A White Whale of a tale

How Ryder Havdale took bad news and made his dreams come true

The record industry as we know it is in trouble. Revenues from conventional record sales are dropping faster than Britney Spears’s moral standards. The remaining major labels are drowning, and no one seems to know what to do about it. Well, almost no one.

“Every time I hear about the majors being in trouble, I get a little excited,” says Ryder Havdale, founder of Vancouver’s White Whale Records. “We’re doing better than we ever have. There is tons of opportunity out there, and we are growing, being able to take advantage of the digital side of things.”

It’s fitting that Havdale is able to look at the redefined musical landscape with optimism. This kind of attitude is what got him into the business side of the music industry in the first place. Savvy Vancouver club-goers would have seen him as an artist in a rock outfit called Kids These Days, or under his almost-acoustic solo moniker The Mohawk Lodge. Both bands had recorded albums and were ready to put them out, but there wasn’t anyone to do it. At the same time, Havdale was bemoaning his day job in radio to friends, trying to figure out how to turn making music from a hobby into a career. After seeing Bonnie “Prince” Billy play live, everything changed.

“It was a Sunday night, and afterwards, I was talking to my buddy Pete, saying how envious I was that he got to play music all the time and be a musician and travel the world,” says Havdale. “He was like, ‘you just gotta figure out how to make it happen.’ Tuesday morning I’m sitting at my desk thinking about this conversation and the phone rings. It’s the HR department and they handed me the golden cheque. They basically paid me to leave and start a label.”

Of course, playing music and releasing it are completely different beasts. Now Havdale has to balance his time between being an artist and being a businessman.

“I think I have a talent for splitting that up. I think I run this label and am an artist because I can do it,” he says with a laugh. “But it does drive me a little crazy sometimes. We’re not going to make a living just off of CD sales through stores. That’s not how it works.”

What does work is Havdale’s willingness to explore other fiscal options. Between his keen ear for talent, his nose for niche market distribution and his ability to explore licensing deals, publishing rights and digital downloads, White Whale is not only self-sufficient, but Havdale’s main paycheque.

In the three years since it launched, White Whale has grown from a two-band roster, to an artist-run, profit-sharing outfit that features the neo-folk of Poorfolk, the crystalline pop of Castle Project, post rockers Precious Fathers and more. The band’s most recent releases include the follow up from Mohawk Lodge and the first full-length from Octoberman, who are joining the Lodge for their cross-Canada tour. To Havdale’s delight, both records have recently scored European distribution. Yet, even with all the work Havdale pours into White Whale, he says it’s the artists that are the backbone of the label, not him.

“I don’t think our artists are any better or any worse than some of the other labels that I respect in the country,” says Havdale. “I’ve never released anything I didn’t love. We do focus on the packaging and the look and feel of our records, and we’re constantly working on it. It’s not a hobby. It’s all-consuming for me.”

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