This column originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
Following the release of Standing Under Bright Lights, I had the privilege to share about my creative journey, from my 12 years as the frontman of alternative rock band Your Favorite Enemies (pictured above) to the last three years navigating as a solo artist. I found it incredibly interesting to reflect on how I became an artist-entrepreneur more than a decade before it became a common term in the music business, even though I believe that part of being an artist means taking care of your own envisioned universe, whatever it may be. So when I’ve been offered to write about my experience on Canadian Musician, I couldn’t decline.
It’s quite incredible how things have changed over the course of the last 10 to 15 years, yet one element remains the same: the nature of our foundation as people and as artists, which is about how willing we are to remain faithful to ourselves when the ever-growing temptation to fit in comes. Compromising isn’t evolving, pretending isn’t strategizing. Everything goes back to the core, the values, the vision.
In many ways, I’ve been lucky to find this out early… It was the MySpace golden era, we were suddenly a hot ticket for a lot of people in the industry who were starting to pay attention to social media incubators following the success of artists such as Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Bring Me the Horizon, Panic! At The Disco, etc. It was a massive shift at the time, everyone was looking for the next internet phenomenon. We were far from the current plague that is data-driven blindness. That was 2006! I was studying social work in university and I didn’t know about the entertainment mechanism! I was just playing music based on my values, sharing about social issues. Your Favorite Enemies was then a tiny basement unit without any ambition to make it into a “thing” of its own.
Fast forward a few months, we suddenly had management - in Toronto! For us kids who grew up in Montreal, this was major. We all had that Francophone complex, and it seemed like the way to go at the time. The guy was legit, a veteran who shaped the Canadian alternative scene. It didn’t last long, and it became a nightmare. We had started to educate ourselves. Mark Makoway, the guitarist for Moist, had released a book called The Indie Band Bible, which Jeff, a bandmate, and I studied as if it was the holy grail. We would compare notes and unconsciously shape the events about to unfold. That poor man of a manager was going crazy every time we were referring to Mark Makoway. I bet he still hates him to this day. “You will do as I tell you.” But we didn’t think so. Makoway says management is teamwork, not a dictatorial affair. Ours lasted six months, and I had to take a second mortgage on my recently-purchased house to break the contract — that story for another time! Be careful what you sign for and who you partner with. But it all went down to who we thought we were and how we wanted to do it. Mark would have been proud!
Before parting ways, the greatest of all lessons came from meetings we had with major labels. That’s when I understood the meaning of “business.” We were a dead broke band had to borrow a car and save up for gas money to drive to Toronto for what we thought was the meeting of our lives. But we were about to make it! That was 2006. Regardless of how informative Makoway’s book is, we were still naive… All smiles, waiting to hear our praises.
“You guys have a nice and sympathetic thing going on, but it won’t last. We’ll put you on a development plan, hire a songwriter for you, and you will now sound like Alexisonfire.” We thought it was a joke. What of our greatness and becoming the next-big-thing worldwide? Why did we have to become a copy of something that was already there? Why couldn’t we remain ourselves? Then came the lesson I needed to learn, which wasn’t included in Makoway’s Bible… “Look Alex… We don’t need to release your record, we need to release a record. Take it or leave it.”
The ride back home was quiet, but filled with reflection. Which brings us back to point number one: What’s our foundation?
We decided to decline what had been very clear on their part — nonetheless devastating on our end. That meeting became the most profitable and impactful conversation we would have, pushing us to define who we were and how fiercely determined we were to follow our own marks. It helped us determine that the “traditional” road wasn’t for us (although it can be perfect for others). Our manager, who had already agreed in our names without consulting us, threatened to sue us for breach of contract if we weren’t going his way. It was time to start all over. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was part of our education, if not the beginning of it. We had to decide if that band thing was serious and what it meant to be in it.
We reached a bad settlement deal almost a year after our split with the management, during which we couldn’t release any music or tour. It took us over a year to pay the settlement, but that tribulation turned us into one. We started our record label, invited friends to join in on the magnificent chaos that is operating a business without a clue on how to do pretty much everything. And while we were fortunate enough to have an online store to sell worldwide our first EP, self-produced on a $100 budget, the real investment was within us, our foundation. Every time we’ve faced disturbances — and God knows we have — we always go back to our core, our values, our vision.
There may not be an award for integrity, nor any recognition for being honest with ourselves but it’s what paved the way to an adventure that is our own to define and redefine. We saw outstanding artists come and go over the years, businesses go bankrupt, legacies be forgotten. Yet here I am, against all odds, sharing my story, without bravado or pride, at peace and creating with the same measure of independence as I always have. That’s the ultimate reward: being yourself, and doing it with your loved ones based on your values and visions. Isn’t it crazy that Moist are about to release a new album and that I have been interviewed by their keyboardist, Kevin Young, about my church-studio? If only Alexisonfire could come back as a full-time unit to complete the circle…
Alex Henry Foster is a Montreal-based singer, musician, writer, and activist who fronts the Juno-nominated alternative band Your Favorite Enemies. His solo debut LP, Windows in the Sky, was released in 2018 on Hopeful Tragedy Records, and he recently released Standing Under Bright Lights, a triple LP and DVD from his sold-out concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival. www.alexhenryfoster.com.