Facing The Music

Two near-death experiences spawn one indie record label and a whole lot of carpe diem

By Natasha Mekhail

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Jennifer Abel and Dawn Loucks have what might be described as a very expensive hobby. By day, Loucks is a computer programmer in the oil and gas biz and Abel teaches at Mount Royal College and the U of C. By night, they run Calgary-based Saved by Radio (savedbyradio.com), an independent record label that produces bands such as Old Reliable and AA Sound System – and they pay for many of the releases out of their own pockets. Why put themselves on the line? Call it an after-life crisis. Abel explains.

How did you two meet?
We met at Calgary’s campus radio station, CJSW, in 2002. Because I had just been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is the same kind of cancer that Joey Ramone had, our program director decided that I should hook up with this other volunteer, Dawn, who had had Hodgkin’s lymphoma a couple years before. That’s the reason we’re Saved By Radio. Music was very helpful to both of us in the process of treatment and then dealing with life afterwards. Once you’ve gone through it and you’re still alive, you have to reorganize the way you think about your life. That’s part of the reason why we’re willing to do these crazy things like start a record label and put things out on vinyl and take chances on independent musicians, some of whom have never put out a record before.

How did you get started in the record business?
In 2003, Dawn had this crazy idea that she wanted to put together a compilation of Calgary bands covering Stompin’ Tom Connors songs. From there, we started meeting these bands. A lot of them would say, “We’ve got these recordings but we have no way to put them out.” So as this need started becoming more and more evident, we thought, well, why not? That was when it became a label rather than just a one-off project.

How do you choose the bands you represent?
There has to be something honest and passionate about them. They have to be into what they’re doing. I think most of them are going to be doing it regardless as to whether they’re going to make any money at it or not. So they’re driven in that way. Actually, that was how we got hooked up with Old Reliable, because the singer, Mark Davis, did a record about his girlfriend dying of breast cancer, The Gradual Moment. We thought we should get together with them. Turns out they didn’t have a label.

How are you dealing with the music piracy issue that has hurt the record industry?
One thing that we’ve started doing in the past year is putting out actual vinyl LPs. I mean, the CD is lovely, but vinyl just has something alluring about it. It’s a lot of fun and is really undergoing a resurgence. But what you also do is put in a download code. So you buy the vinyl, you get the beautiful sleeve, you get the album itself, then you go to one of the downloading sites and enter their download code and get all the electronic files. That’s included in the price you pay.

Do you mind that the label doesn’t always turn a profit?
For the moment, it would be great if we could break even, but we’re not going to stop doing it just because we’re putting money into it. There is a lot of good coming out of it in terms of what’s happening for the artists. But some days, when you’re stuffing envelopes, it doesn’t feel all that altruistic. Before we started having envelope-stuffing parties when we were doing mail-outs, I was sitting at my kitchen table in my pajamas stuffing envelopes going, “Yes, this is the life of an indie record label.” If we ever win a Juno award, I’ll be sure to bring that up.

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