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Arts & Crafts’ Jeff Remedios on having fun as a guiding principle

rachel idzerda The Globe and Mail

Just over a decade ago, Jeffrey Remedios left his job at a mega recording company to start a mom-and-pop record label called Arts & Crafts. Today, his little-label-that-could has connected audiences with beloved Canadian acts like Broken Social Scene, Feist and Stars. During next month's Toronto film festival, Arts & Crafts will host the Festival Music House at Adelaide Hall in Toronto. Here, Remedios shares some of the secrets to his success.

Fun as a guiding principle

Kevin Drew (co-founder of Broken Social Scene) ends a lot of his shows by saying "enjoy your lives." It sounds so simple, but it's something that I really do think about a lot. We have one go through life, so what do I want to spend my time doing and who do I want to spend it with. It's hard to talk about these things because they're so internal, but that's sort of my guiding principle. Maybe I like a certain artist in terms of the music, but is this someone I want to work with? Spend time with? I try to use that instinct when I'm hiring people or choosing people for any project. That's not to say life is always amazing and I'm walking around smiling all day, every day – life can be hard, you have to make difficult decisions, but through that process I try to ask myself – am I having fun? If the answer is not, how can I change that?

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When I was 25 I got promoted to this new amazing job at Virgin where I had been working. I was running the promotion department, so basically we worked to get songs on the radio. The first year I spent learning the job and then the second year I spent really not enjoying it. It was just so far away from music. I was taking whatever songs were handed to me, there was no creation. I was working on, like, Spice Girls solo projects. Don't get me wrong, the Spice Girls are great, but when I have to take two radio performers to England to watch Baby Spice perform acoustically, it's like – what am I doing? This was during the digital music revolution, so everything was changing anyway. I thought, if I stay here [at Virgin], I might get laid off in a month or a year, or I could end up running this place and having to fire all my friends. None of those options seemed appealing. At the same time I was becoming really good friends with this amazing burgeoning music community coming out of Toronto – Kevin Drew, Brendan Canning, Leslie Feist. I thought there was a different way to approach the business of music that could be way more holistic, and now here I am 11 years later.

Not all selling is selling out

When I started the label, I did it with the attitude that I didn't want to get too caught up in either end of the music-philosophy spectrum – the big-business mega label or the indie side that has its own sort of stereotypes. To me, a good idea is a good idea, and I'm not too concerned about where it came from. I run a company, so of course the business side and being successful is important to me along with the artistic side, and a lot of the time it's about making the decisions that establish the right balance. I remember early on when Broken Social Scene was coming up. We got an offer from a company that wanted to license one of their songs. It was sort of an obscure track – there was no way it was going to be a single or anything. But the company was Hummer. I think they offered us hundreds of thousands of dollars or something like that, which was more than we were going to earn on anything else that year. On the other hand it was a postmilitaristic, gas-guzzling, Schwarzenegger-driven car. In the end we said no, but it was nice to be asked. Please don't mistake any of our artistic integrity for the fact that we don't like money.

When the door is open, people don't want to leave

I sort of fundamentally believe that you can't make a caged bird sing. If an artist doesn't want to work with us, then they shouldn't be contractually bound. I'm not saying contracts aren't useful, particularly in this business – they clarify relationships, prevent misunderstandings and, you know, nothing builds trust like third-party accountability. I believe in all that stuff and generally speaking we do use contracts, but I do think that for our artists, if they want out, then we would let them go. [The musician] Jason Collett is someone I have been working with since the beginning and he has never signed a contract. If the door is open, you feel no pressure to have to walk through it.

Say yes … sometimes

For me to be my best self, be responsible, be accountable and reachable, I need to be home in Toronto, here at my desk. I need to work out and get a really good night's sleep. That routine lets me be the person I want to be in that sense, but if I want to move the needle in my life professionally or personally then I have to break that routine and get out into the world. No is maybe the most important word in the English language, but I do try to force myself to be in a default position of saying yes – to get out there and connect with people. That's were I find inspiration. I'm going to go to this music festival with one of many acts and by the end of the day you have one of the bands that you work with going on tour with the Strokes. If I'm here too much things get a bit stale and boring, but if I'm out and about too much, there's the risk of becoming a flake. If you're always out at parties, where are you going to work? For me it's about finding that balance.

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This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.

Editor's note: Arts & Crafts will host the Festival Music House at Adelaide Hall in Toronto. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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