real pay-to-play city at that time, with a painful lack of artist-friendly venues — especially so when it came to the less obviously crowd-pleasing, more immersive, experimental, and attention-span-demanding stuff that we were into.
We also felt common cause with — and were to some extent active in — the critiques and protests surrounding the neoliberal agenda (“free trade” agreements, etc.). Montréal was an epicenter of activism on this front in Canada, and this movement was most definitely the larger political and social context in which we were seeking to define cultural/artistic work and institution-building.
How would you describe your impact on the Montréal music scene? Has the city changed to better accommodate underground artists?
Maybe Constellation helped contribute to the city’s reputation and cred in some way. We’ve been name-checked that way at times, which is flattering. But we’re more inclined to see Montréal as having ridden the larger wave of urban gentrification and international hipsterism that’s fueled “indie” music culture writ large over the past few years. This city is a lot more like any other healthy boho urban zone these days. In the mid-’90s, it was broke-ass, surly, skeptical, and beautiful in a very unique and often uncomfortable way.
According to conventional metrics, it was either going to get “worse” (Detroit?) or find itself with a lot of room to get “better” (Brooklyn?). It would be silly to begrudge the fact that the latter has happened. But there sure are days when we miss 1997 — which is not nostalgia for our youth, but a longing for the small, positive political/cultural potential the world (and our town within it) felt like it still held out back then.
Why did you decide to forego the use of legal contracts with your artists? How has that simplified or complicated things?
Seriously, would we ever go to court or sue a band for some sort of contractual breach? We’re not looking to “own” an artist’s property. Good-faith agreements have worked for us, without exception, for 15 years. We assume this has kept things simple, but we don’t really have any other reference points! We can say that over the entire life of the label, we have literally spent zero dollars on legal fees or retainers, and we have never “lost” a band for any reason.