This month I turn the email-microphone toward
a dedicated prog fan - Sean McFee. You may have
read his reviews in Expose magazine, or perhaps purchased
a CD from ProgQuebec a label he helped create or perhaps
attended the French Canadian prog festival FMPM...as you can see Sean's pretty into prog and here's what he had to say...
Jerry Lucky: Sean you’ve been around the world of progressive rock for some time now. People may remember you from reading your reviews in Expose, or seeing your name association with the ProgQuebec label or any number of other places. I’m interested in how you came to prog?
Sean McFee: I got Genesis’ We Can’t Dance on cassette when I was 14 because I liked Phil Collins, so I guess I was headed
in the wrong direction from the start. I remember liking the fact there were ten-minute long songs on it. But it started more seriously
when I got into Rush, and then I got on the Internet and people in the Rush newsgroup were recommending groups like Yes and Genesis.
And I thought, “What does Rush have to do with Phil Collins?” But in general I was pretty lucky that the Internet made information
easy to find. From band-specific newsgroups and lists I “graduated” to rec.music.progressive where they would talk about dozens of
obscure groups and styles. In 1997 I found a progressive rock store in my local area, as well as a
JL: You’ve been quite successful with the ProgQuebec label. How did that all come about?
SM: I had wanted to do progressive rock reissues from Quebec
back in 2000, when I was collecting all this music on vinyl and wondering why the music scenes from places like Italy, Germany, and
Argentina were fairly complete, while next to nothing from Quebec was on CD. I had a telephone conversation with Steve Feigenbaum
of Cuneiform Records at that point, where he gave me a lot of background information about reissues and labels. However I was a student
and there was no way I was going to be able to do anything. I lived in the
It turned out Stephen and I shared a lot of the same experiences; he had been
JL: Living out here in the west, I’ve always marvelled at how strong the prog genre is in
SM: The reason why there are more bands is because there are more fans. Groups like Gentle Giant,
Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and others always seem to have done better in
JL: What are the typical challenges you face when it comes to re-releasing some of the music from so many years ago?
SM: The two big things are rights and sources. Rights are a hugely complex issue for reissue labels. Companies go out of business or are acquired, people die, bands break up and the members don’t get along anymore, and so on. For a given reissue, we try and get the main players on board as a matter of principle. It is possible to do a reissue where nobody in the group ever knows about it if you can find whoever has the master tapes, and some people do, but we don’t like to operate this way. This is often sufficient, but in some cases such as releases that were originally on major labels like EMI and Sony, you have to either license directly from them or at least come to an understanding about the rights (e.g. “We don’t know if we have the rights but we promise to work something out and not to sue you if it turns out that we do.”). With sources the question is whether you can find the master tapes, and if so whether they are still in a condition where they can be used. When tapes oxidize over the years they have to be baked to render them into a form that can be transferred. Each time you bake a tape you actually risk destroying it. If a tape is truly lost, or if it is found but cannot be used, we will do a transfer from vinyl, usually from a still sealed copy. Regardless of what source is used for the transfer, we take great care in the remastering process to make sure our customers will be happy with the sound quality of the final product. It can take years to work out the issues with rights and sources to the point where the project can go forward.
JL: I read that ProgQuebec has paid out $75,000 in royalties! That must make you feel good?
SM: Very proud. We’ve been able to do 36 releases, and close to ten of those are archives or new releases that had never been out on vinyl, so without us they possibly would never have been heard by anyone. Some of these artists never got paid back in the 1970s, so we are sometimes the first businessmen they don’t end up hating.
JL: What made you undertake the mammoth task of staging the prog festival FMPM?
SM: I ended up backing into it, to be honest.
There were some promoters and label heads in
JL: A friend of mine took his son to your most recent event and he was intrigued with the scope of styles on stage. Explain the challenges of trying to pick a representative list of performers for an event like this.
SM: With FMPM we had three considerations in booking; trying to draw enough people to make the event viable, having a sufficient
amount of representation of Quebec artists, and having a wide variety of styles represented. Progressive rock festivals seem to go
in one of two directions, either going with the “big tent” approach and a variety of styles, or sticking to one or two complementary
styles and seeking variety within them. With FMPM we preferred to go with the first approach. What is important in that case is that
you book groups who are strong in their style, because if you have a prospective attendee who only likes that one style, you now have
two or three chances to hook them in, instead of eight or nine. A line-up that is diverse but weak ends up attracting nobody whereas
a so-so line-up in one style would have at least pulled ardent followers of that style in. Also if you have a strong band in a niche
style, you increase the chances that someone who doesn’t typically enjoy that style will at least come around on that one group. Generally
speaking our non-Quebec groups had to be sufficiently well known that they would draw people in
JL: You’ve staged 4 successful events but have chosen to pull the pin on the project. Tough decision I bet?
SM: I think my earlier answer where
I mentioned that Stephen and I ended up with most of the load pretty much explains it. In the case of other progressive rock festivals
with 1-3 organizers, at least their main focus is the festival. We were also trying to run a label at the same time. So the last two
years a large amount of my non-work time was consumed by one or the other. That’s something you can do for a little while if you really
believe in a cause, but it’s not something you can do indefinitely if you want a life. I think we proved that a music festival in
JL: So what’s on the horizon for ProgQuebec? What treasures can we be looking forward to?
