Chris Taylor remembers the moment his fledgling record label, Last Gang, felt like more than just an entertainment lawyer’s indulgence. It was 2004, in Austin, Tex., where Last Gang’s sludgy dance-rock bass-and-drums duo, Death From Above 1979, were playing a SXSW festival showcase. “There were a bunch of U.K. and American labels and other bands [wondering], ‘How are they getting so much attention?’ ” he recalls. “Sometimes you’re in a crowded room; the band is right on top of you, and the sound, the volume—everything just hits you. The atmosphere was awestruck.”
Earlier that year, when he founded Last Gang, he says, “It was the worst time in history to start a record label.” Faced with an industry-wide decline in sales, Taylor assembled a roster of unorthodox bands that had been widely rejected. A decade later, having sold more than two million albums—more even, they believe, than Broken Social Scene’s heralded Arts and Crafts—and launched the careers of bands like Metric and Chromeo, Taylor feels vindicated, if under-recognized.
Taylor’s west Toronto office is practically wallpapered by gold and platinum records for the likes of Drake, Nelly Furtado, and Avril Lavigne, all A-list clients of his law firm, Taylor Klein Oballa. On his shelves sit several Junos, but he’s keener to show off his 1994 Canadian Reggae Music Award for his own outfit, One. After graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1990, he spent five years touring North America with the 10-piece band as lead singer and record-deal negotiator. Two weeks before his 30th birthday, he quit in favour of his entertainment-law Plan B, hoping to fulfil the dreams of other musicians such as his friends in Metric. He believed the Brooklyn-via-Toronto quartet’s synth-rock sound—not terribly popular in an age of Nickelback clones—could make it to radio. When the 142 labels he approached disagreed, Taylor took some of the dough he’d made by selling more mainstream artists like Sam Roberts and Sum 41 to major-label contracts, and pumped it into Metric. By the time of their platinum-selling 2005 album, Live It Out, they were stars.
The label he and partner Donald Tarlton started to release Metric’s music was named after the Clash song Last Gang in Town—as Taylor puts it, “music that taught you you could be working-class and make something of yourself, as corny as that sounds.” The son of an auto-factory worker and a grocery-store cashier, Taylor gravitated to bands with punky aesthetics and realized that even acts that weren’t big sellers, like the scruffy electronic duo Crystal Castles (“You can’t understand any of the lyrics, so the chances of mainstream radio support are very low”), would generate buzz. Others would join the label because they liked its records: Death From Above 1979, for instance, were Metric fans. They were also drawn to Taylor’s conviction, says bassist-keyboardist Jesse Keeler. “Someone from Capitol Records told me, ‘You guys are awesome. As soon as you sell those first 50,000 records, we’ll be there to help you.’ Oh, that’s easy! You believe in something, put your money behind it. Chris believed in us.”
At times, Taylor’s luck has seemed to run out: Death From Above 1979 broke up in 2006, on the cusp of greater success—“I worked on both of them for a year, trying to get them back together,” he laments. And Metric severed their relationship with Last Gang starting with their fourth album in favour of going it alone. Taylor was disappointed, but he’s sanguine: “It’s not a marriage. We don’t vow to stay together forever.” In response, he’s ramped up his management plan, developing artists from the ground up to retain a cut of their profits.
He has benefited from two bets: releasing vinyl and electronic dance music before their resurgences. He predicts that this fall, Death From Above 1979’s reunion album, The Physical World, will be Last Gang’s biggest record yet. Taylor will admit Last Gang’s mystique has “made our jobs a bit harder.” Often when he tells a prospective signing, “ ‘We did this, this, and this,’ they go, ‘I had no idea.’ ” He admires the way Arts and Crafts “carpet-bombed Toronto with their 10-year anniversary celebrations. We want to be first call [if] something’s happening for a band in Saskatchewan and they’re getting ready to put out some music.”