The title of Sloan’s new album, 12, isn’t just a simple act of cataloging a discography that now runs a dozen records deep. It’s a badge of honor for a band that, at one point, didn’t seem like it was going to make it past album number two. After getting swept up in the post-Nevermind gold rush, and weathering the turbulence of the ’90s alt-rock boom/bust, the Halifax-bred, Toronto-based power-pop mainstays have steadied on for nearly three decades with their original line-up intact. What’s more, their latest delivers the same perfect balance of hooks and heft they struck on their 1992 debut, Smeared.
Sloan’s enduring vitality isn’t just a function of having four equally industrious songwriters who can draw from seemingly bottomless wells of British Invasion melodies and scissor-kick-worthy riffs. Here, singer/guitarist Jay Ferguson outlines the key strategic decisions that have allowed Sloan to not just survive, but still thrive.
(Check out our This Is Sloan playlist for a primer on the band’s catalogue.)
Stay independent—even when you’re working with major labels
Spurred into action by ‘80s indie labels like Creation and Dischord, Sloan were all set to release their first recordings on their own DIY imprint, which they christened murderecords. But then a funny thing happened on the way to underground renown: one of the most dominant major labels in America came calling.
“DGC wanted to sign a band from Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the height of Nevermind,” Ferguson recalls with still-palpable disbelief. “They also had Teenage Fanclub, they were about to release Sonic Youth’s Dirty...it was too much of an opportunity to turn down.”
While the surprise DGC deal seemed to negate the need for murderecords, the band invested some of their newfound resources into making their start-up label a homebase for a fledgling Maritimes indie-rock scene that included future Sub Pop signees Eric’s Trip, Jale, and The Hardship Post. As Ferguson recalls, “Our co-manager at the time, Chip Sutherland, said, ‘Keep murderecords alive, and then, if the DGC deal goes sour, you can go back to this outlet that’s already a brand name.”
It wouldn’t be long before the band had to put that theory into action. Sloan parted ways with DGC after 1994’s Twice Removed, a more refined album that was initially beset by break-up rumors and unfulfilled commercial expectations, but in hindsight was a savvy side-step away from the au courant grunge-gaze style of Smeared toward a more singular sound, fortifying a cult fanbase in the process.
By 1996’s One Chord to Another, Sloan were in a position to make records on their own dime and then license them to larger labels like Universal Music Canada and (the ultimately short-lived) EMI subsidiary The Enclave in the U.S. “It was the ideal combination,” says Ferguson. “We got to make the record on our own, but then had the marketing clout of a major label who didn’t tell us how to make the record.” It’s an arrangement Sloan have replicated over the years, licensing their albums to a varied slate of labels, from Sony/BMG in Canada to North Carolina indie imprint Yep Roc.
It’s not selling out if you’re cashing in
With their AC/DC-riffin’ 1998 single “Money City Maniacs,” Sloan found themselves all over mainstream Canadian rock radio—and, to the chagrin of some fans, soundtracking Labatt’s commercials. “At the time, that wasn’t my idea of cool,” Ferguson admits, but there was an ulterior motive to the move. Unhappy with their publishing deal with EMI, the band used the beer-ad windfall to buy back the rights to their own catalog.
“It made us even more independent,” Ferguson says. Another key to Sloan’s long-term survival: Even though the band’s four members tend to write separately, and their individual contributions can vary from record to record, publishing royalties are split four ways, thereby avoiding the awkward scenario of one guy showing up to practice via the city bus and another rolling up in a Porsche. “It keeps everybody in the same boat,” Ferguson says. “So when it comes to choosing songs for a record or which ones get serviced to radio, it’s only your ego that’s going to get hurt!”
K.I.S.S.: Keep it special, stupid
By the time Sloan released their ninth album, 2008’s Parallel Play, Ferguson could sense a certain stagnation setting in—the internet era had ushered in a steady decline in record sales from the band’s late-‘90s commercial peak, and the venues they were playing didn’t seem to be quite as full as they once were. But around the same time, they began working with internet-marketing consultant Jay Coyle, who encouraged them to rethink their whole approach to promotion.
“He showed us that it’s not just about getting a song on the radio, or touring, or doing interviews in the local newspapers,” Ferguson says. “He really spoke to us about engaging with the fanbase that exists out there through the internet, and helped us build our own online store. Because we still owned a lot of our own masters and recordings, we could just do things when we wanted, without being attached to a specific label schedule.”
After testing the waters with an online-only EP and rarities compilation, Sloan’s online store has become a bustling hub for limited-edition boutique items, from bootleg-style releases of early live shows to lavish vinyl box-set reissues of their ‘90s catalog.
“We make 1,000 copies of these box sets and price them at $99 and they all sell out—so that’s $100,000 right there,” Ferguson says. “We’re basically an independent small business, so that’s a really big deal for us.” The box-set reissues in turn spurred a series of 20th-anniversary tours where the band played those classic ‘90s albums in their entirety, bringing out a lot of dormant fans and leading to even more brisk business at the merch table. (Given the demographics of their typical fan, it’s no surprise that Sloan baby-tees have proven especially popular.)
Playlists aren’t the new album — they’re the new college radio
While much of the conversation around streaming is framed around its effectiveness as a revenue tool, Ferguson simply sees it as another creative means to connect with fans. To that end, Sloan have posted Spotify playlists of everything from the pre-show and intermission music being played over the PA on their current tour to a band-curated Valentine’s Day compilation of their more romantic material modeled after The Beatles’ Love Songs collection.
“From a financial perspective, we still make most of our money from playing live and selling merchandise,” Ferguson says. “Those have been our primary sources of income for quite a long time, so we’ve embraced streaming and use it as a tool to let people know we have a new album out and let people know we’re on tour and have a webstore. And Spotify’s just a fun way to check out new music and share it with people. I make random playlists under my own name, because I’m an egomaniac about the music that I like—‘here’s stuff you should hear!’— and it’s like another way of having the college radio show that I had back in the late-’80s.”
— Stuart Berman