SM: We have a Miriodor archive coming out at the beginning of November, which captures them live in 1989 as a trio. That will be the last release of 2009. Everything after that is subject to revision, but we have been having discussions with Michel Madore about reissuing his albums. His first is a symphonic rock group format with a result somewhat like Gong or Carpe Diem, while the second was more in an electronic music vein. We have a Maneige concert from the Libre Service era that is really hot, but also about 32 minutes long. We have been trying to find bonus material to include with it, but we may end up releasing it as is. We may try to license more titles from Sony in the wake of the Sloche reissues, depending on whether the numbers work. There is the possibility that Excubus or Jérôme Langlois could come up with new material for us to put out. It’s pretty wide open.
JL: I’m interested in your observations on the state of progressive rock here in November of 2009? Healthy? Unhealthy? Tired? Or Vibrant?
SM:I think there are two different things that cross over to some extent. There is the “progressive rock scene” that you and I are part of, and then there is progressive music in general. As we and the readers of your books know, progressive rock was biggest in the 1970s, and then there was a “dark age” in the 80s, and then an Internet-based “resurgence” starting in the early 90s with Änglagård and the IQ reunion and the festivals, which is still going. I think a lot of people who were part of the original scene, or were just a few years behind it (maybe starting with Marillion), and who then experienced the resurgence, had a hope that “prog would rise again” in the sense that groups making music in the vein of Yes and Genesis would attain the heights that those bands once had. And so many of the most venerated groups in our scene are heavily indebted to 70s groups, and I’m not just singling out the guys who are strongly influenced by Yes and Genesis, because on the “RIO” side of the aisle you have plenty of groups who are just as strongly influenced by Magma and Univers Zero. And all this music in our scene has, by and large, only gotten to the level of a small subculture and seems destined not to get any bigger, and gradually to decline, since the fan base is aging.
So that sounds kind of sad, but in the grander scheme, progressive music is doing ok. It’s just that it isn’t about Genesis or Univers Zero. There are progressive groups achieving mainstream success, like Radiohead, Muse, the Mars Volta, Tool, Dream Theater, and so on, but they have done so by following a direction that is informed by styles that have appeared post-1990. So the irony is that as prog finally becomes less of a dirty word for the mainstream, most of the groups that have been venerated in “our” scene are destined to be seen as irrelevant or quaint. Our fan base is aging not because young people aren’t interested in progressive, but because those young people who are interested in progressive gravitate to newer and younger groups they identify with, even while often maintaining a healthy respect for original groups like Yes. I think some progressive music will always be around because of groups like Radiohead that hit the big-time and then decide to experiment. That’s been happening since the Beatles. But it’s not going to be a nostalgia trip.
The most interesting artist in this context is Porcupine Tree, because they were an established part of “our scene” prior to breaking through to a more successful commercial level. They were well positioned to do that because they had a modern sound that didn’t owe too much to the 70s. Most of the other groups in “our” prog scene will be unable to do this.
JL: As someone who’s putting out music on CD how has the Pandora’s Box of downloading or file-sharing affected you?
SM: We didn’t come along until 2004 so we haven’t had to watch sales decline over time due to downloading. Downloading was already a problem by the time we came along. In the early 90s it was not unheard of for hot reissues to make several thousand in sales. Nothing we have done approaches that. Reissue labels that were in business back then, such as Musea and Mellow, can tell you about their sales figures declining as downloading became more prevalent, but we have only ever known the post-decline period.
Where the public has lost out in our case is that we have had to be choosier about our projects, because downloading makes it harder for any one project to break even. Of course not all projects have to break even, as long as your more successful ones can subsidize the rest, but downloading hits you most with those successful projects and makes them less helpful. So we end up passing on stuff I really wish we could have done. People can put their heads in the sand about this but it’s a real consequence.
Talking to people about this can be like talking to a wall, because of economics and human nature. Economics because, ethics aside, you can’t compete with free. If someone can justify illegal downloading, it would be absurd to expect them to pay for what they can get for free. And the technology is there so that short of unacceptable limitations on personal liberties, it’s going to be possible to get music for free if that’s what you want. That’s why it’s so hilarious for people to suggest that a new business model is needed, because we all know that ethics aside, you can’t compete with free. So then it comes down to human nature, and people having to make a moral decision about whether the work that goes into composing, recording, and producing a new release or reissue deserves to be paid work. And the other part of human nature is that people are very good at rationalizing and justifying whatever decisions they make to themselves, because nobody wants to think that they are an immoral person or doing immoral things. So in the end someone either decides to pay for music, or they use one of their 37 justifications why it’s ok that they didn’t, and having a good faith discussion of it becomes almost impossible because there’s a pre-existing disingenuousness on the side of the freeloaders. Luckily in our case enough people have made the moral decision that we have lasted until now.
JL: Well Sean, I just want to congratulate you on all your efforts in promoting progressive rock music. You’ve made a significant contribution and I thank you for taking some time to chat.
SM: Thanks, Jerry. I appreciate having a forum for my ramblings!